When I put my hand up to write an article about photographing men, it didn’t occur to me (until I sat down in front of a blank screen) just how big a topic it actually is. While much could be written about photographing men, from lighting ratios to posing, post-processing and more, there seems to be a drastic imbalance in the amount of material devoted solely to photographing men, as compared to women.
A guide to how lighting ratios can differ for men, women and children are covered in the article Lighting Ratios to Make or Break your Portrait, and Tips for Posing Men offers suggestions, along with Posing Guide: 21 Sample Poses to get you Started with Photographing Men.
When it comes to context, men are photographed within the genres of photojournalism, fashion, sports, travel, wedding and family photography, and corporate portraiture to name a few. My primary genre is family photography, and I also shoot corporate portraits. There is a growing demand for more relaxed professional portraits for clients to use on their LinkedIn profiles, professional Facebook pages – even online dating sites. Clients want a portrait that flatters, showcases their personality or perhaps the type of work they do, without looking too corporate. For the purpose of this article, I’ll be talking about photographing men mostly within these two contexts.
Tip #1: Include him in the consultation process
This tips sits at number one with good reason. One of the most common complaints I hear in portrait photographers’ forums is that of the reluctant father/husband – the guy who turns up to the family portrait session, looking like it’s the last place on earth he wants to be. His crankiness is infectious, and makes your job of capturing all those joyful family connections close to impossible.
I confess, it was one of my bugbears also until I realized how often I’d been leaving male partners out of the consultation process altogether. In every grumpy dad case I encountered, I had mistakenly assumed that the women I spoke to during consultation would communicate everything to their partners, and in turn, share with me any concerns their partners had.
Following a major light-bulb moment, I started to include men in the process, and it made a world of difference. Turns out, they just want to be heard. The more you engage with a man before the shoot, the more comfortable he will be when you are wielding a camera, and the better the photos you will get. This applies whether you’re photographing a paying client, the guy next door, or your brother.
Ask him if he has any features he’s sensitive about. A prominent nose, a double chin, acne scarring and a bit of a tummy are common sensitivities. Allow him to express his insecurities without feeling silly, and reassure him that you can work around these with posing, camera angles, lighting, and post-processing.
Ask him what kind of clothes he feels good in, and make sure he understands how these may work for or against him in photographs. Tread gently; if it’s a family session, there’s a good chance his partner is already on his case.
If he has made the effort to look good, do him justice in the photographs by paying attention to detail.
If he makes the effort to dress well for your photo shoot, as most men will, show him the same respect by paying attention to detail in the editing process. Zoom in close and check for stray hairs the razor may have missed, a loose thread, or a smudge left by a child’s fingers.
Tip #2: Find purpose and meaning
Following on from tip#1, find out why he wants these photos taken. If it is an individual portrait, what is he using it for? If it’s for professional use, what kind of work does he do? What kind of look does he want? If he is a passionate kite-surfing instructor, he may not appreciate your moody black and whites – he is more likely to want something full of colour and action. However, a budding author may love them.
If it’s a family shoot, ask questions about his family. It sounds like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how often this important step is missed. What does the family like to do together? What is special about his partner? What does he love most about his child or grandchild? Dig deep, and listen to his answers. You’ll be surprised at what he reveals.
The photo below of my dad with my eldest daughter is one of my personal favourites. He told me he loves the fact that, even though she is a teenager, she still takes his hand or his arm, when they go for walks together through the forest near his home. I love how the arch of the trees frames them. To me, it suggests they are walking towards the future together.
Photograph the connections that are meaningful.
The man in the photos below told me how he marvels at the smallness of his new daughter’s hands and feet. Like many young dads, he is at a very busy stage in his professional life, securing a future for his family. Often his baby is asleep by the time he gets home at night, and so he cherishes the quiet moments they get to spend together.
Busy dads cherish those quiet moments with their little ones.
The photo below is of two male cousins. They played together as children, but have lived on separate continents since their families emigrated from their native country when they were young. Remarkable to me was how similar their gestures and body language were, despite having lived apart for most of their lives, and I wanted to capture that in a photograph. The ocean is symbolic in this photo, as it usually separates them. At this moment, they were both on the same side of it.
I wanted to capture the similarity between these two cousins who have lived on separate continents most of their lives. The ocean is meaningful in this context: usually it separates them but, at the moment when this photo was taken, they were both on the same side of it.
Tip #3: Give him something to lean against or sit on
Regardless of how much prepping you’ve done, many people are profoundly uncomfortable in front of a camera, especially at the start of a shoot. If your subject feels awkward standing in front of the camera, ask him to lean against a vertical surface such as a wall, fence, lamppost, or car. It will help him feel anchored, and will allow him to angle his body without looking unnatural. If he is seated, you’ll be ready for the next tip.
Find a vertical surface for him to lean against.
Tip #4: Minimize a double chin, prominent nose, or heavy jowls
One way to minimize a double chin is to shoot from above eye level, with your subject leaning slightly forward. If he is seated, ask him to rest his forearms on his thighs, and angle his knees 45° away from you.
You can also use lighting to your advantage. Strong, directional light can visually slim a face, or a torso.
The photo below left was shot from below eye level (the subject was taller than me and was standing) and with light falling on both sides of his face. The photo on the right is more flattering. The subject is seated, leaning forward and angled away from the camera. Strong light reflected off a wall in the late afternoon casts his neck and left hand side of his face into shadow.
The use of shadow and angle in the photo on the right create a more flattering portrait.
Tip #5: If it bends, bend it
Bent arms and legs make your subject appear more natural and relaxed, and have the added advantage of making the body more compact for the sake of composition.
Tip #6: give him something to do with his hands
“What should I do with my hands?” is a question I am often asked during a session. People become suddenly self-conscious about their hands when they are facing a camera, and arms hanging straight down at the sides look awkward.
If he is standing, ask him to put one or both hands in his pocket(s), or loop his thumb over a belt. If he is sitting, he can interlink his fingers or clasp his hands together. In the case of a family photo, have him hold a baby, or a child’s hand.
Give him something to do with his hands.
Tip #7: Detail and contrast
Details such as eyes, lips, and hands help tell a story, and depict the connections between people. Of all these details, hands are my favourite. Hands are a powerful expression of emotional connection and tenderness. Because of their size, men’s hands are visually striking to photograph in contrast to women’s and children’s hands.
The portrait below shows a tender and playful moment between father and daughter. His hand is large and strong next to hers, and she smiles as he kisses milk froth from her fingertips.
A father playfully kisses milk froth from his daughter’s fingertips.
In the photos below of a man with his baby daughter, the size and strength of his hands contrast against the baby’s soft skin and her tiny body. They show how small and vulnerable she is, and depict tenderness and trust.
The size of the man’s hands contrast against the baby, depicting protectiveness and care.
Tip #8: Post-processing
Let’s face it, digital cameras can be brutal. They capture in minute detail all those little imperfections the naked eye doesn’t see, and hold it in a static image for the eye to gaze over.
In some styles of portraiture, this is desirable. Elderly men with craggy faces are popular subjects for travel photographers and photojournalists. However, wrinkles and blemishes are not something you want to draw attention to in family photos or professional head shots, so be kind!
Men will give you clues during the consultation and the shoot. If he cracks jokes such as, “Can you Photoshop me to make me look 10 years younger?” or, “Can you make me look like George Clooney?”, he’s probably only half-kidding. Just because he’s a man doesn’t mean he’s okay with the zit that reared its head yesterday morning, or the hair poking out of his nostril that he missed with the trimmers.
When it comes to editing, much will depend on your personal style. While I’m not a fan of heavily edited portraits, I’ll still follow my basic Lightroom workflow as explained in my article 11 Steps for Basic Portrait Editing in Lightroom. With men, I use the brush tool sparingly to soften skin. The effect should be subtle, and his skin should never appear softer than a woman’s or child’s in the same photo.
When it comes to blemishes, my rule-of-thumb is to remove any blemish that is temporary. Pimples, scratches, stray hairs – if it’s going to be gone from his face in a fortnight (two weeks for you non-Aussies), I’ll remove it from his face in the post-processing stage. I wouldn’t remove a mole or birth mark unless the client specifically asked me to do so.
In this casual portrait of my father, I have removed some temporary blemishes, but the portrait retains its authenticity.
Over to you!
This article has only scratched the surface of what is a very broad subject. Tell us about your experiences photographing men. What are some of your triumphs or frustrations, your favourite tips and techniques?
People photography week
This week on dPS we’re featuring articles all about different kinds of people photography including portrait, event and travel photography. See all the previous ones below, and watch for more people photography articles over the next few days.
- How to Take Low Key Head-shots
- How to Do a One Light Portrait Setup and Use it as Your Back-up Plan
- Travel People Photography – Tips and Pitfalls