How do you get that “Cartoony” look in your pictures?

The #1 reason my Creative Family Portraits are so successful, and the reason I’ve been able to create a business out of creating my Creative Portraits is because of the “look” of my work. Many folks commonly mistake my work to be a “painting” rather than photography, which I’m still trying to figure out if it’s a good thing or not.

From photographers, one of the most common questions I get is, “How do you get that ‘Cartoony’ look in your pictures?”

I gotta be honest, I don’t really know what that “Cartoony” look is and I don’t create my Composites with any “Cartoony” ideas in my head. I don’t know, maybe photographers are saying “Cartoony” because they don’t know any other adjective to use.

Anyway, I’m going to break this sucker down so we can all understand this mystery.

Creative vs. Classic Style Portraits

I thought the best place to start this “funny” conversation was to show you some samples of the two different styles of Family Portraits I create and offer.

Creative Family Portrait

family portrait composite photography of ruff family by dallas portrait photographer jason ulsrud

Classic Family Portrait

Both the Creative Family Portrait and the Classic Family Portrait were created using the same exact technique. The shaping and shading on the elements of the scene and all the characters were accomplished doing the same exact thing.

Does one look more “Cartoony” than the other?

My intentions with each style of Portrait may be a clue as to why one may come across as “Cartoony” while the other not.

My Portrait Intentions

For me, creating Portraits is NOT about taking a nice or pretty picture. In fact, I frequently tell my clients if they’re looking for nice or pretty pictures, I’m not the Portrait Photographer for them.

I would rather shove toothpicks under my fingernails than create nice pictures.

My intentions for every single Family Portrait I create are to inspire Love and Happiness, which means I have to know what each family finds Loving and what makes them happy. This is why I have a Discovery Session with every single family I work with, so I can get a better understanding of who they are.

For families who are freer spirited and want a fun and entertaining Portrait, the Creative Family Portrait is a perfect fit, and for families who are a bit more conservative and traditional, the Classic Family Portrait works better.

One is more Free and Crazy, while the other is more Conservative and Traditional.

Now that we know the Intentions are the same for each Portrait, but how we achieve our intended Love and Happiness is Different depending on the family, let’s move on to what I think you’re here for.

The “Cartoony” Look

Now, let’s talk about what’s obviously Different between my Signature Family Portraits and my Classic Family Portraits, which is the LOOK.

“How do I get that ‘Cartoony’ look in my Composites?”

I think the BEST way to approach this is to tell you what I do technically to every Portrait I create, so we can better pinpoint where this damn “Cartoony” look is coming from.

Technically Identical

Enlarge Heads

I admit, I slightly enlarge the heads of ALL my subjects in ALL my Portraits, but it’s done very subtly because the one thing I hate about Digital Photography and Photoshop, are those cliche manipulations like Caricatures.

I believe this subtle enlargement of the heads has scientific merit based on the homunculus of the human brain. If you want to know more, leave a comment below and start the conversation.


I am NOT a fan of Digital Photography!

Ok, I love Digital Photography, but I’m not a fan of the RAW Digital Image straight out of the camera. Beyond having serious color issues, it looks very flat and unattractive.

So, to give it some depth and dimension, I work a little Photillustrator love on it through a Digital Painting process I’ve developed.

Burn & Dodge

Every single photographer uses Burn & Dodge to add depth to their images, but like with everything in Photoshop, it has its limitations. For this reason, I selectively use Burning & Dodging in a well-managed way so as to not over do it.

Photo Compositing

Every Portrait I create is a Composited image. Sometimes using only a few images, as may be the case in a Classic Family Portrait, or using many images as is always the case in a Signature Family Portrait.

Compositing gives me control over position and adding depth.

Technically NOT Identical

The only thing that is NOT the same about these two types of Family Portraits technically has nothing to do with anything technical. In other words, technically every Portrait I create is technically identical.

What isn’t identical is the Posing and Facial Expressions.

My Signature Family Portraits only work because of the “Actions” of my characters, coupled with the “Expressions” they have on their faces.

“Actions” without “Expressions” would be weird.

Before ever doing any photography, I know exactly the Facial Expressions I’d like each of my characters to have, so when it comes time for the photography, I’m only taking 10 to 20 photos to capture the ONE LOOK I’m trying to achieve.

By reason of deduction, I think it’s clear the “Cartoony” look everyone is asking about is achieved 100% in the photography of the characters and their Facial Expressions.

In Conclusion

I lied when I said earlier I didn’t know how I achieved that “Cartoony” look, but in order to help you better understand that it wasn’t a “technique” thing, I wanted to show you the difference between two very Different Portraits that used virtually the same exact techniques.

So, how is there scientific validation for enlarging the heads in your Portraits?

Feel free to leave a comment below and let’s explore this idea in more detail. You might be Happily Surprised, or Surprisingly Happy.

Comments (2)

Great work Jason, Thanks for sharing some of your techniques. One question I’ve always had regarding composites is masking out subjects/objects from a background. Do you use exclusively Photoshop for this work or do you use a third party plug-in? This “Masking out” task has always been an Achilles heel for me, Getting really good results with hair and whatnot. Thanks again for sharing your techniques!

Hey, Nick… Thanks for commenting. Masking Out objects effectively, or realistically, is one of the most important jobs in Composite Photography. A bad cut out is a sure giveaway! At this point, I do all my own maskings, mostly because I know exactly what I want and I haven’t found anyone yet I can consistently trust. That said, “mastering” any skill requires consistent hard work over time. Repeatedly practicing your masking technique will build neurological pathways and muscle memory to the point you become proficient and consistent at creating quality masks. Because every Composite I create uses 30, up to 90 images, it’s important I have great masking skills. Plus, I get a whole lot of practice all the time.

Practice, practice, practice, and when you’re sick of practicing, practice more. ~ Hope this helps…

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