“Tyger, tyger, burning bright”

What does a quote from the famous William Blake poem have to do with portrait photography?  Well, another part of the verse goes, “…could frame thy fearful symmetry?”, and this post is about facial symmetry.

Most of the time we see people’s faces as being symmetrical, but that’s not the case.  In fact, pretty well everyone’s face is not symmetrical to some extent, it’s just that most of the time we don’t notice it, or look for it (unless we are talking to Lembit Opik).

Take a look at this girl’s face…

“Asymmetric face?” by Derek Gale

At first glance she looks nice and symmetrical, but what happens if you look a bit closer?  I used Photoshop to split her face in two (ouch!), and copy each side.  Flipping each side and lining it up, I then made composite images that were either “2 left sides” or “2 right sides”.  You can see some striking differences between the two.

“Asymmetric faces x2” by Derek Gale

If we ignore the differences in her hair and the lighting background, you can see that the image that is made from “2 right sides” is much wider than the image that is made from “2 left sides”.  To me, one of the composite images looks more like the real person than the other image does.  That tells me that there are certain parts of peoples faces that are the key things we use to identify them.

So why does this matter when we’re shooting portraits?  Well, knowing that faces are nearly always asymmetric should make us look much closer, and choose the lighting that best suits the shape of the person’s face.  We should also try and work out what it is about a person’s face that makes it recognisable, and then try to emphasis those features.

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