The Mug Shot

The Mug Shot

This article was originally printed in the winter 2001 issue of JEA’s magazine Communication: Journalism Education Today.

Using light and camera angles to your benefit can help when you’re assigned to take THE MUG SHOT

by Bradley Wilson

Photos by
Zach Long, Mike Shepherd, Jeanel Drake
and Kelly Glasscock

LET’S FACE IT. Sometimes there will be no other alternative for a photo than a mug shot of a person.

But let’s face another fact: taking high-quality mug shots means spending a few minutes choosing a simple background and the right lighting as well as working with the subject to produce pleasant pictures.

Mug shots need not be bad. They are easier to take than any other photograph – even with a point-and-shoot camera. Because the lighting conditions are completely controllable and the subject is stationary, the photographer has her choice of shutter speeds and apertures. As usual, low-numbered f/stops result in a lower depth-of-field and blurry background. Because the photographer can control the location of the photo, there is no excuse for having poles growing out of people’s heads.

The hardest part about taking mug shots is getting the subject to cooperate. The first step is selecting the background, a plain one in light without shadows. Ask the person to stand at least three feet away from the nearest object, particularly when using flash, so there are no distracting shadows or background objects. Plain, neutral-colored walls make the best backgrounds.

Then make sure the subject is not standing with shoulders parallel to the film plane; ask the individual to turn either the right or left shoulder towards the camera about 45 degrees. This lends an air of informality to the photograph. Ask the subject to point his or her nose toward the camera and make sure the person is not tilting his or her head or squinting. Then shoot the picture.

For a routine column head or forum picture, taking better mug shots will improve the look of the page.

Window light
The light from a window, with a dark background, often creates a pleasing photograph. In this case, available light in the room filled in the shadows on her face.
Fill flash
On a partly-cloudy day, the use of low-powered flash with a non-distracting background often gives excellent results. The detail in the eyes and hair and the body angle create a pleasing picture.
The mayor
It was a simple mug shot for a column head in the newspaper, seemingly not worth much time. By taking a few minutes to get the right lighting and simple background, the picture will look better. The photographer for this photo used a telephoto lens to help separate the subject from the background.
Harsh sunlight
On a sunny day, the sun may create distracting shadows. To alleviate the problem, find an area of solid shade such as under a tree or beside a building.
Direct flash
Using a flash fills in the shadows under the eyes but creates more distracting shadows. Try moving the subject away from any background so the shadow will not have anything to fall on.
Poles growing out of heads or objects in the background may distract from the point of the photo: the person. Because it is easy for both the subject and the photographer to move, there is no good excuse for distracting backgrounds.
Bounced flash
Angling the flash to bounce off a white ceiling or wall simulates natural lighting while filling in many of the shadows around the eyes.
When the flash is pointing directly to the side of the person’s face, as when the camera is turned vertical with direct flash, one side of the face will be too light. But light from a window or bounced off a wall can provide pleasing sidelight.
When the background is lighter than the subject, a camera’s meter can be tricked into underexposing the subject’s face. Move up close and determine the accurate exposure for the face and then back up, keeping the exposure the same.
Light from above
Powerful overhead lighting creates distracting shadows that can be a particular problem on stage.
Light from below
This type of unnatural light gives an eerie feel to photographs and obviously distracting shadows.
Shooting from above
A feeling of inferiority is created when the photojournalist stands above the subject. This angle can, however, help to hide distracting objects in the background.
Shooting from below
This angle gives the subject a sense of dominance. When using a light background, remember to compensate for backlighting. Expose for the


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