- the #1 guide to better conventional and digital photography Become a Member iPhone Posing GuideGuide to Posing the Female Model BookGuide to Posing the Model CD

Member Login

Find us on Facebook
Follow us on Twitter
Find us on Flickr
Connect with us on LinkedIn


Sell Photos Online


Revealing character

Capturing character & personality in a portrait

Lighting plays a part in revealing character in a portrait by its ability to emphasize facial features.
Lighting plays a part in revealing character in a portrait by its ability to emphasize facial features.

Insight into a subject's personality and character can be contained in a photograph of that person, and is in fact a primary objective of the portrait photographer. Personality is revealed by a combination of ten prime factors - lighting, camera angle, lens choice, framing, pose, background, the subject's apparel, condition and expression, and the photographer's observation.


A person's features can have a strong influence on communicating personality and character. They can be emphasized or de-emphasized by the manner in which you illuminate the person when photographing them.

Diffused daylight through a window is often preferred by many portrait photographers because it is natural light, and makes a natural-looking picture. The look of diffused daylight can also be simulated by bouncing studio light off a white surface or diffusing it. This type of light is soft and less revealing of facial features, though.

It is more difficult to use undiffused, direct sunlight or studio light, because of the sharp shadows and bright highlights created. Such light, however, emphasizes facial structure and skin texture better than the softened light from a diffused source, and allows the skillful photographer a higher degree of control over which features will be revealed and which will not by placing some in highlight areas and some in shadow.

Camera angle

Camera angle should be selected to emphasize the center of interest, generally the subject's eyes, but possibly another feature that will convey character - a strong jaw, for example. Shooting the subject in a three-quarter view will appear less formal and more natural-looking, whereas a full facial camera angle can add formality and emphasize any unevenness of the subject's features. The relative height from which you photograph a subject can be influential on portraying the person's character. Full-length portraits shot from eye level cause the person to appear shorter, but shooting from knee level or below adds height to the subject. Several pointers are provided in our section entitled Portrait camera height.

Choosing the right camera angle can be critical to a portrait.
Choosing the right camera angle can be critical to a portrait.

A portrait lens maintains normal perspective.
A portrait lens maintains normal perspective.

Lens choice

The appearance of the subject can be drastically altered by your choice of lens. Perspective provided by a wide-angle lens can distort a person's face relative to how we would normally see him or her. See our section on Lens choice for portraiture for information.


Moving in very close to your subject and shooting a tightly-framed picture of the facial features only may exclude details that are character-revealing (a proud stance, for example). However, such tight framing could also emphasize characteristic details, such as a look of determination in the subject's eyes or the slight smile that would otherwise go unnoticed.


There is more to portrait posing than simply placing the subject in a specific spot and having him or her face a certain way. The photographer must decide on a pose that contributes to the revelation of the subject's basic personality, character and status. Some subjects, getting into position, may naturally assume an appropriate pose without instruction. The photographer must be watchful for such moments, and either take the picture when it happens or ask for that specific pose to be repeated. In most cases, though, the photographer must direct the subject to change body angle, posture, the location of a hand, the lifting of a chin and so on, until the pose is right.

There are many factors involved in achieving the right pose. First, the subject's positioning must suit the camera angle and the lighting. Then, subtle changes can be made to reflect the subject's identity and persona. Body language is important. A subject with a dominant, take-charge attitude could, for instance, lean towards the camera to provide an "in-your-face" feel. The same subject can be made to look more challenging by placing his or her clenched fists on the hips. A hand touching a face and a slight angling of the head may be all the posing it takes to reveal a deep-thinking person with a reflective nature. There are too many variables to cover them all here or anywhere, and there is not just one "right pose" for one subject. Visit our section on Posing for pointers.

Probably the most important effect of posing is its influence on the subject's expression. A natural pose will go a long way to encouraging a natural expression - one that is characteristic of the subject. Pose the subject uncomfortably or uncharacteristically and you will likely achieve an artificial expression.

A pose that is appropriate can aid in defining the character of your subjects.
A pose that is appropriate can aid in defining the character of your subjects.

What your subjects wear for a portrait can be revealing of character, especially if it is radically different from normal clothing.
What your subjects wear for a portrait can be revealing of character, especially if it is radically different from normal clothing.


Including the surroundings when photographing a portrait can sometimes strengthen the picture's message about the subject's personality. An artist, for example, may be photographed next to his work, which might reveal some of the artist's character and temperament. A business executive may adopt a revealing pose and expression when photographed in an office environment.

Background can also be distracting, though. Sometimes, you need to completely eliminate extraneous details so that your portrait concentrates the viewer's attention on the subject. This can be achieved in a number of ways, by choosing a neutral background (a plain wall, for instance, or seamless background paper) or by using selective focus that purposefully blurs the background, and therefore neutralizes it.


A subject's clothing and accessories can be very revealing of personality and character. Color choice and patterns can indicate whether a person is outgoing and brash or inward-thinking and reclusive. How the clothing is worn can also show character - whether it is loose-fitting or even carelessly done up or absolutely neat and perfectly-fitted. Many books have been written on how clothing and how we wear it influences image and perception of character. It is a vast topic. Some pointers are found in our section entitled Clothing for portraits.


A subject's personal condition can be emphasized or de-emphasized by the photographer to more clearly reveal character. A laborer's soiled face and obvious perspiration on a brow, or a person's perfectly made-up face, can provide greater insight into the subject's character. Make-up, lighting, camera angle and other tools can be used to conceal or emphasize the subject's condition and appearance. Generally, if the condition of the subject is characteristic and complimentary (unruly hair, for example), you should make no attempt to conceal it. But, if it will detract from the portrait (a bruise or scrape, for example), it should be concealed.


Although the foregoing factors help to suggest character in a portrait, there is generally nothing that has as powerful an effect on revealing personality and character as the subject's expression. The photographer must generally develop rapport with the subject, not only to evince expressions that are characteristic of the person, but to actually recognize an expression that reveals the subject's personality. This means you must get to know the individual in order to make his or her portrait. Knowing the subject allows you to coach him or her into achieving an expression that is suitable - an expression that others who know him or her will recognize as being a trade-mark expression or one that is seldom revealed except to his or her close friends or family. The right word at the right moment can sometimes do more than all the coaching in the world. One example of such a word might be the name of someone whom you know the subject is particularly fond, or the name of a family pet. There may be a sudden spark of pleasure at the mention of the name which causes a brief change in expression that you can capture if you are quick with the shutter. Engaging the subject in conversation on a topic of interest will often produce a variety of expressions that are characteristic of the person when acting naturally.

The importance of observation

We all have characteristic expressions that show our mood and personality. Personalities are complex, and each of us has more than one expression that those who know us will recognize as being characteristic. It is the portrait photographer's task to closely observe the subject to quickly trip the shutter and capture that magic moment when pose, expression and all the other factors are just right. Missing the moment by failure to observe your subject or by not being ready to take the picture is tragic, since it often cannot be repeated in the same portrait session. The photographer who is a keen observer will likely capture a number of expressions that reveal different views of the subject's personality.

Expression is the most character-revealing factor in portraiture.
Expression is the most character-revealing factor in portraiture.
Further information...

Related topics...

Facial expressions