Understanding Makeup to Become a Better Photographer

Understanding Makeup to Become a Better Photographer

We often hear how much makeup can impact the final result of a photo shoot. It can either make or break a picture depending on its quality. A great makeup artist can save you tons of time in post while a bad one will add many hours to your job. However, working with a great makeup artist doesn't necessarily mean you will get what you need. If you cannot communicate properly, his work might not suit you, and neither will the resulting pictures. Educating yourself on some of the makeup basics can save you from this kind of situation.

Some principles of makeup are pretty close to what is done in post-production by photographers and retouchers. However words and technics are not always the same. While we might use curves or frequency separation to correct some discoloration and to perfect skin tones, they will use correctors or foundation to diminish eye bags and hide skin imperfections - same thing, but not the same wording. Understanding what a makeup artist can or cannot do will change the quality of your pictures drastically. So imagine what you can achieve if you can get a grasp of their basic principles and techniques! Here are a few things to get you started.

Not All Products Are Equal

When starting out, I thought all foundations were the same. But then, when I had the opportunity to work with different makeup artists, I quickly saw a difference depending on what type of product they would use.

For example, when using HD foundation, the load of work in post-production will most likely be diminished. As it contains more silicon than your standard foundation, it will fill lines and pores better. The same goes with powder. While it is meant to fix the makeup, it also adds a matte finish to the skin. When using strobes – unless you want strong specular highlights all over your model’s face – it is really important to use powder. Whenever a model is slightly sweating, powder comes in handy. It is a life saver in studio! However, not all brands are equal either. Some powders actually desaturate or over-saturate the skin under artificial light. I have even seen some powders turn my model’s face white under strong flash light! (Also note that a powder will not give you the same result when you are using a strobe at full power or low power.)

To avoid these kinds of problem, always talk to your makeup artist after a photo shoot. Tell them what you liked and what you didn’t like about the rendering on camera. Every photographer is different. While some might like a shiny looking skin, others might not. But unless you tell your makeup artist about it, they won’t be able to adapt to your preferences. Sometimes it is just a matter of replacing a product with another brand to achieve the look you desire.

Different Brushes for Different Results

How you apply a product can change the result of a makeup. This is especially true when it comes down to foundation. While you can do the same thing with different brushes (just like in Photoshop), the difference can be very noticeable when shooting beauty portraits.

Many makeup artists will use a regular brush, some will use an air brush, others a sponge (or beauty blender), and some even their fingers / hands to apply the foundation. While at first it might look like a question of taste, the techniques are not equal. Brushing a full body for example will take a long time, while using an air brush for the same purpose will be way quicker, and it will fill the pores more than a regular brush will. On the other hand, a sponge will fill the pores better than a regular brush but won’t be as troublesome or expensive as an air brush. Also an air brush requires different skills than brushes or sponges. 

Sometimes the technique your makeup artist has to use will differ according to the result you ask them for, but other times it will only be a matter of preference. If you have some time, ask your makeup artist to come in for a test and try different techniques with different products. They will love you for that, because most of them don’t have the chance to test new products or techniques with pictures to see the result. Just don’t forget to shoot close-ups, as the difference might not be that noticeable if your crops are larger than headshots.

Not Every Makeup Artist Is Right for Every Job

Makeup artists, just like us photographers, don’t like to do everything they are asked to. There are makeup artists that love FX, others that don’t do anything other than traditional makeup, and a few of them who specialize in beauty / creative makeups.

Finding the right makeup artist for the right job is crucial. Behind every great picture of mine lies a great team. I have a pool of makeup artists to choose from to make sure I always have someone available, and so that I can get the best person for the job at hand.

Be sure to ask your makeup artists what they like or hate doing. Also thoroughly check through their portfolios and even organize a test shoot with new artists to understand their capabilities. That last point is actually crucial because most makeup artists will show you retouched pictures in their portfolio… and as we all know too well, retouching can completely change what was captured on camera.

Try It Yourself

Your best bet to communicate perfectly with makeup artists and understand what their job entails, is to give it a try. I have started taking lessons with one of my makeup artists in order to communicate better with my team and also to be able to help out with applying some of the makeups myself. If taking lessons is too much work for you, there are great videos on YouTube you can watch and learn from. Here are some of the channels I follow for techniques, products reviews, and inspiration:

Learning the art of makeup will not only help you to communicate properly with your makeup artist but it will also benefit your retouching skills. Since I started taking lessons, I’ve seen my retouching getting better and better! Learning about the different face shapes and how to correct them helped with my dodging and burning as well as my contouring quite a lot!

Improving your craft means leaving your comfort zone and trying new things. If you are not familiar with makeup at all, especially if you are a man, ask your makeup artist for a crash course. I'm sure you will have fun, you will learn interesting things, and maybe, just like me, you will end up wanting to be able to create your own makeups!

Have you ever tried to add makeup to your photo shoot? Have you tried to take makeup lessons to improve your photography? I would love to hear your experience! Please share it with everyone in the comments below.

Quentin Decaillet's picture

Quentin Décaillet is a photographer and retoucher based in Switzerland specializing in portrait and wedding photography.

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Being even somewhat informed on makeup techniques and purposes has definitely improved both the way I light and retouch a portrait. Just like with any craft though, subtlety is a must when applying these techniques and knowledge.

I find understanding of and then communicating my desires as it relates to makeup allows me to better define the outcome of my work from behind the lens. But to say I know anything about brushes etc. would be a stretch nor will really have an interest to learn to apply. But most certainly knowing what how to communicate with my H/MUA effectively does improve on the final results and then I go to post.

Wonderful article, and very true! While I use a make-up artist for just about every production, knowing about makeup and cosmetics has been instrumental in communicating my vision with my styling team. Being knowledgeable about certain aspects of makeup when it comes to blowback, shine, and how a product will look under studio strobes has also played a big role for me in my beauty and fashion work.

This is something that I have been thinking about for quite some time. Sadly I cannot seem to find a course in my area about makeup basics.

I would start by looking up tutorials on youtube for makeup facial contouring to start. Even just applying the technique of contouring to your lighting will do a lot for portrait work.

YouTube is definitely a great place to start. The 3 channels I've linked in my article are awesome and will most likely be enough to get you going. Jordan Liberty is often showing and explaining makeups he does for editorial shoots, while the others are more about "everyday makeup" and products reviews ;)

Thank you for the channels and I think it may help.

I just finished an 8 week course. My outlook on photography has changed dramatically, just being able to speak the same language with your make up artist is a game changer. Just knowing what product does what to the light is so valuable.

Pleeeaseee write more articles about this. As a man, I'm clueless about makeup.

I might do a follow up on this article soon. I just don't want to write something to close to has already been written (Michael Woloszynowicz and Julia Kuzmenko have published a few great articles regarding dodging & burning, contouring, etc. that are quite close to makeup actually).

Awesome. I'll check it out.

"This is excellent intercessory information for both makeup artists and photographers working as creative partners for their best artistic photo production. I often recommend my #FaceBookingU professional services as a creative makeup art director to consult with the photographer on his/her vision execution- usually when he has a theme in mind or a desired mood outcome for his/ models as subjects. This role is especially needful for group photoshoots in communicating the critical techniques or features needed to deliver for the photographer (s) when one or more models are involved." - Tracey Bond, Creative Makeup Director VIP Makeup Artist & Face-Publisher...Author of the Face PR Textbook "Face Booking U"

I experimented with makeup once and now i'm hooked! Its so similar to photography so i think other photographers will pick up on it very quick. It will also make you enjoy the photos more since it gets you more involved in the process. Now i do the makeup in almost all my personal work.