Men In Black: Posing and Lighting a Profile Portrait

By Don Chick, M.Photog.Cr., CPP

I love creating beautiful portraits. When I create a portrait, the full-face and two-thirds view are my go-to views of the face. My clients never arrive at the studio saying, “I want you to create a profile portrait for me.” Usually, the profile setup happens by accident. I’ll walk around the subject, adjusting the lighting, then realize just how beautiful his profile actually is. Then with newfound enthusiasm, I position the lighting to create a profile of my subject. Often the subject doesn’t think he has great profile potential, but most of the time a little sincere encouragement is all that’s necessary for him to trust me.

Creating a profile portrait is so easy with a large light modifier. Most of the time I have a 4x6 foot soft box on my main light. You can see in Figure 1 how to position your subject. Bring the subject to the front edge (nearest the camera) of the soft box position turn the body approximately 45 degrees away from the camera. If the body is facing the camera, as in Figure 1, they are in a front profile position. If the body is turned away from the camera, then they are positioned for a back profile portrait. Sometimes I’ll photograph the subject in both positions as it adds more variety, and more variety can lead to increased sales.


Figure 1

There are two ways to control highlight-to-shadow contrast when using a large soft box. You can move the subject parallel to the soft box. Moving the subject away from the camera and toward the center of the soft box adds more light on the shadow side of the face, decreasing contrast. If you want more contrast—darker shadows on the shadow side—move the subject parallel to the soft box but closer to the camera. This will move the subject into the edge of the light from the soft box, and increase the shadows. A second way to control contrast is to use a reflector. In Figure 1 you can see how to position a reflector on the shadow side of the subject to control the amount of shadow contrast. Moving the reflector closer to the subject will decrease contrast, giving you lighter shadows, and moving the reflector back or away from the subject will increase contrast. Either method works well, but sometimes it’s easier to leave your subject in position rather than making him move and simply use the reflector to control contrast.


Figure 2

If your main light modifier is small, a 24x36 inch soft box or smaller, or even an umbrella, you would want to position the light as shown in Figure 2. The subject's face is in profile, and the body is positioned for a back profile. For this setup, the fill light is positioned over the camera to control contrast. To increase contrast, lower the power output from the fill. To decrease contrast, increase the fill light's power output. Finally, for a profile lighting setup like this it is essential to place a gobo between the main light and the camera, otherwise you will likely have lens flare. You cannot point the camera toward the subject with another light source so close to the lens axis without affecting the final image. The remedy is simple. Place something between the light source and the camera to block this unwanted light from entering the lens.


Figure 3

Figures 3 and 4 are images I created using the technique described for a 4x6 soft box. In both images I had the subject extend his right arms forward in order to create a leading line. This adds interest in the final image. Also, both subjects are wearing clothing that is visually interesting with a lot of texture. For the image of Gerald (Figure 4), I positioned his hands so that if you drew a line from his face to one hand, then to the other, finally back up to his face, these three elements create an imaginary triangle. This helps to create interest, albeit subtle, in the final image. Finally, don't forget about the emotional connection with your subject. In the image of Will (Figure 3), you can see a bit of twinkle in his eye. I was painting visual word pictures for him to respond to as I was working the session. When I saw the look I wanted to photograph, I took the picture. Without emotionally connecting to your subject, your images will lack visual pop and pizzaz.


Figure 4

The image of Gerald, Figure 4, does not have a big smile because that's not the best representation of his personality. Gerald is a gentle soul, but serious minded, and I wanted that to be present in the final image.

Next time you're in a portrait session, have your client pose for you in profile. If they don't like it you can always delete it, but if they do you may just increase your bottom line!


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