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Photo Tips > Portrait Fixes (Corrections)

You can "Photoshop" a portrait when you're photographing.

Doing so is often faster—and better—than doing it later at a computer.

Studio Only?

In a well-stocked studio, the fixes below are easier to do.

However, even when on location, you may be able to use most of them.

Always Idealized?

Should every portrait be an idealized version of the person?

If you've been hired to photograph a bride, yes.

If you're photographing the residents of a fishing community in Nova Scotia, probably not.

Identify the Flaws

You must identify what needs to be fixed:

1) Make a checklist.

2) Ask the subject.

1 - Checklist

Make a checklist of things to consider.














2 - Ask the Subject

Ask the subject what his or her good side is.

The subject will then mention the bad stuff, such as the faint scar that you may not have noticed.

Also, don't assume a flaw is disliked.

For example, a birthmark may be a loved "trademark" feature of the person.

Ask, before correcting.

13 Correction Principles

Experiment with the correction principles below.

1 - Clothing

Light-colored clothing adds pounds.

Light-colored clothing takes attention away from the subject's face.


• Sleeveless tops

• Short sleeves

• Turtlenecks

• Patterns

• Words or large logos

• Colors similar to flesh tones should be avoided (beige, tan, peach, pink, white, and yellow).

• A distinctive transition (such as a wide belt) between a woman's top and her skirt or pants.

It will attract attention to her mid-section.

Check for lint, stray threads, and anything askew.

Use clothespins behind the subject to remove wrinkles from tops.

2 - Exposure

Gray Card

Set the exposure from a gray card held next to the subject.

The gray card should be illuminated by the main light.

If the face has a bright side and a shadow side, compare the difference in exposure between the two sides.

The difference, typically, is no more than one stop.

For example, f/8 on the bright side, and f/5.6 on the shadow side.

By using a gray card, a white dress, or a dark complexion, won't throw off the exposure.

A white dress will cause underexposure.

A dark complexion will cause overexposure.

Incident Light Meter

If you're doing lots of portraiture, get an incident light meter.

You can easily measure the light anywhere in the scene.

And, because an incident light is measuring the light falling on the subject, not the light reflecting off the subject, it's not confused by white dresses and dark complexions.

Avoid Overexposure

Avoid overexposed areas.

They're probably distracting, and they'll be hard to edit later.

Many cameras show overexposed areas on the LCD screen as blinking areas.

You can also look at the histogram.

Avoid a spike on the far right edge of the graph.

If there's overexposure, select a minus setting using the exposure compensation feature on your camera.

Go to Exposure Compensation.

3 - Color Correction

White Balance

Set the white balance on your camera to the icon that matches the type of lighting on the subject.

You'll usually get better color compared to the automatic white balance setting.

If there's a mixture of light sources, create a custom or preset white balance setting.

Tone Curves

The Portrait setting (face icon) on your camera's exposure mode dial may use a naturalistic color balance.

You may be able to do so by changing a setting elsewhere.

Check your instruction manual.

Handy to Have Later

For later color correction in Photoshop Elements, or other programs, have the subject hold a gray card in the first exposure.

You can measure the color on the gray card easily and accurately.

Go to Gray Card & the GretagMacBeth ColorChecker.

4 - The Eyes Have It

If the viewer can see the eyes (and a great expression), there'll be less need for fixes elsewhere.

Make sure the eyes are lighted well, with catch lights.

Catch lights are reflections of a light source in the eye.

They add vitality to portraits.

Go to Catch Lights.

5 - Lighting Contrast, Part 1


What you see is not what you get, contrast-wise.

A shadow on the face of the subject will appear much darker when photographed.

So, be sure to look for shadows.

Imagine how they'll look when photographed.

Take a photograph, and check the LCD screen, if you feel you can share it with the subject as well.

If you don't want dark shadows:

• Place the light near the camera, or use your pop-up flash.

• Use a larger light source (umbrella, shade, overcast sky).

• Brighten the shadows with another light.

This secondary light could be the pop-up flash on your camera.

Go to Fill-in Flash.

In the studio, you'll have the main light and a fill light.

The fill light is usually close to the camera to prevent it from creating a second set of shadows.

You don't to have shadows from the main light, and, shadows from the fill light.

• Use a reflector.

You can have the subject hold a reflector (such as a newspaper) aimed at the shadows.

Or, move the subject to where there's light reflecting off of something, such as a red brick wall.

Go to Use a Reflector—It's Better Than Fill Flash.

• The Portrait setting (face icon) on your camera's exposure mode dial may use a lower contrast setting.

You may be able to do so by changing a setting elsewhere.

Check your instruction manual.

6 - Lighting Contrast, Part 2

Highlights and shadows are how our brains perceive texture, shape, and volume.

So, if there's something that you want to deemphasize, eliminate any highlights and shadows.

Use the solutions above.

7 - Focal Length


You can flatten a long nose by using a longer, more telephoto, focal length.

If you're using a digital SLR, and are doing a headshot, the best focal length is around 70mm (100mm on a camera with a full-frame sensor).

Flatten the nose by using a longer focal length, such as 100mm.

Wide Angle

Wide-angle focal lengths produce distortion, so they're rarely used for portraits.

8 - Hide a Flaw

You can hide a flaw in a shadow.

A light on one side of the head will place the other side in shadow, of course.

You can also feather the light so it diminishes where the flaw is located.

Or, block the light with a card, called a flag or a gobo.

You can also hide a flaw by having the subject turn his or her head away from the camera.

A profile is a possibility, as well.

9 - Blend a Flaw

You can deemphasize a flaw by blending it into the background.

For a bald head, use a light toned/colored background.

For a subject with obesity, who is wearing medium or dark clothing, use a similar background.

10 - Broad & Short Lighting

Broad and short lighting can be used to narrow or widen a face.

The use of the above terms makes the lighting hard to understand.

Broad means wide.

Short means narrow.

Facing the Camera - Same Size

Let's say your subject, Tilda, is facing the camera.

Both sides of Tilda's face are the same width.

The left side is the same width as the right side.

3/4 Pose - The Sides Are Different Sizes

Now, have Tilda turn a shoulder slightly towards the camera.

This turns her head slightly away from the camera (unless she strains her neck to maintain the mug-shot pose).

Tilda's eyes are still looking at the camera, comfortably.

She hasn't turned her head so far that she's looking out of the corners of her eyes.

One side of her face is now more narrow—shorter.

The other side is broader—wider.

If you make the broad side brighter than the short side, Tilda's face looks wider.

If you make the short side brighter than the broad side, Tilda's face looks narrower.

  Which Side Is Brighter? Result

Broad Lighting

Wide side of face is brighter

• Narrow side is darker

Face appears to be wider

Short Lighting

• Wide side of face is darker

Narrow side is brighter

Face appears to be narrower

11 - Stance

If the subject has one leg closer to the camera, have the subject put more of his or her weight on the leg that's away from the camera.

BTW - Showing & Coming Close


When asking the subject to pose in a certain way, stand along side and show them.

If you're facing the subject, he or she may get confused.

He or she won't know if you mean your left or right, or the subject's left or right.

To move a subject's head, move yourself to where you want them to look.

Then, have them look at your face.

Some subjects can pretend that your hand and their heads are connected.

When you move your hand, they move their head.

Rotate your hand, to have the subject tilt his or her head.

Coming Close

Philippe Halsman often touched the subject, to create rapport.

He would pretend to find something on the subject's clothing, and would remove it.

Whether or not you do the same, describe what you're about to do, before entering the subject's personal space.

Let's say the subject's tie is askew.

Explain to the subject that you need to move it, before you do so.

12 - Camera Height

The normal height for your camera is about half-way-down what you see in your viewfinder.

If you're doing a headshot, the camera should be at the height of the subject's nose, or thereabouts.

If you're doing a full-length portrait, the camera should be at waist level.

You can make corrections by deviating from this normal camera height.

If you lower the camera, the top of the image will get smaller.

For example, a large forehead will become smaller.

If you raise the camera, the bottom of the image will become smaller.

For example, a pot belly will be less obvious.

When the camera is lowered or raised, the camera is kept parallel to the subject.

You're not tilting the camera up or down.

The camera is going up-and-down, like an elevator.

13 - Tilts


You can change how a facial feature looks by having the subject tilt his or her chin up or down, slightly.

When tilting his or her chin up or down:

• Something is moving closer to the camera, which emphasizes it.

• Something else is moving further away, deemphasizing it.

Face & Crooked Features

If something is crooked, such as a mouth, have the subject tilt his or her head to make the crooked feature even with the bottom of the frame.


Of course, the tilt of the subject's head can be expressive of his or her personality.

Take Notes about Your Lighting

If you're in a studio, step back and photograph the set so you can see where the lights are placed.

You'll have a record of what worked well, or didn't.

You can also make lighting diagrams.

Online Lighting Diagram Creator

Photo Diagram

Portrait Corrections Chart

Flaw Do This


• Low camera height

• Light toned/colored background

• If indoors:

- Don't use a hair light.

- Feather the main light so it fades slightly on the top of the head.

• If outdoors, photograph in the shade or under an overcast sky to avoid highlights on head.

• Crop the portrait at the computer.

High forehead

• Tilt chin up

• Lower camera height

Low forehead

• Tilt chin down

• Raise camera height

Wide face

• Use short lighting

Narrow face

• Use broad lighting

Protuberant ears

• Have the subject turn his or her shoulder toward the camera for a 3/4 view.

One ear is hidden, and the visible ear is seen against the head.

• Place the visible ear in shadow

Long nose

• Tilt chin up

• Lower camera height

• Have subject face the camera

• Avoid nose shadows

Button nose

• Tilt chin down

• Lower camera height

Different-sized eyes

• Have the smaller eye closer to the camera.

The distant eye (the larger one) will appear smaller.

Deep eyes

• Illuminate well

• Use broad lighting

Protruding eyes

• Have the subject look down slightly to reduce the amount of white between the iris and the bottom of the eyelid

Droopy eyelids

• Have the subject look down slightly

Narrow mouth

• Have the subject face the camera

Wide mouth

• Use a 3/4 pose.

Crooked mouth

• Have the subject tilt his or her head so the mouth is level with the frame

Long chin

• Raise camera height

• Use a 3/4 pose

Narrow chin

• Tilt chin up

• Have subject face camera

Double chin

• Tilt chin up

• Raise camera height

• Place neck in shadow

Non-smooth skin

• Use low contrast light

Short neck

• Lower camera height

• Add light

Long neck

• Raise camera height

• Tilt chin down

• Place in shadow

Obese subject

• Medium toned/colored clothing with a medium or dark tone/colored background

• Don't have the subject face the camera

• Avoid having the subject seated

• Have the subject place more weight on the leg that's further from the camera

• Use short lighting



• To reduce glare:

- Raise the temples of the glasses slightly to change the angle of the lenses

- Have the subject tilt his or her chin up or down

- Place the main light off to the side.

The fill light should be large, such as a light reflected off a sheet of foam core.

- Use a smaller light source to make the reflection smaller.

However, the small light source may create distracting shadows of the eyeglass frames.

• Lenses that darken in the sun may darken in the studio.

They may also have an orange color caste when photographed.

• Lenses may block some light from reaching the eyes.

If so, dodge the eyes later at the computer.

• Strong lenses may change the size of the eyes greatly.

If possible, have the subject bring in empty frames.