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