My left side is my good side… no wait – it’s my right side… oh come on – with a face like this – there is no bad side :-) Keep reading and I will explain how to find the good side of a person’s face – to make your portrait subject look their best!
Check out a friends Facebook or Instagram profile and you will notice the majority of the photos that they post favor one side of their face – especially if they are a selfie king or queen – they most certainly have a preference.
Now I could stop right here and tell you the simple trick to figuring out the good side to a person’s face is to friend them on social media – spend 5 minutes looking through their photos and then you’re good to go for your shoot. Pretty smart, huh? You won’t read that trick in any photography books.
Science assures us that will work quite a bit of the time – but not all of the time. There is no doubt that beauty is to some extent in the eye of the beholder and the fact is people are frequently mistaken about their own best side.
There is a LOT of information online and in books based on science. Unfortunately most of the science leaves out some variables of makeup and hair styles and camera angles and lighting and all that photography stuff.
I even found a tip on the internet… and it was on the internet so it must be a good tip… this was from a photographer that proclaimed the way to figure out your subject’s best side is to hold a piece of paper vertically over one side of their face and then the other. This photographer claims that the side with the more upturned features – you know the corners of the mouth and eyes is the best side. Hopefully you understand that this method could not be more pointless – not to mention the fact that if you want a great way to make your subject feel self-conscious – hold a piece of paper in front of half of their face and stare at them for a while.
So I want to explain the science to you – in layman’s terms. Be sure to read through until the end and I will explain what my experience has taught me about which is the best side and how to make that decision when shooting a portrait.
So to the Science:
Full disclosure… I did not just look this stuff up on the internet. I am not a cognitive or social psychologist with a PhD, but I am married to one. My wife is a Cognitive Psychologist. She has actually done a considerable amount of published research on how our brains process this kind of information. So she has been my guide to better understand this science and how to apply it.
Research from 2012 by a pair of cognitive psychologists at Wake Forest University taught us that the left side of our face tends to show more emotion. The left side of the face is controlled by the right side of the brain, which is the side that controls emotion. We also tend to look at the left side of a person’s face first because we process faces and their emotions on the right side of the brain. As a result those tested consistently found the left side of a person’s face more aesthetically pleasing. In fact, the brain is so good at this, it can judge the appeal of a face before you’re aware you’ve even seen one.
This is something that master painters have apparently known about for centuries because historically, a large percentage of portraits depict a person’s left side.
The ancient Greeks proposed that symmetry is inherently attractive to the human eye. Scientific research has since proven this. Similarity between the left and right sides of the face is considered an important marker for what is considered beautiful.
Aside from symmetry, males in Western cultures generally prefer females with a small jaw, a small nose, large eyes, and defined cheekbones.
Females, however, have a preference for males who look more masculine. But during menstruation, females prefer a soft-featured male to a masculine one. Yup, researchers found that female perceptions of beauty actually change throughout the month. There is a joke there somewhere.
Research has also taught us that people who exhibit personality and confidence are considered to be more attractive.
So how do we process all of this science to make a good decision about the best side of the face? Some of you are ready to take me up on that social media idea and you’re already headed to Facebook to check out your next subject. Some of you are probably going to take the easy way out and always photograph the left side of the face – which simply means that you will actually get it wrong a lot of the time. Shooting portraits is not the same as a science experiment that uses flat lighting on poses that are the equivalent of mug shots.
My 5 Best Tips for finding the Best Side:
Don’t ignore the science. Try to create balance and symmetry in the face to make our subject look their best.
Remember that photographing people is a relationship game. When I meet a model or a portrait subject for the first time I spend a few minutes talking with them to break the ice and while I am doing that I study them. I pay attention to their personality, their body language and yes – their face – specifically, I want to see how symmetrical their face is. Which brings me to my next point…
Check for symmetry. During our conversation, I am looking to see if the person has a particularly crooked jaw or smile or nose and most importantly I am looking to see which eye is larger and if it is noticeably larger or just barely larger. I am also going to say things to get the person to smile and laugh during our conversation because sometimes that will cause one eye to be considerably larger than the other or even for a smile to go crooked.
Once I have gathered all of that information, I can begin to make decisions about camera angles and lighting to flatter the face. By this time I know what features I may need to hide. I don’t pay too much attention to the left side of the face science – mainly because I know I can control perception of the face with lighting and camera angle and makeup and hair styling.
Public Service Announcement If you ever meet a someone with a perfectly symmetrical face – remain calm – don’t walk – RUN in the other direction – the Aliens have landed!!! NO human being is perfectly symmetrical
It’s all about the eyes. For me the MOST important factor in determining the best side is which eye is the smallest.
If there is very little difference between the two eyes – I will frequently photograph a person looking straight into my lens which is a very powerful view.
If one eye is noticeably smaller, then I simply use perspective to balance things out to get closer to that beauty concept of both sides of the face being equal.
The simple solution is to place the smaller eye closer to the camera lens which will make it look larger in relationship to the larger eye – hence – making them closer in size. You can do this with a ¾ turn of the face. Make sure the nose doesn’t break the edge of the face and be sure that you can still see the edge of the far eye – you don’t want the eye falling out of the face.
You can see in this example, looking straight at the camera, this young lady has one eye that is noticeably larger than the other. By turning her face towards camera left I have placed the smaller – her left eye closer to the camera and made it look larger in relationship to her right eye.
As you can see in these various shots, I have selected the side of the face that will allow me to create the most balance in the size of the eyes.
Don’t forget the hair. Another thing that can have an impact on which side of the face you should photograph – especially for women is the part of their hair and the bang. Generally – but not always – if a woman has a bang where the hair drapes across her forehead – you want to shoot from the side of the face where the hair part is – so that you see more of her face.
The exception of course is going to be if that is the side of the face with a noticeably bigger eye. There have been many times where my makeup artist and myself have had to work to convince a model or subject that they have been parting their hair on the wrong side. Once they see the difference in a photo – they are always convinced. Like I mentioned – people often THINK they know their best side – but that doesn’t mean they have it right.
There are no simple shortcuts
So for those of you that like simple right or wrong answers – SORRY – this one isn’t that simple – even though many have tried to make in that way. Success in photography is in the details. You have to learn to “SEE” the details and pay attention to them. The rest of it is just basic problem solving. In other words – this takes a lot of practice to be consistent with it.
One last pointer…. I mentioned that I work all of this out while having a chat with my subject. For some of you, that may be difficult. If that method doesn’t work for you simply take a variety of angles of the subject while they are doing their test shots. Review the test shots and then go from there. That way – just like with my method – the subject doesn’t know you are observing them that closely and you are able to begin your shoot with the confidence of knowing that you are showing them from the best side.
I hope you found this information useful. Now go pick up that camera and shoot something! Because – “Your BEST shot is your NEXT shot!” — Joe Edelman