There is an important distinction between pictures taken for the benefit of the photographer and those taken for the sitter. In fact, a large proportion of portraits are made with the intention of producing not just a likeness, but a pleasing likeness, and as the criteria for judging them are substantially different, the photography itself uses different methods.
While it may not necessarily be easier to make a flattering portrait than one that probes character, it does at least provide a definite direction and an identifiable result to aim for. Moreover, while the kind of portrait photography that does not begin with pre-set objectives is not really suitable for a point-by-point analysis, with portraiture that aims to please there are a number of regular techniques that will usually help.
First of all, the photographer must be able to identify the best features in the sitter’s appearance – and also the worst features, to know what to suppress or avoid. Compare, for example, the full-face with the profile: if the eyes are relatively large and well spaced, a full-face view with the sitter looking directly at the camera is likely to make the most of them, while a well-proportioned nose or chin would favor a profile. In a specific situation, a choice like this would probably one be one of several, including the lighting, the personality of the subject, and so on. Conversely, features that seem unattractively prominent can be suppressed by choosing an angle or lighting arrangement that neither shows them in outline nor lets them cast a strong shadow. A nose, for instance, is least prominent from directly in front, and with diffused frontal lighting; large ears can seem less obvious in a three-quarter profile. Also, as a general rule, a long-focus lens will compress the perspective in a face and will produce a more attractive view than a standard or wide-angle lens.
A few problem features are sufficiently common to have standard solutions. Reflections in spectacles obscure the expression and are usually unwelcome; with a typical overhead and frontal light position, have the sitter tilt the head slightly down, and if necessary position a black card out of shot in a position where it, rather than the light, will be reflected. Skin folds and double chins can often be eliminated from the photograph by having the sitter lean forward slightly toward the camera – this stretches the front of the neck a little. Wrinkled skin can be made to seem smoother by diffusing the light, and spots can be reduced in a black-and-white photograph by shooting with a red filter.
Diffused lighting is in any case the most generally attractive, particularly from an overhead frontal direction. This is not to say that is necessarily better in any instance, but it is safe. Two subsidiary lighting effects that can flatter a subject are catch-lights, and the halo-lighting from a spot light behind the sitter.
Certain poses and demeanors are also flattering in a general sense. By and large, people appear at their best when they are either relaxed or comfortable, or when they are bright and alert.