Visualizing Photographic Results


One of my father’s best friends in college became a professional studio photographer, and more than once he practiced his glamour-shot skills using my father as his model (as seen at left). I have numerous photos of my father taken with elaborate studio lighting, usually smoking a cigarette or pipe, sometimes bare-chested, and almost always looking intense. His friend, the photographer, clearly was in charge of the photo sessions, and knew the various looks that he wanted. In a few of these photographs my father was directed to scowl, and in those he can look quite frightening.

Few of us have had occasion to be photographed in a situation where we are there to serve the photographer’s desire to add images to his portfolio. If we hire a professional photographer, it is typically to create a personal or family portrait, or record an occasion such as a wedding or graduation. Even in this situation, the photographer typically exerts a great deal of control relative to the outcome, using experience to produce results that will please most customers.


This is typically the situation with high school yearbook pictures, and I have used my own to illustrate. So that everyone would conform, the photographer had a supply of different-sized white jackets on hand. Since no high school girl would want a single wrinkle to show, the studio was set up with soft lighting. In contrast, the harder lighting used for my father’s portrait shows every wrinkle on his face.

Adding to the softness of the yearbook portrait is the relatively narrow depth of field. My right eye is in sharp focus, but my hair, right shoulder, and ears are not. Compare the sharp focus of my father’s hair with the soft focus of mine. The wider depth of field used for my father’s portrait allows the hair on his arms to be as sharply focused as his eyes.

The softer look is often felt to be more flattering, as it tends to make skin look smoother. But in my father’s portrait the sharp focus and harder lighting creates a sense of frankness that is clearly  what the photographer intended. The crucial point is that both images are partly illusions that the photographer created by his choices of lighting, depth of field, and direction. As I recall I was told to tilt my head and look slightly to the side of the camera, whereas my father’s gaze is inescapably direct.

To get a sense of trying to visualize results, imagine what I might have looked like in the conditions used to photograph my father, and then imagine him photographed as in my yearbook photo. Doing so is not easy, but it’s an interesting exercise. Another is to look through a fashion magazine, see if the models’ eyes reflect the location of a main light source, and, if so, then look for the shadows cast by that light. Asking such “what if?” and “how did they light this?” questions can help us understand how various photographic effects were achieved, and possibly how to better achieve them ourselves.