The Portrait Photographer's Notebook

There’s an old photographer’s joke about the bride who had a Roman nose.

The set-up line: I see this bride has a Roman nose.

The punchline: Yeah, it’s roamin’ all over her face!

This little bit of humorous hyperbole may have a slight edge to it, but at its core, it’s merely a statement of fact. As the tale of Cyrano de Bergerac suggests, a big nose can be construed as a sign of character but even so, in reality, many, many people, even those with average-size noses, hate their profiles. Why is this? I have given this a lot of thought to this subject - more than any sane, normal, non-portrait photographer would ever do - and have come up with some thoughts I’d like to share with you.



In picture #1 the subject’s nose doesn’t break her far cheek line while in Photo #2 the noses just creeps past it. Doesn’t the subject’s nose look bigger in #2? Which one do you think the subject would like better?

Mirrors won't help

In the first place, no one can ever see their full profile in a mirror so they’re not used to it looking at an image of their face from this perspective Considering all the little jokes that nature plays on 99.9999% of human faces, constantly seeing our face in the mirror over a long period of time acclimatizes us to its general appearance, But a profile, without the insulation of familiarity, can be filled with things we don’t want to be reminded of.

Looking at a profile from top to bottom, a careful observer might notice many characteristics that can be perceived as defects. These include receding hairlines, receding foreheads, short foreheads, high foreheads, protruding foreheads, overhanging brows, deep-set eyes, shallow-set eyes, squinty eyes, bulging eyes, a big nose, a little nose, a hooked nose, a pug nose, a nose with a bump, a nose with a hollow, and a nose with a ball on the end of it!

Whew! Gotta take a deep breath.

Other “problem areas” for the professional portrait photographer trying to please a client would include thin lips, thick lips, a strong chin, a weak chin, double (or even triple!) chins, and, finally, a prominent gullet. The difference between this second list and the first is that the photographer can hide the latter group of facial idiosyncracies fairly easily with judicious positioning of the face, adjusting the height of the lights relative to the face, and craftily using shadows to draw attention away from the offending characteristics. By comparison, the nose (pardon the bad pun) is still a big thing!

The solution? Easy

As luck would have it, there is one simple solution that actually makes a prominent nose look smaller, and all it entails is asking your subject to turn a bit or shooting him or her from a slightly different angle.

Here’s the trick!

The easiest (and maybe most effective) way to corral a Roamin’ (sic) nose is by containing it within the line of the subject’s far cheek. While you can’t get a full profile this way, if the tip of the nose doesn’t pass the subject’s far cheek line it appears to be smaller, and the instant the tip of the subject’s nose breaks the cheek line it looks bigger! It’s an optical illusion or sorts.

If you don’t believe me, scroll up and take a close look at photos #1 and #2. Fortunately, the converse is also true so this useful rule is also ripe for breaking if you want to accentuate the nose of a short-nosed subject. Either way, you’ll have a better chance of pleasing the person in the picture and that, in my business, is the name of the game.


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