One of the first posing tips to learn in portrait photography is that the closer something is to camera the bigger it will appear in an image. Foreshortening in photography is an aspect of this posing advice. A very important one, because foreshortening can lead to very unflattering portraits.
The good news is that it’s easily avoided, as you’ll see in the example poses below!
What is foreshortening in photography?
Foreshortening is actually not restricted just to photography, it’s also a drawing technique and can be used creatively.
So it’s definitely not always a bad thing.
Foreshortening is a form of depth distortion in photos as a side effect of transferring a three dimensional world to a two dimensional image.
It’s not just a feature of portrait photography, but is also relevant to all types of photography and is a particularly popular technique in landscape photography. Google Ansel Adam’s Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada from Manzanar to see a fantastic example of foreshortening in landscape photography.
However, in portrait photography, when foreshortening occurs unintentionally with a wrong pose or camera angle, the results are unflattering.
What causes foreshortening in photography?
In portrait photography it’s most commonly (but not always) seen in a subject’s limbs, because it makes them look shorter.
As mentioned, when capturing an image you create a 2 dimensional representation of a 3 dimensional world. In real life we can see all angles, but not in an image. So, according to Gestalt theory, our brains “fill in the gaps” of what we can’t see. Sometimes they get it wrong.
Further reading: Harness the power of Gestalt theory in photography
Foreshortening appears in an image where, for example, part of a limb is obscured by the angle of the limb in relation to the camera. There’s a perceived loss of distance between the end closest to the camera and the other end furthest from camera.
Unless we’ve met the subject in real life, we don’t know exactly what they look like, so we trust what we see in the image. However, it’s really easy to accidentally make limbs look shorter with foreshortening.
So foreshortening is basically elongation in reverse. Portrait photographers usually work to make limbs appear longer with camera angle and focal length, not shorter.
How to avoid foreshortening in posing
It’s actually quite easy to avoid accidental foreshortening, regardless of lens used, because it doesn’t rely on gear. It’s all about posing and perspective, specifically:
- The subject’s body angles
- Your position in relation to the subject
Yes, the foreshortening effect can be exaggerated by focal length, which is why it’s particularly important to be aware of where your subject is in the frame when using a wide angle. However, this article is specifically about posing tips to avoid foreshortening.
Further reading: What is focal length and how to use it in photography
Let’s take a closer look at how to avoid foreshortening through posing in portrait photography with examples of foreshortening mistakes.
Foreshortening with body and camera angles
Foreshortening doesn’t occur just with limbs. It can be anything.
On the left the model’s body is foreshortened by her pose. Her legs look odd and her body very short and square. I’d asked her to rest her arm on her knee and lean forward towards me.
As you can see in the image on the right, by angling her even slightly side on to camera her body and leg aren’t foreshortened.
How to improve the pose:
- Ask her to move so that she’s angled slightly sideways, or
- Change your angle by taking a step or two to the side
The easiest foreshortening mistake to make is with arms and legs, because just the slightest limb movement either makes or breaks the pose.
When a shoot is moving fast from one pose to the next you’re bound to get the odd mistake. There are two mistakes with the photo on the left.
The first posing mistake is her arm position. In the image on the left her forearm looks distorted, because of foreshortening. By moving her elbow back slightly and therefore not pointing to camera as much, her forearm is elongated as we can see more of it.
The other posing mistake is that her hand should not be flat on to camera, but that’s a different issue from foreshortening. I just thought I’d mention it, because it bugs me and I don’t want you to think that this is an ideal pose.
How to improve the pose:
- Bring her elbow back even further
- Turn her left hand up so that her palm faces slightly towards to ground
Further reading: Female poses – 9 tips for photographing women
Speaking of elbows. Be very careful about an elbow pointing to camera. Do you see how she has a weird floaty arm coming out of nowhere in the image on the left?
How to improve the pose
- Move the elbow slightly away from the body so you can also see the upper arm.
Here again, in the image on the left her arm looks distorted. Maybe it wouldn’t be as noticeable if it weren’t featured next to a better pose on the right.
This proves my point that sometimes the smallest pose adjustment in portrait photography can make a huge difference.
How to improve the pose
- Moving her right elbow (camera left) ever so slightly away from the body would have eliminated the foreshortening. As a bonus, it would also have extended the line of the leg.
Foreshortening posing tip in a nutshell
The more parallel arms and legs are to the camera plane, the less chance there’ll be of foreshortening limbs.
Foreshortening in photography is also a good thing
I may seem to be contradicting myself here, but like so many things in photography, when a technique is used intentionally, the effect is often good.
When used unintentionally it’s often incorrectly implemented, which results in a poor image.
The same principles apply when foreshortening intentionally.
Why is foreshortening used?
Foreshortening is actually a highly effective and creative composition technique when used correctly, because it’s a form of forced perspective.
Further reading: 5 types of perspective in photography composition
Your camera sees the world differently from you, so take advantage of it. Part of the fun and creativity of photography is capturing the world as we don’t see it in real life.
Foreshortening in photography is a perfect example of this, as you can below.
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