Above or below the nose?

by Nick Kelsh

posted Friday, April 10, 2015 at 5:32 PM EDT


There are so many psychological factors affecting the emotional reaction a portrait will receive. Color, light, clothing, hairstyles, body language—not to mention facial expressions.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from producing 200 episodes of the Radio Picture Show, it’s the infinite and subtle variety of factors that give seemingly simple and similar photographs their own personality.

If you looked at a pile of 100 smiling, looking-into-the-camera baby portraits I think you would come to the same conclusion. It’s why you, an amateur photographer, can take a picture no one has ever taken before. That’s a beautiful thing. That thought alone can keep both of us going for years. I digress.

I do believe that’s it’s something relatively simple that explains the variation in reaction; are your subjects looking up at the camera or down at the camera?

Are you looking up at your subject or down at your subject? Or to put it another way, are they looking up at you or down at you? The difference in where you put your camera—often measured in inches—has a huge psychological effect on the a viewers reaction to a portrait. My wife, Anne, insists that the distinction in these photographs is too subtle, but I respecfully disagree; professional photographers can feel these little differences in their bones. If you aren’t feeling it, you’re looking DOWN at the little girl on the left, and UP at the other two kids. Photos by Katie Ogg Donovan, Sandra Bouwman, and Gwen Browning. Thanks to you all for your generosity.

When shooting a headshot, you should ask yourself if you want to be looking UP at the subject or DOWN at the subject — big difference.

I suspect that most of you are thinking in terms of very drastic angles when I ask that question; I’m not. I’m talking about extremely subtle ups and downs.

And here’s a good way to measure whether you’re looking up at someone or down:

Is your camera above their nose or below it? If your camera is higher than your subjects nose, you’re looking down at them a bit. You’ve made them look weak or receptive or anxious or hopeful—the list goes on. If your camera is lower than their nose, you’re looking up at them. They now look more powerful, superior, or arrogant, or royal, or evil…that list is equally as long. Posters for politicians are riddled with this angle.

Admittedly, Alexander looks like a movie star from any angle, but putting a camera right at eye-level certainly feels comfortable and personal, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s because that’s what you see when you kiss somebody.

I just want you to be aware of this. I’ve never heard anyone talk about it in these terms—above or below the nose—so I’m feeling a bit vulnerable or hopeful or evil or something. But if a few of you consider whether you’re looking up or down when you shoot your next headshot, it’s a Photo Tip well spent.