There’s a lot to think about when creating a portrait - the lighting, the camera settings, and the shoot location to name but a few. Of course, you want to create a portrait that paints your subject in the most flattering light, so additional considerations need to be made to ensure you can do that.
One of the best ways to find your subject’s best face, so to speak, is to use angles to your advantage.
Angles? What Angles?
In speaking of angles, there are several meanings. First, you have to consider the angle of your subject’s face - are they looking directly at the camera or are they looking at a point perpendicular to the camera? The former angle obviously affords a frontal view of their face; the latter angle gets you a profile shot in which only half of their face is visible.
Second, the angle of the camera impacts the quality of the portrait. You can photograph your subject from eye level, take a higher position and photograph them from above, or move below the subject’s eye level, giving viewers a worm’s eye view of your subject. Combined with the subject’s angle, there are a lot of different combinations you can use to find the most flattering composition for your particular subject. Let’s explore some examples.
Taking a position in front of the subject, you get a full-on view of their face, like in the image above. Everything is in clear view - both eyes, the nose, the mouth, both sides of the face and the ears. Of all the subject angles, this is the one that gives off the most confident vibe - with direct eye contact with your lens, the subject has taken an assertive position, and one that viewers interpret as being powerful.
Best for: Creating a strong connection between viewers and the subject.
On the other end of the spectrum is the profile shot, in which viewers see just half of the subject’s face. Without the eye contact of a front-facing portrait, profile portraits tend to have a much more relaxed feeling, perhaps even an elegant look, especially when the image is in silhouette. Profile shots also tend to feel much less posed than front-facing portraits.
Best for: Situations in which you want the subject to look more elegant or relaxed.
3/4 and 2/3 Turn
In between these extremes is a continuum of subject angles that you can work to find the best vantage point for photographing your particular subject. You can pose them in a 3/4 turn, such that you get a nearly full view of their face, except for the far cheek and ear, as shown above. Alternatively you can use the 2/3 angle, in which the subject continues to turn such that more of their far cheek is unseen, and the tip of their nose almost protrudes from the outline of the back cheek (you don’t want to go any further, unless you go to a full profile angle, otherwise the nose will look awkward jutting ever so slightly from the cheek).
Using the 3/4 and 2/3 angles is a popular choice for less posed looking portraits. It’s a more casual approach, and one that will often help the portrait subject relax just a bit, which translates well in the image. When using these facial angles, also consider having the subject look off-camera, which furthers the more casual and natural look of the portrait.
Best for: Casual or candid portraits.
The most typical camera angle to use for portraiture is the eye level shot. By getting onto the eye level of your subject, you are much more able to create an image with which viewers can connect. Why? It’s simple: when looking at the image, viewers feel as though they are on the same eye plane as the subject, which facilitates a much deeper connection. Think of it this way - when you want to have a conversation with a child, you often kneel down to get on their level so you can look into their eyes and have a more intimate conversation. A portrait benefits in the same way - the connection is deeper if you are able to look the subject straight in the eye.
Best for: Couples and group photos, and helping create a strong connection between the image and the viewer.
Above Eye Level
This isn’t to say that other angles aren’t also beneficial for portraits. By taking a position higher than your subject, you’re able to place more emphasis on the subject’s face and remove some emphasis from the body, which tends to be flattering for subjects that might have a few more pounds than they’d like. Another obvious benefit is that by shooting at a downward angle, you can eliminate an ugly background, or, conversely, highlight an interesting ground cover.
But, watch out! Due to the slimming effect that this angle creates, avoid using it with subjects that are quite thin. The result, especially when using a wider lens, can look as though the subject’s head is disproportionately large for their body.
Best for: Creating the illusion that the subject’s body is slimmer than it is.
Below Eye Level
Of the three camera angles, this one is likely least used, simply because of the distortive effects it has on the subject. By looking upward at the subject, you emphasize their body and make it look larger than it is, which is generally not something people want. What’s more, it gives you a view up their nostrils, which, again, is usually not that appealing.
That being said, below eye level shots make the subject look taller and more powerful, which is why you often see images of superheroes from this viewpoint. It’s also great for photographing young kids, as it gives viewers a glimpse of the world from a very low viewpoint that highlights the child’s growing body.
Best for: Situations in which the subject needs to look powerful or imposing.
Learning how to use these angles will undoubtedly help you compose more compelling portraits. Rather than relying on full face images, you now have the insight to adjust both the angle of your subject’s face and the angle of your camera. Doing so will allow you to customize the look and feel of the image, and help the subject appear slimmer, more casual, or even more powerful, depending on how you work the angles. Grab a family member, practice using these angles, and see how creative you can get!