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Chapter 7. Retouching Portraits > Portrait Challenges

Portrait Challenges

A lot can go wrong when a portrait is taken in the first place, and even more mishaps may occur when you try to fix the mistakes. Everyone has a notion of what they and other people look like, or should look like, so you’ll find many more critics for your finished portraits than for any other kind of photo. Here’s a quick checklist of the challenges you’re facing.

  • Expectations are high. Almost by definition, a portrait is supposed to represent a true and flattering rendition of the subject, even though a true rendition is often not very flattering. Portraits are expected to minimize physical defects (such as a wide or thin face), emphasize strong features (ranging from a steely glint in an executive’s eye to full, sensuous lips on a model), while providing a glimpse at the personality of the subject. No wonder portraits are subjected to so much criticism!

  • Proportions must be right. If a full-face photo was taken too close to the subject with a relatively wide zoom setting (or with a wide-angle lens), the nose appears too large in relation to the ears. Other goofs by the photographer can make a face appear wider or narrower than it really is. The two images shown in Figure 7.1 were taken within minutes of each other; the photo on the left was made with a wide-angle zoom setting on a digital camera, whereas the photo on the right was taken with a telephoto setting. The face is narrower and nose larger in the version on the left, with a more natural appearance in the version on the right.

    Figure 7.1. The lens zoom setting you choose can make a drastic difference in a portrait’s appearance, as with this wide-angle shot (at left) and a more conventional photo (at right) taken with a short telephoto setting

  • Eyes and mouth must appear exactly right. Even small changes to the eyes or mouth in a portrait can make the photo look “odd,” even though the viewer may not know exactly what’s wrong. Getting these features right can mean the success of a portrait.

  • Color balance must be right. Small variations in color in nonhuman objects that we would never notice loom large in a portrait. You can get away with a photo that is slightly too reddish, but even a hint of a bluish or greenish cast can impart a ghastly pallor on your subject. You can test this for yourself by covering up all but one of the portraits shown in Figure 7.2 and viewing them in turn. When you don’t compare each version directly with the others, the greenish version at left and the reddish rendition at right may look OK, but the one with the green cast definitely appears to be cooler. The tinge is particularly objectionable when you compare it to the neutral version in the center. Yet, an equal amount of red cast (at right) doesn’t look particularly bad.

    Figure 7.2. The greenish cast (at left) looks ghastly when compared to the neutral rendition (middle) and the version with a reddish tinge (at right)

  • The smallest detail is up for scrutiny. Facial expressions, complexion, even the catchlights (reflections) in the eye may make the difference between an acceptable portrait and one that’s rejected.



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