Poses, Noses and Ears
Who hasn't at some point shot a portrait and been so focused on the face and expression of the subject oblivious to the lamp post or tree branch that appears to be growing out of their head when the photo is opened on the computer. That's such an obvious distraction its hard to miss in the photo but we don't see it when shooting because our brains filter out everything other than what the center of our visual field is focused on at the moment.

In a portrait it is a given that the viewer will immediately seek out the eyes and mouth because in our personal interactions with strangers that is one of the ways we gauge their mood and intent. To the extent the nose or ears are consciously noticed in a photo it will be because the camera angle or the lighting draws attention to them. Consider that if you were to take an inventory of all the parts of a face and rank them in order of how they trigger the emotions of the viewer of a portrait in a positive way you'd likely rank the eyes and mouth on the top of the list and the nose and ears near the bottom. The cheekbones would probably fall somewhere in the middle.

The "craft" aspect of portraiture is looking at what Momma and Daddy created in the subject and then finding ways to draw attention to the more attractive features and hide the less attractive ones. For example, my parents blessed me with a good set of teeth but a narrow, asymmetrical face with ears that stick out and flap in the breeze like an elephant and an upturned nose. I find that if I smile a lot people tend not to notice the ears so much. In portraits I look my best in an oblique, short-lit view taken from about 12 ft. away to alter near/far perspective, with my face angled forward slightly to get the lens above the nose holes and hide them. My wife has a wide, somewhat asymmetrical and is also flattered most in an oblique view so our Christmas card shots are usually variations of this pose..


All the things I mentioned above — oblique facial angle - short lighting - shooting distance - camera height — are all strategies which address a goal: making the eyes, mouth and front of the face the center of attention which pulls and holds the viewer is. They accomplish that goal by hiding, minimizing and causing the viewer not to notice things which might pull attention off the front of the face.

As described in the facial analysis tutorial (above this one in the TOC), I analyze faces during a pre-shoot conversation, looking at the subject's face full, both oblique views, and both profile views to spot anything which will distract from the eyes and mouth. When I am deciding on the key light position and lighting pattern on the face I use the same criteria: which lighting strategy, combined with the facial angle will make the face appear well proportioned and balanced left-to-right. I like to put light in both eyes and on the mouth and teeth and eliminate dark distracting shadows on the face in my conventional portraits, particularly the shadow hanging off the nose. The ears? Have you ever looked at a person and thought, "Wow what cute ears!" Me neither so I look for ways to make them less distracting with facial angle and lighting.

Strategies for hiding the nose perceptually

Soldiers and hunters wear camouflage so they will blend into the background and not be notices. Hiding the nose perceptually with facial angle and lighting utilizes the same strategy, finding ways for the nose to either blend in with the other parts of the face or render in such a natural way that as in person it is not noticed when looking at a photograph of the face. Knowing how to make the nose "disappear" is simply a matter of becoming consciously aware of all the things which draw the viewer's attention to the nose and its shade. As with most things its primarily a function of how much the nose contrasts with what is seen behind and surrounding it and the shape and tone of its shadow which is one of the clues the brain uses to discern 3D shape in a 2D photographic rendering.

Full Face:

In a full face pose the combination of aiming the nose directly at the camera and centering the lighting on it in a "butterfly" pattern will make it blend into the cheeks and not be noticed. The shadow from the nose falls straight down, helping to hide the unattractive nostrils which can also be hidden by keeping the camera above the eye line when shooting.


In an oblique view of the face keeping the side of the nose facing the camera in shadows and making the nose shadow the lightest in tone on the face will cause it not to be noticed as much. Putting the key light 45 behind the nose and 45 higher is my starting baseline, then I look at how the light is reaching both eyes and now the nose shadow is falling. Ideally I like it fall along it's base where it hits the edge of the cheek, with the shadow from the tip falling over the top of the nostril because that combination best models the actual 3D shape of the nose, but being able to do that or not will depend on the shape of the nose.


For a "short" lit profile view of a face the key light stays in the same place as with the oblique view, 45/45. It is the point-of-view of the camera which shifts. In profile the shape of the nose is defined by the contrast of the rim lighting on the ridge with the shadow on the side facing the camera. Keeping the side of the nose in shadow is what makes the contrast of the highlighted eye, patch of cheek under the eye and highlighted mouth attract the most attention. If the key light is moved too far around the front of the face and the side of the nose facing the camera is highlighted in a profile it becomes a distraction.

Some "classic" patterns draw attention to the nose

Some classic lighting patterns copied from 14th century painters like "Loop" - where the key light is placed high and slightly off center - are often emulated in photographs but I find that the loopy nose shadow hanging down over the lip to be a distraction which distorts the shape of the nose. Remember that when seeing a 2D photo the brain looks to the shadows to provide the clues to the shape of what is creating them. By comparison the oblique - short light combination creates the most realistic rendering of nose, which combined with light toned shadows help to make the nose look more natural and less distracting. Rembrandt is also a pattern everyone wants to use when learning lighting because the name sounds artistic, but on a cause and effect perceptual level putting far side of the face in shadows sends a body language message of "go away and leave me alone" and the broad lighting both highlights the nose and contrasts it against the darker far side of the face. While it is a very effective pattern for shooting a old man you want to depict as wise and contemplative it's but not one I'd suggest you use on the wife and kids.

Strategies for hiding the ears

Full Face:

Ears are most obvious in full face views and broad lit oblique views. In a full face view there is no way to hide the fact the ears stick out if that is how they look. The best you can do is try to make them look a similar size so the face looks symmetrical vs. having one wind up looking bigger than the other. That's why when lining up the camera for a full face view you want to look at the alignment of the nose and the relative size of the ears. Many people, myself included, have faces which are not perfectly symmetrical. When you center the nose the ears won't look even in size. What you do in that case is try different variations and see which is the best compromise.

Lighting strategy will play a role in hiding the eyes in a full face view. A centered butterfly pattern will frame both sides of the face and the ears in shadow but you need to watch so the key light doesn't spill past the the front of the face and "spotlight" part of the ear. A 45/45 key light position usually isn't my first choice for a full face view because it winds up making the highlighted side seem larger, but that perceptual illusion can be used to advantage on a face where one side is wider than the other. By highlighting the narrow side and keeping the wider side more in shadow the face winds up looking more balanced in the photographic rendering. It will also help hide the ear on the shaded side of the face opposite the key light.


An oblique view has the advantage of completely hiding one of the ears from view. But as mentioned at the beginning of this tutorial you need to remember to pay attention when shooting to make sure that parts of the far ear don't pop into view. When shooting women with dangling earrings at an oblique angle is usually better to remove the earring on the far side than have a part of it hang out past the cheek line on the far side. The exception would a earring so huge it would be missed if removed from the far side.

Finding the ideal oblique facial angle is a judgement call which will vary with the shape of the subject's face. If the chin area is narrow or receding profiling the eye socket will make the chin behind the mouth disappear from view leaving the overall appearance unbalanced. I start with the eye profiled but not with the lashes hanging out in space then move the lens an inch or to either side while looking at the overall balance of the shape of the cheekbone, indented eye socket and the chin.

Changing the camera angle in an the oblique will also change the appearance of the ear on the near side of the face. The more the front of the face is turned towards profile the less the ear on the near side will stick out in space. As the cranium swings around into view behind the near ear the ear is noticed less because it doesn't stick out.

Both background and lighting strategy will also affect how much the near side ear will be noticed. On a dark background a short lighting strategy puts the near side of the face in shadow helping the hide the ear. But if a face is broad lit on a dark background the combined contrast is like shining a spotlight on the ear while at the same time half of the front of the face is hidden in shadow. When the background is switched to white or a tone lighter than the highlighted skin tone the contrast dynamic is reversed. When looking at a portrait on white your eye will be initially attracted to the contrast of the hair (tone and color) and the color contrast of the face. The goal is to get the viewer to the FRONT of the face and on white using broad lighting and blending the side of the head (and near side ear) is an effective strategy.

Several other of my tutorials address the choice of background, clothing and lighting strategies but in general with an oblique pose in light clothing a white background and broad lighting will be effective, but if the clothing is dark the more effective strategy is a dark background and short lighting. Both strategies address the common goal of finding the holistic combination of clothing, background and lighting which will make the front of the face contrast.


In a profile view only one ear is showing but it is pointing directly at the camera. The best strategy for a profile is to shoot it on a darker background so the highlighted eye, mouth and patch of cheek under the eye will contrast with it, then keep the side of the head in dark shadows by cutting down the amount of fill and moving it around so it is directly in front of the subject's face not over the camera.

The Role of Fill

Photographers grasp almost immediately that an artificial key light falls off rapidly (about 2 f/stops) as distance from the source is doubled but don't grasp the implications of this for their fill strategy. On a highlighted face the darkest, most strongly contrasting shadow tones will attract attention and lighter shadows will be noticed less because they contrast less. So if the goal is make the nose less obvious you'd want to use a fill strategy which will make it the lightest toned shadow on the face. That is one of the reasons I suggest nearly always keeping the fill over or under the camera lens more or less chin level with the face of a portrait subject. In addition to eliminating most shadows seen from the fill light seen by the lens it keeps the nose physically closer to the fill than any other part of the face in both full face and oblique view. As mentioned above and exception is a profile view where moving the fill so it stays closest to the nose and falls off front-to-back will help hide the ear facing the camera.

Putting the pieces of the puzzle together

Creating a flattering portrait isn't rocket science. Find the most flattering camera angle by looking at the five "prime" views and picking one that makes the person look most attractive. That decided put key light in the eyes and on the mouth while at the same time creating realistic "normal" looking 3D modeling using fill to keep the shadows even and non-distraction. The rest is learning to get past "tunnel vision" on the front of the face when shooting, taking a step back and spotting and eliminating all the potential distractions from the two most important focal points, the eyes and mouth. The effectiveness of the end result is the sum of the parts: clothing, background, pose and lighting strategy and the devil is details; learning to step back, look at the "big picture" and spot the distractions. Once you start doing that you'll find you notice the distractions like odd bits of ear sticking out past an oblique view you hadn't noticed before. It's a part of the learning curve and you'll climb it faster if you are always looking for some distraction, which if eliminated, could have made the last photo you took incrementally better. If you do your next one will be because you will spot and eliminate the distractions.

Holistic Concepts for Lighting
and Digital Photography

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