I have been worrying lately about the visual honesty in my portraits. Am I doing something dishonest if I make my subject look better?

The problem is that there is no such thing as a “straight portrait.” Any image I make is a 2-D representation of the subject as rendered with the lenses and lights that I chose, not to mention the make-up. Each choice affects the portrait.

And then there is Photoshop (see the post, Photoshop?).

I found a video recently that nicely highlighted the problem. As part of their  “Real Beauty” campaign, Dove depicts the evolution of a real person to a billboard.


I have seen lots of videos showing the potential for tools such as Photoshop to distort reality. What I like about this video is that they put post-production software in the context of a process that begins long before someone shows up in my studio. Photoshop becomes one more tool to enhance beauty. And in fact, it is one of the last tools to be used on an image.

The danger of utilizing the “magic” of this process is that real girls try to compare themselves to the unreal images they see in magazines and on billboards. It is believed that well over 90% of all images in magazines today are significantly enhanced in software. And that comes after a team of makeup artists, fashion consultants, and hair dressers have made their enhancements.

But what happens when some of this magic shows up in a non-commercial portrait? Will the real girl say, “Hey, I do look like a billboard.” Or will she say, “What a beautiful portrait, I wish that I looked like that?”

The extremes seem pretty clear. If I blur your face and put it on a super model’s body, I have probably gone too far. On the other hand if I shoot you at the end of a long grueling day with no makeup and harsh florescent lights overhead, with a lens that makes your nose look humongous, have I done you justice?

It can become an existential question: what is the real you? The best you? And what should your portrait show?

In future posts I will look at a number of issues that affect how good someone looks in a portrait: lighting, lenses, poses, angles, post-process lighting, filters and distortion.

But for now, consider these questions: what do you want in a personal portrait? Stark reality? Best light? Or Fantasy? What are your criteria for an “honest” portrait?

Visual Honesty

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