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.

Log in or register to post comments

40 Comments

Ivan Lantsov's picture

if sculptor make statue not diffrnt

Many people are used to seeing themselves photographed with a Smartphone. Then to get a portrait taken with proper lighting and longer focal lengths makes them look different. Also I noticed that at first look an image can be "bad" but seeing it at another time or a few more times looks quite nice. Happens with everyone. Sometimes a picture needs time to get used to.

I totally agree that people's self image may cause them to find flaws where none is and I don't know how many times a person's first reaction to a portrait has been something from a subtle "Oh no!" to an outright "I hate it!" But just ike the old "trick" of making children taste some new food at least three times (and not in quick succession) before rejecting it, pictures should be watched at least three times over time before passing judgement. And yes, I am among those disliking pictures of my self, hence the profile picture.

You say "the salient point is to not treat everyone equally", I think you probably mean "the salient point is not to treat everyone the same but treat them equally", which I learnt when working for the NHS (the UK National Health Service). It is a subtle semantic point, I know, but it was an eye opener for me when I first heard it.

Dennis Williams's picture

I'm a photographer not a socialist doctor. I do not treat everyone equally.I do not treat everyone the same. I treat people as their behavior and worth merits.

Most people are treating people they interact with as their behaviour and worth (hopefully not in the monetary sense, though) merits, and it is exactly an example of treating people equally but not the same. If you treat people the same, you would not discern between, say, rude and polite people, whereas if you treat them equally you would adjust your way of treating them to their behaviour so ALL rude people (obviously weighted according to their rudeness) are treated in a certain way whereas ALL polite people are treated in another way. (Feel free to adjust the examples to other value criteria.)

Giovanni Aprea's picture

It happens quite often to me, the subjects of my male portraits, to whom I give a print of their photo, always say they look "older" which I understand due to the fact that a BW makes all the pores, face lines, blemishes etc more visible but it's fun how, after a while they have got time to get used to it, they come to me and say "hey, you know, I am looking for a nice frame to hang the pic you took of me..."

Well, I am the first who tries to avoid being in front of a lens, I rather be on the other side...

How does bw pics make pores/blemishes stick out more so then color?

To me its lighting that accentuates/reduces pores/pores with the angle of light/diffusion and exposure
More angle>pronounced like side lighting
Soft even lighting spreads light and hence no depth to pores
Giving a slight overexposure "cleans" up a lot of flaws in the face. Its why magazines pictures of models/ads are shot overexposed... Besides the heavy ps hand in editing

Giovanni Aprea's picture

I only use natural light and the "pores, face lines and blemishes" is what the subjects report to me and, by the way, most of those portraits are camera facing so not even matter of fancy light source/subject angle

U never shoot with flash? Softboxes/umbrellas/ring light/scrim/jobo/backlight/barn doors/grids/fill/key/rim?

Non of these light/diffusers/techniques?

Btw, the subject facing towards or away from the camera is different then what the light is in relation to the subject. Lighting can be sidelit while facibg away or towards the camera and the light can be soft and they can be facing away or towards the camera.

You have no colors to hide behind.

Hahaha
Me? I never limit myself to one style of shooting and I always give the client a variety of work. Ill shoot natural light mixed and flash. I believe a good photographer is always trying new things and isnt set on shooting in "safe mode"

I clearly see how amazing you are from your portfolio, but that was just an answer to your question “ How does bw pics make pores/blemishes stick out more so then color?”

You likes those portfolio pics huh? Thanks

I like your portfolio. It matches with your nickname and proves your skills.

The generic photographer hahaha

Why generic? You are not “a”. You are “the”.

Daniel Medley's picture

"Ill shoot natural light mixed and flash."

In a single session?

Yes but also depends if its outdoors or indoor or what location. Sometimes will shoot with flash as the main, sometimes as fill sometimes with gel sometimes with a reflector and sometimes just natural. But I always mix it up

Daniel Medley's picture

You shoot a mix of natural and artificial in indoor portrait sessions?

Sometimes we do window light sometimes studio and yes sometimes we mix with backlit window light and use flsh

Daniel Medley's picture

In one session? So, if someone books a session with you, you shoot some artificial light, then move to natural, etc?

Sorry I'm pressing the point. It just seems odd to me and I'm curious.

Of course. Sometimes we decide 2 locations. It may be at the studio then well go outside nearby and do some pics there. It can even be in an aboned warehouse or at the shook. Depends on weather. We can do all the picture in one place if there are interesting corners/backgrounds to have the subject stand.
Btw I live to the right of the map. Session is around 45 minutes to an hour. 35mm 85mm 70-200.

Daniel Medley's picture

If you're saying that you shoot each session with a variety of artificial, natural, and mix--changing from one to another--I think that's generally kind of goofy. Again, that's IF that's what you're saying.

But whatever works for you.

You wore me out with constantly asking to understand

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

--- "It happens quite often to me, the subjects of my male portraits, to whom I give a print of their photo, always say they look "older" which I understand due to the fact that a BW makes all the pores, face lines, blemishes etc more visible..."

It's not the BW that makes them look older, it's how you are applying it. From what I can tell, you add a ton of contrast and/or clarity.

David Love's picture

I don't like your stock picture and it is your fault.

Good article, and good timing. This is something I am bumping up against a little at the moment.

People often reject loads of selfies before accepting one they finally see as fit for posting online. Sometimes the trick of getting customer approval may be done by not doing any close-ups and by photographing people as if they were a landscape scene which would still count as portraits for the customer. Look at all those drone pictures of the newly wed couples, for example. They get accepted, and some even think they are exceptional photos.

vin weathermon's picture

So "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is a real thing?? Who knew??

vin weathermon's picture

And conversely, portraits I did not like wound up being a keeper for the client....learned a long time ago to let them decide their picks without my opinion in the way....

More comments