Improving Portrait Photography-Keeping Shoulders and Hands From Taking Over

Avoid letting your shoulders take over your portrait by changing how you frame the shot. I'll show you some examples so you know what I'm talking about .One way to get a better picture is to keep your shirt on … except it’s 900 degrees outside and you can’t handle wearing sleeves. This is all about the photographer, not the camera. Here's the scene. Awesome hot rod project car at a car show, and the proud owner is styling a 50s dancing dress to complement her car: As you can see, it was a really flat grey day, not a lot of light. Actually, grey days are great for portraits, it's like living in a giant softbox. Much easier on the camera than the heavy contrast of bright sunshine.
Environmental portrait of 50s panel wagon hotrod with the driver in a 50s polkadot dancing dress
Car show cutie
This is the closeup I did. It was a dim and grey day with a really flat sky, no cloud detail at all. Not only that, the inside of the wagon was super dark and unfinished, and I didn’t have an assistant or a reflector to pull in any light. This is where I made a mistake in my framing.
Closeup Portait in car
Closeup that I'd like to have framed differently
When you look at this picture the biggest light spot is not her face, it’s her shoulder. Not only is it closest to the camera (which makes it bigger), it’s lighter in color than her face, so it sort of takes over the whole shot.

In graphic design, the focal point is the place where the eye rests first and longest. Usually it's the lightest or brightest part of the design. In portrait photography usually you want the focal point to be the face, particularly the eyes.

In this case, her upper arm became a big old flat blank spot. It would have been a better choice to change my angle, avoiding having the upper arm take over the frame. Cropping it square improves things a little bit. Cropping is your friend.
square crop to improve portrait
Cropped, although the shoulder is still the same size as the face.
Most of us realize that standing sideways to the camera presents a smaller target. But sometimes we get a little too sideways, and end up looking directly over our shoulder, which isn’t  flattering. On top of that, sometimes we get self conscious, and bad things happen when we’re sucking our gut in and not breathing. Necks look shorter because we pull our shoulders up to hold our breath. Think tall and relaxed, not suck in suck in suck in I can't breathe take the picture already..... Another potential problem is having your hands up next to your face. Sometimes we try to cover a double chin by putting our chin on our fist for camouflage. Just be careful not to have the back of your fist facing the camera. Here’s an example:
The backs of hands are also the same size as the face.
The backs of hands are also the same size as the face, and distracting
The back of your hand is just about as big as your face. For most people, that is. That’s why, if you choose to do an Uncle Rico pose from Napoleon Dynamite you should turn the hand sideways, not facing the flat side of the fist toward the camera. But don’t do an Uncle Rico. Unless you really want to. Intentionally. As a joke…. Because people will laugh anyway.

How to Get It Right

So finally, here’s an example of how to take a good portrait when your model has a sleeveless top on. It was 100 degrees out in August when we did her senior pictures, but I framed it in such a way that her shoulders didn’t take over, and the focus was on her pretty face. Because we were in the shade I had an assistant holding a white reflector to the model’s right to add some gentle light into the shot. Notice she is standing at a slight angle, but not looking over her shoulder sideways. She's at more of a 30 to 45 degree angle to the camera, with her head turned slightly, which elongates the neck.
well-framed senior portrait in sleeveless top
Notice I've cut the shoulder out of the frame, centering the attention on her face.
There's a good DIY profile picture tips article I wrote at the Adult Like A Boss website if you'd like to learn a little more about basic portrait tips. I'll cover things in a bit more detail here, as it's all about the camera, right? So, if you want your portraits to pop make the face the center of attention. If the subject has a sleeveless top on, don't let the upper arm or their hands take too much visual space in the framing and you'll see a real improvement in your portraiture. Happy shooting! Cheryl

Cropping Outside the Lines

Not all images belong in an 8x10 or 4x6 format. Be sure to look at your image in more than one size, and see what's best for it. One of the ways that you make a statement as an artist is by how you choose to crop your photos. The default standard print sizes from film days are 4x6, 5x7, 8x10, and so on. Well, sometimes those default sizes don't tell the story the way you want it told, so don't be afraid to switch off the constraints of print sized cropping in your photo editing software and print your pictures any size you please. If you are printing your pictures through a service, then what I'd say to do is have the picture printed in a size large enough to show everything you want, then have it custom matted, or custom mat it yourself to enhance your vision. Don't forget to listen to your framer's opinions, they may have some excellent insights. After all, they look at art all day long, and are in the business of enhancing it. Good framing is an art in itself... and it involves math, so they deserve respect! 😉 I once took a picture of a waterfall that I felt was a finished work, and the framer showed me how much more effective it would be as an image narrowed down just a hair, cutting out a slightly distracting branch that I hadn't really noticed. She was so right, and I was very happy with how wonderfully she enhanced my photograph. Sometimes looking at your work through another person's eyes can really help you step back and appreciate what you've done, as well as see where you can improve or alternate presentations. Of course, if your chosen presentation is onscreen, your pictures can be any shape or size you please, the sky's the limit! Start slideshowing those precious moments on your monitor or TV, and put a smile on your face. 🙂 Cheryl

Losing Limbs

Ok, we all have family pictures like this:
Loving Footless Couple
Try not to do this to your family any more. It happens, we get kind of nervous, or we're laughing and have to take the picture quickly before the bus leaves, but try to double check for feet in the viewfinder. Heads too. Many of our old family pictures have fingers in them, or are headless. Now that many cameras have LCD viewfinders we're more likely to notice when we've included our fingers and cut off friend's heads, but sometimes it still happens, especially with cameras that have separate viewfinders. Ok, so what if you've made a choice to not include the feet? They're ugly, the shoes were bad, whatever? Try to remember to crop the picture so that you don't cut off the limbs at the joints. You never want to crop a picture at the ankles or at the knee. Mid calf is a little disturbing as far as I'm concerned, though some people are ok with it. A 3/4 length pose with the picture cropped at mid thigh is not bad, and actually you're going to get a better picture of your friend's faces that way. If you choose to crop higher than mid-thigh, watch where you're chopping to be sure you're not cutting off someone's hand at the wrist or elbow, either. Cutting people off at the crotch is a little disturbing, also. Here's a cropped version of our happy couple:
A Nice 3/4 Crop
Try not to make the mistake in camera, but if you do, cropping the picture after the fact is easily done. You can tighten up your composition and really cut out extraneous details. For instance, the driftwood behind their legs just kind of cuts the picture in half. Cropping the shot takes away the distraction. Just make sure that everything you want is in the picture in the first place. So, no amputations!

AAAAA! My pictures are stuck together!

We've all had it happen... You're going through some photographs and 2 (or more) of them are stuck together. You can't pull them apart without tearing them, and you really don't want to throw them away. The negatives are long gone! What now? Gently put them in the sink under cool water and get them all wet. (It may take a little soaking) Take it slow. Then you should be able to gently work them apart and get the junk off of them. Make sure and leave them face up on a towel to dry, and usually they'll dry evenly without a hint of damage, as long as it wasn't a red lollypop sticking them together! This highlights one of the advantages to having your photos printed on photo paper by a lab rather than printing them out on your own photopaper with your inkjet. If something like this happened to a print, you can't soak it as the ink will run and ruin the print. This also is why it's so important to mat your prints if you do choose to print your own work, that way if something wet gets on the frame and leaks to the underside of the glass or there is condensation in the room your print won't be ruined. Never put a print right up against the glass surface. Ha! you object, I still have the digital image! It doesn't really matter! That's true. But what if you give it as a gift? I recently totally destroyed a beautiful print I was given because I didn't notice that my pitcher was leaking while I was watering plants... and I really didn't want to admit what happened to the giver. (Oops, guess I've been outed now!) So I guess I learned that lesson the hard way. Now you don't have to!