The Mona Lisa Smile: Learning From Art To Improve Photography

Modern day portrait photographers have all of technology at their disposal, but there are still things to learn from the past. Specifically, there are techniques that can be of particular use when studying some of the past's most famous portraits. Namely, DaVinci's Mona Lisa has several secrets to share, as her sly smile suggests.

Mona Lisa

Mona Lisa

In-Depth Composition Skills

Portrait photographers of today look at the Mona Lisa and see its composition as standard, and simplistic. However, the portraits of today have this standard because of the pyramidal composition DaVinci favored in his paintings.

That is, her hands and arms create a wider base, with the body narrowing as the pyramid shape draws the eyes up to the face and the infamous smile. Modern day photographers do not have to use the pyramidal composition in all of their photographs, but is a classic form and worth a second look.

The Mona Lisa Pose

The pose, as seen from the eyes of modern day photographers is fairly basic, but for its time it was somewhat revolutionary. For the most part, during DaVinci's era, most portraits were stiffly poised and generally a profile instead of head on. In contrast, the Mona Lisa is posed, relaxed with her arms resting on the arm of a chair; a relaxed smile on her countenance.

Also apart from the norm of the time, the Mona Lisa is ¾ length instead of full length, which causes her to fill the frame and not leave room for viewers to be distracted by anything in the context of the painting. Also, there is more of an intimacy between the Mona Lisa and her viewers because she looks eye to eye with her beholder, and doesn't give the feeling of her looking down on the onlookers, or the onlookers looking up at her.

This pose could definitely work in today's portraiture, because the subject can relax, fill the frame and be posed slightly side ways, while gazing toward the camera.

Understanding The Background

While scholars cannot decide whether the blurred, muted background of the Mona Lisa is for fantasy or merely to keep the subject as the focal point, it is said that it does both. The colors are interesting and complimentary to the Mona Lisa, but the focus never strays from her.

This was unusual for the time because most backgrounds and foregrounds in portraits of the time were in sharp focus with great detail. Today, either one is used, depending on the context and how much emphasis is on the subject. The lesson from DaVinci's background is simply that the background is important and can either compliment or detract from an otherwise lovely portrait.

Using A Proper Lighting System

The Mona Lisa appears to be lit on her face as it takes on a golden glow, as well as her hands and the reflection and shadows off the sleeve of her gown are also aglow. Modern day photographers should think about how to best light their subjects, to draw the eye to key parts of a portrait as well as create depth and dimension along with some interesting shadows.


Once again, in contrast to most portraits of the time, the Mona Lisa is clad in dark fabrics, but the lace work and the textures are very intricate. This was unusual because most portraits painted at the time had bright colored clothing and jewel-bedecked women.

The Mona Lisa wears no ornamental jewelry to distract from her as the focal point. The rather obvious lesson a modern day photographer could learn from the Mona Lisa is to carefully decide whether the clothing on the subject in your photograph is distracting or complimenting the subject.

Framing 101

The Mona Lisa was though to have been cut down a bit when framed, so the balls behind her are thought to be pillars, which would have framed her as the subject of the portrait and would be another technique to draw the eye toward the subject. Framing is still used today for the exact same reason. It is not beneficial for every portrait, but it certainly is still used a great deal.

The Mona Lisa is still mysterious to many, as there are many questions and few answers. This little bit of intrigue can be a great lesson to modern photographers, because centuries later, the Mona Lisa is still a study of contradictions. What photographer wouldn't want his or her images to stir up such strong sentiments for centuries to come?