Seeing Photographically

Human vision is highly adaptive and selective and how we perceive a scene in person differs from the way the camera can record it. The pupils of our eyes react to brightness and will dilate when focusing on darker areas and constrict when attention is drawn to brighter spots. As a result of the way the retina of the eye has the color sensing cone cells concentrated in the center of the eye we only really focus on the center 2 degrees of our panoramic field of view. The brain, operating on a sub-conscious level stitches the snippets of correctly exposed and focused snippets into our overall perception of the scene having a greater range and more depth of focus than the eyes are capable of recording at any instant.
The Magic and Technical Dilemma of Photography

The magic of the photographic process is that it is engineered in such a way that when both the shadows and highlights are exposed correctly all the tones in-between are reproduced as seen by eye. The dilemma of photography and what makes the learning curve difficult technically is the fact that most outdoor scenes exceed the range of the camera sensor which makes it impossible to record detail on both ends of the tonal scale with an ambient only exposure.

An average outdoor scene, measured with a reflective spot meter, may have a 10 f/stop difference between the brightest detail and the darkest detail scene by eye. But the camera can only record about 7 stops of detail. In my histogram tutorial I show a practical way to measure the range of the sensor by photographing a gray card with a bracketed series of exposures. Below is the result of such a test done with my Canon 20D camera.
Faced with the dilemma of a scene not matching the sensor the photographer is forced to expose correctly for the faces at the expense of highlight and shadow detail. The resulting photos with blown highlights and blocked shadows don't create the same impression of realism that a optimally exposed file will. In other tutorials I describe strategies for dealing with outdoor scenes which exceed the sensor range by using flash to complement the natural light. In my tutorials on artificial lighting I stress the importance of changing the range of the foreground to match that of the sensor with intelligent use to fill and key lights to unlock the true potential of the digital medium.

The Brain Filters What the Eyes See

When looking at a subject in person the brain will tune out other distracting objects in the field of view. Part of the learning curve of "seeing photographically" is recognizing the tendency to tune out the background and remember to consciously stop and scan the background for potential distractions. Outdoors distractions can be things like a tree limb or red car in the background appearing in the photo to be growing out of the head of the person in the foreground. In a studio setting things like bright clothing, body parts, or odd bits of hair and ear sticking out past the cheek line are easy to miss while shooting when attention is "tunneled" on the eyes and the smile of the subject.

Lighting and Contrast Create 3D shape

When looking at a face in person its 3D shape can be discerned, even in flat light, because we have two eyes and stereoscopic vision which sense depth by shifting focus continuously. A photograph must create illusion of 3D shape and depth with directional lighting (contrasting tone), selective focus (contrasting sharpness), optical perspective (contrasting size) and other visual clues the brain is conditioned to accept. Associating the clues in a photograph with real objects is an acquired skill. Infants cannot identify and react to faces of parents or objects in photos until their brains associate what their all their senses tell them about the shape of an object with the pattern of light and shadow the light creates on it.

The Baseline for Normal and Natural

Everyone knows when photographic lighting looks "fake" or "unnatural" but what defines "real" and "natural" light? One only needs to look around to grasp the answer. Natural light outdoors, both the direct rays of the sun and the indirect light reflected from the sky, comes from overhead. Indoor lighting comes from ceiling fixtures and reflections off ceilings and walls.

Our brains are conditioned to seeing objects illuminated from above most of the time and when artificial lighting mimics that direction it will be perceived as more natural because it will duplicate the natural pattern of contrast on 3D objects: highlights on raised surfaces and shadows on lower ones. When lighting looks fake and artificial odds are it will come from an angle below eye level. So a good starting point for any lighting which is intended to flatter a person is to lift the light above the eye line, but not so far the brow shades the recessed eye sockets.

Other Subliminal Clues

We sub-consciously react to clues in natural lighting and in photographs. Much the the learning curve in photography is the process of consciously understanding the perceptual cause and effect. It is not always what meets the eye. It is commonly assumed that the relative size of near and far objects is a function of focal length of the lens, that is not the case. The relative size of near/far object in the scene (i.e., perspective) is a function of the distance of each object from the subject. The erroneous conclusion that focal length is the causative factor stems from the fact that wide angle lenses have closer minimum focus distances. It the fact the lens is able to get closer to the nearest object, not the focal length which makes near/far size distortion more obvious in wide angle lenses. Part of the learning process is discovering what shooting distance produces perspective which seems "normal" (i.e., as seen by eye in person) and how to exaggerate perspective to create a dramatic distortion of reality.

There is a Photo Editor Behind Every Camera

The process of lifting a camera to eye is one of editing our panoramic stereo view of reality into the narrow confines of a 3:2 format rectangle. One of the more difficult challenges of still photography is finding the ideal balance of foreground content and background context. In a movie context is provided by changing the point-of-view or crop of the scene as it develops, using a combination of wide, medium, and close-up shots to progressively pull the viewer closer and closer to the action. The change in point of view has the effect of creating a more intimate emotional connection with the content and message being conveyed.

Composition Tells the Viewer Where to Go Next

The instinctive reaction when meeting a stranger is to make eye contact to gauge their mood and intent. The same thing happens in a photo containing a face. As soon as the viewer recognizes there is a person or animal in a photo their brain will send the eyes to the face in the photo. Once a portrait photographer realizes this natural reaction the composition of a portrait becomes a process of where they want the viewer to go after seeing the face. In a head and shoulder portrait the ideal situation is for the viewer to find the face and stop there, and composition becomes a process of putting the face in the frame where the viewer is likely to see everything less important is seen before the face. There is a common expression "Been there, done that..." which is similar to how the brain of a viewer will react if everything less important is seen before the face. If there is no compelling distraction to attract the eye off the face, the brain tells the eyes to stay on the face. The more "hang time" on the face, the stronger the emotional reaction will be.

There's nothing moving in a still photo, but one can create the illusion of motion by pulling the eye of the viewer across a photo to a focal point: center of interest (COI). Because we track the motion of objects with our vision, such as following car along a winding road, our brains are conditioned to interpret motion or action in a still photo from its orientation and position of an object in the frame. A car at the edge of a photo will be perceived as approaching when it is facing forward or departing if seen from behind. Arrival or departure times can even be inferred from the visual clues about the distance. Putting the center of interest off center gives the eye a more interesting path to follow, but put it too close to or hanging out the edge of the photo and it will lead the eye out of the photo. That, in part, explains why the much maligned "rule of thirds" works so well. It puts the COI off center, but not too close to the edge to make photo seem unbalanced due to the void on the other side. The rule of thirds works in most situations, unless you intentionally want to create a sense of unbalance and dynamic tension in the photo.

The eye likes to roam and is attracted contrast in its many forms: tone, color, shape, size, sharpness. After the face is located and seen the area of greatest contrast will usually attract the eye first. The simplest way to make a portrait or any other photo more effective is to first identify what is most important to the message it contains, then find a way to make the area where that content is located contrast more with the background than anything else.

In nature the eye is attracted by motion. The same natural desire of the eye to follow things come into play in portraiture, but is more subtle. After being led to area of brightest contrast in a photo, which should be the front of the face in a portrait, the eye will tire of looking at it and begin searching for the next most visually attractive object. It will be attracted to, and follow any strong lines AWAY from the primary center of interest. That's not something I consider particularly desirable in a portrait, unless there is a path back to the primary center of interest. Thus if an outstretched arm leads away from the face, it should lead to something else which will lead the eye back to the face, not out the bottom or corner of the photo.

This advice is based on observation of another trait of human perception: we tune out the background "tunnel" our attention on whatever seems most interesting at any point in time. Compositional devices such as blurring the background with shallow depth-of-field is one way to provide a clue to the viewer what is most important. Contrasting tone is an equally effective way to lead the viewer to where the message is an keep them there. A simple test to visualize what part of a photo attracts attention the most on a perceptual level is to blur it.

On a dark background the brightest area has the most contrast and attractive force. so its logical to light a person on a dark background so the front of their face is the brightest thing in the photo. On a white or light background the eye will seek out the darkest area. Where the area of greatest contrast is located in the frame in relation to the borders and how it relates to the tonality, color, size, shape and orientation of other less contrasty and attractive areas in the photo will determine where the eye goes next. A skilled photographer can manipulate the relative attractiveness of various objects with varying their relative brightness with lighting control. Making the face brighter than the feet will help the viewer see the face first. Cropping the feet and other distracting elements out of the photo will completely eliminate any reason for the viewer's gaze to wander off the face.

Facial Recognition and Attributes of Attractiveness

The process of facial recognition and connection with stored emotional memories is one of the more interesting aspects of portraiture. What qualities make a face attractive in general? Two key attributes are symmetry and slimness.

Faces come in an infinite variety of shapes. In person we see them in 3D with stereo vision, but the camera lens compresses them into 2D and the all the clues about shape in a photo must be obtained from the pattern of contrast created by the lighting and the near/far perspective resulting from the choice of shooting distance.

In a full face view structure of key facial landmarks such as the nose and cheekbones get hidden from view in flat lighting by parts of the head behind them. In a flat-lit full face view average face will be rendered in a photo as round as a dinner plate. A full face view also makes any asymmetry in the face very obvious.

An oblique view is better for revealing the shape of the face in a flattering way. Since the shape of faces vary there is no magic formula for oblique views such as 2/3 or 3/4 or profiling the eye socket that works for every face. An ideal oblique view should reveal the shape of the nose, cheek and chin lines in the way that looks well balanced flatters the subject the most. The face should be turned away from the camera enough to reveal the shape of the cheek and eye socket, but not so much that a thin chin disappears or prominent bridge of the nose cuts into the far eye.

Lighting Should Complement the Facial Angle

Because the two key attributes of attractiveness are symmetry and slimness the key question to ask when evaluating lighting strategies for effectiveness is: does it make the face look more symmetrical and slim than any other combination? For a beginner struggling the sort out all the various patterns in lighting books that question is quite literally the light at the end of the tunnel vision.

A full face pose is symmetrical and needs a symmetrical lighting pattern to complement it. Putting the key light off to one side or the other will put an asymmetrical pattern on the face, resulting in the net effect of pose and lighting looking slimmer but asymmetrical. A more effective strategy for meeting both criteria is to use a centered lighting pattern, commonly called "butterfly" after the shape of the shadow created under the nose.

As mentioned a full face pose will reveal any asymmetry in a subject's face. If you look critically at the photo above you will notice that the left side of the face (photo right) is a much different shape that the other side. I made the asymmetry less obvious by using the hair to frame the face on the thinner side. The asymmetry is more obvious in this view.
When a face isn't symmetrical an oblique view is usually a more flattering choice.
Finding the most flattering angle is simply a matter of looking at a portrait subject profile-to-profile before shooting, paying particular attention the the full face view to evaluate symmetry and slimness and the two oblique views to determine which has the most attractive shape on the far side of the face. On a dark background to achieve the goal of slimness in an oblique pose the lighting pattern must complement it by coming from the direction the face is turned so the wider side of the face is hidden in shadow. Attracted by contrast the viewer will pass over the darker background and side of the face and focus attention on the highlighted front of the face.

But on a white background the contrast dynamic is reverse and a short-lit face will tend to disappear into the background on the brighter far side. So on a white background a more effective lighting strategy for an oblique angle is a low ratio broad lighting pattern which makes the far side of the face darker and contrasting more than the near side

The goal is to make the front of the face contrast and in doing so attract and hold attention. At the same time the lighting must modeled the face in a way which is attractive. Keeping the goal of contrasting the FRONT of the face in mind the ideal strategies are easy to deduce: Butterfly works well in full-face poses on light and dark backgrounds, but the full face view usually isn't the most effective. With an oblique view the choice of short vs broad lighting is made based on the criteria of making the face look slimmer and more symmetrical. A broad lit oblique view on dark background does neither but is the better choice on a white background because it makes the front of the face contrast more.

Posing - A Conscious Interpretation of Sub-conscious Body Language

Whether a particular posture looks passive, threatening, masculine, feminine, or feline is mostly matter of cultural conditioning. In most cultures a person standing square to the camera, dead center and aligned vertically and horizontally with the edges of the photo will be perceived as more stiff and static than one standing at a angle and leaning forward with their head in the upper 1/3 of the photo. In real life we equate stiffness with tension. Thus, when we see stiff straight arms or legs in a photo the person will come across as less relaxed, especially if the limbs are aligned with the edges of the photo. One pose isn't necessarily better than the other, they just convey a different message about the person in the photo most viewers will recognize.

As with most things in photography learning to pose a person effectively is mostly a process of becoming consciously aware of the clues which trigger our reactions when seeing a photo. Once it is consciously understood what makes a pose seem aggressive or sexy and another reserved or demure it is relatively easy to coach a subject to create the desired looks at will. In my tutorial on posing I pass along a simple "feet-up" posing technique which makes it easy to reverse engineer and recreate any pose.
  • Become a student of faces and body language. Understanding body language and facial structure from the camera's point of view makes posing much easier.

  • Understand how the camera sees things differently. It's a skill acquired by a combination of research, practice, and curiosity.

  • Decide what you want the center of interest to be in your photo before you set the lights and pose. Whether is the entire face, part of the face in close up, or the chest in a glamour shot light it so its the most visually attractive area of the photo. Compose the photo in the frame in a way which naturally leads the eye to the center of interest.

  • Isolate and simplify a center of interest in the photo. Anything that pulls the eye away from the COI is a potential distraction. Don't lead the eye away from the COI unless there's a good reason and an another leading line / tonal path back to it. Don't lead and leave the viewer stranded in an uninteresting corner of the photo, or lead the eye out of it. Think vignette, even if you don't use one. A vignette creates a visual buffer which keeps the eye in the photo. Don't put anything attractive near the edges without a good reason.

  • Avoid tunnel vision. Look for an eliminate distractions the camera sees but you'll miss if fixated on the COI.

  • Compose to lead the eye toward, not away, from your COI. The borders of the photo give straight vertical and horizontal limbs and eyeliners a static look tend to lead the eye out of the photo more than angled ones do. If you lead the eye to a secondary COI, make sure there another path back to the primary COI. Don't lead the eye to an uninteresting (usually bright) distraction. It will leave the viewer's eye stranded and disappointed.

Holistic Concepts for Lighting
and Digital Photography

This tutorial is copyrighted by © Charles E. Gardner. It may be reproduced for personal use, and referenced by link, but please to not copy and post it to your site.

You can contact me at: Chuck Gardner

For other tutorials see the Tutorial Table of Contents