Working with people of different heights

How do you balance out height differences in a couple or group? This is my approach to photographing short and tall people together – and why sometimes it’s best not to manipulate height differences at all.

I was recently commissioned to create a panoramic image for a company’s website, featuring everyone in the team. For this kind of job, I typically shoot everyone individually, then combine the images in post-production. This allows for a little manipulation to even out big variances in height for a more pleasing composition. However, I never want to overdo it or have everyone’s heads on the exact same horizontal line – that just looks like a police line up. A little variation looks much more believable.

In a private portrait shoot, such as for a family, I don’t usually try to manipulate heights much, if at all. If one person is a lot taller than everyone else, I might get them to lean on a wall or other structure to reduce the discrepancy a little. But if I adjust the heights too much, then it’s not really a true portrait of them and their family anymore.

Extreme height differences in couples

What about couples? A few years ago, I was booked for a wedding by a four-foot bride who was marrying a six-foot groom. They’d had engagement photos done in Sri Lanka, but the photographer hadn’t known how to handle the height difference, and simply insisted the couple were seated in all of the shots. The couple were disappointed with the result, which was stilted and repetitive.

On their wedding day, I asked them to simply snuggle up. They were an affectionate couple and knew how to fall into each other, which looked really natural and was very true to how they were as a couple.

However, sometimes I get couples where one or both partners are sensitive about their heights, for example when a bride is taller than the groom. If they’ve requested that I manipulate their perceived heights then I’ll use staircases or steps, seat them or turn them in towards each other in different ways to achieve this.

But otherwise I’m not overly focused on bringing people’s faces closer together. Having faces at different heights enables me to create a more interesting and pleasing composition.

Using camera angles to minimise height differences

In the case of this image of Matt and Rob, though, I was challenged to balance out a number of physical differences, including height. To do this, I positioned Matt a step further back than Rob. Then, I lowered my own camera angle until their heights evened up.

How does this work? Put your hands in front of you, palms to the wall opposite and your wrists level with the top of your head. Raise your left hand an inch higher than your right hand to represent the difference in height between Matt and Rob. Now bring your right hand an inch closer. Suddenly, the height difference vanishes. That’s because things that are closer to us appear taller when viewed from a low angle.

Of course, now your right hand might look slightly bigger as it’s now closer to your eyes. Using a long focal length (a 78mm lens in this instance) helps to minimise this effect, whereas a wide angle lens used closer up would make Rob look much bigger than Matt.