If Somebody Doesn’t Like Your Portrait of Them, Is It Always the Photographer’s Fault?

If Somebody Doesn’t Like Your Portrait of Them, Is It Always the Photographer’s Fault?

Most people don't like their photograph taken. So if, as a photographer, you've taken an image of someone and they don't like it, is it your fault?

We're funny creatures. So many of us — myself included — don't relish having our photograph taken. We aren't comfortable seeing ourselves depicted for a multitude of reasons, and it's as strange as it is prevalent. When somebody snaps a photo of you as you betray your self-consciousness on a drunken night out and dance fervently, there isn't much debate to be had. But what about when a photographer takes the time to craft a portrait, and then, the subject doesn't like it? Can it be chalked up to taste? Is it just the result of a shy subject? Or should the photographer simply have done better? Well, if neither the photographer nor the subject like the image, that's cut and dry, but when the photographer likes the image and the subject doesn't, things get more complicated.

I have created thousands of portraits, both commercially and recreationally, and it's happened in both. So, what's going on and who is to blame?

The Role of the Subject

There's no getting away from it: the subject has a role to play in this disagreement. But the extent to which they are to blame varies significantly. I have worked with subjects who had such an incredible distaste for their own appearance that they, in essence, wanted a one in a thousand shot that misled the viewer enough to line up with the subject's self-image. They might refer to themselves as perfectionists, but realistically, they've just self-conscious to the point of it being borderline debilitating. It's exceedingly rare that this is the case, but it does happen.

Strangely, there isn't always a correlation between the subject being conventionally attractive or photogenic and this phenomenon occurring less often. I have worked with subjects who are staggeringly attractive — irritatingly so — but their self-consciousness rages stronger than most. One particular model I worked with I once described as "so attractive, it's as if they were designed by hand." However, this model was also a valuable lesson to me, as when we both looked at the same image, we would sometimes see completely different things. Mostly, we were aligned, but on occasion, I would look at an image with glee and share it with the model, only to have the model recoil and point out something I wouldn't have noticed even if I'd written a PhD on the photo. They immediately honed in on an almost imperceptible flaw of their face and could see little else.

This is the lesson I learned: no one is more strongly familiar with their image than the person themselves. As a result, every inconsequential flaw or quirk has been scrutinized and thought about for hours and hours of their life. The more thought that goes in to it, the more of an issue it becomes. I often wonder whether most people (again, myself included) have some degree of body dysmorphia and when they say "my nose is too big" for instance, they actually do see a large nose in photographs of themselves, even if it's perfectly proportionate. These issues are primarily unknowable for the photographer. But we're far from absolved in this matter.

Afrojack (Not a subject relevant to this article, but I could hardly share one of those images, now could I?)

The Role of the Photographer

While photographers might have the express interest of creating a beautiful image of a person, their end goal is weighted differently to that of the subject, whether they're a model or (more likely) not. When we look at images, we see composition, exposure, color theory, bokeh, distractions, form, and innumerable indescribable nuances that give those rare photos "soul" or some other equally fluffy word, whereas the subject's eyes go straight to their own person for a scathing critique. One thing I have learned to do is study the subject (even if just for five seconds) at the start of the shoot. I will do this through the viewfinder while I take a few test shots and decipher what could be emphasized and what could be softened. Please do not tell them this is what you're doing. People don't like it when you start live-reviewing their face.

For example, on an older person, common lighting techniques like butterfly lighting will bring out any lines on their face. That might be intended, but if it isn't, consider adding some up-light to negate those shadows. If a person's nose is large enough that there's a chance they might be aware of it, only shoot portraits where the subject's nose has parts of the face as a background (and never profile.) This list of tips goes on and on and warrants an article in itself, but the salient point is to not treat everyone equally; save that for everything else in life.

I have shot hundreds of headshots on a strict week-long schedule, and I have had just 20 minutes to grab striking portraits of celebrities in less-than-ideal locations. These sorts of scenarios are rife with opportunities to get stuck in your own head and not pay attention to each subject carefully, resulting in an image the subject doesn't like. This can end up siphoning more of your time or worse.

Scarlette Douglas (Again, unrelated to the article's content!)

Conclusion

Not everyone will like every portrait you take of them, even if you do. It's unavoidable, and in some cases, you just have to differ on that opinion. But generally speaking, that isn't the best approach. While it isn't always the photographer's fault if a subject doesn't like the portrait you've created for them, it's best if you act as if it is. Do everything you can to accommodate insecurities — we all have them — and draw the line when it's excessive. Finally, if you wholeheartedly believe you've created a strong image, don't take the subject's negative review personally. They aren't calling you a poor photographer; they just see the image differently than you. Instead, if you're having doubts (we're creatives; most of us have doubts as frequently as breakfast), find someone objective that you trust to give constructive criticism and feedback on your work.

What do you think? With the right time and experience, can the photographer always create a portrait the subject will like? Should self-conscious subjects be pandered to? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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39 Comments

Previous comments
Mike Dochterman's picture

I will put up most all pix from a shoot to let the models take what they like.. and almost always - they choose the craziest ones as their favorites...ones that don't even make the first cut for me...I don't get it..but as long as they are happy

The former USA president Lyndon Baines Johnson had his presidential portrait painted by the accomplished artist Peter Hurd. On seeing his portrait, the president remarked "That's the ugliest thing I ever saw."

It hangs today in the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution.

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/presidential-portrait-was-ugliest...

Ben Deckert's picture

I primarily do headshots and it's crazy how much people detest the way they look. And the level of retouching that people have come to expect also continues to amaze me. (I'm not someone who thinks retouching is wrong, I've always done it, but people have become really demanding.)

I second that. It is almost traditional start of the session: “I hate how I look on photos, but I hope you can do something”.

Don Risi's picture

Every. Single. Time.

Don Risi's picture

I was once asked to shoot a portrait of a woman attorney for an ad. I was told to schedule the shoot at her convenience, which was fine with me. The time was at 4pm on what turned out to be a very hot day in July.

I arrived at her office at the appointed hour, but she hadn't yet returned from court. When she finally came in, I could tell immediately that she had had a very bad day.

She looked at me, and said, "Oh, yeah. That. I'll be right back." She then disappeared into the ladies room. She was hot, she was angry, she had lost her case for her client.

To say that she was grumpy throughout the shoot is an understatement, and there was nothing I could do to change that.

And there was no getting a shot that she would have approved of.

You can guess who got blamed.

Ronald Stewart's picture

I've only had one person unhappy with the photos I delivered. I've had rough shoots before, but this was a hell situation that I did my best to mediate and resolve into something amazing, but it was an uphill battle that just wasn't meant to be won. Without going into the story, I'll just say that she was already crying when I arrived.

No amount of expert photography could have solved her problem.

Ramon Acosta's picture

Great article Robert!

"This is the lesson I learned: no one is more strongly familiar with their image than the person themselves. As a result, every inconsequential flaw or quirk has been scrutinized and thought about for hours and hours of their life. The more thought that goes in to it, the more of an issue it becomes."

"When we look at images, we see composition, exposure, color theory, bokeh, distractions, form, and innumerable indescribable nuances that give those rare photos "soul" or some other equally fluffy word, whereas the subject's eyes go straight to their own person for a scathing critique."

These are pearls of wisdom!

I will pay more attention to your articles Robert.