Face-portrait Photography



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Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia defines a portrait as;

a painting, photograph, sculpture, or other artistic representation of a person, in which the face and its expression is predominant. The intent is to display the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the person. For this reason, in photography a portrait is generally not a snapshot, but a composed image of a person in a still position. A portrait often shows a person looking directly at the painter or photographer, in order to most successfully engage the subject with the viewer. (

One of my favourite genres in photography is photographing people, their faces in particular. Some, especially if such individuals happen to be at work, without their knowledge while others, I stop to have a small chat with and ask for their portrait to be taken. Few decline my requests but when this happens, I politely accede to their wishes and move on. Refusals, at times even verging on being rude and insolent, are to be expected. I take such rejections courteously and respectfully. At this point, it is noteworthy to mention that I never photograph children without their parents’ or guardians’ consent. Doing so, may come across as being abusive and objectionable. I do my utmost to avoid arguments or at worst, litigations with a displeased parent.

I find it very effective to keep some images on my mobile phone so that I could show my potential subjects some examples. This, very often compels complete strangers to pose for me, as often individuals recognise the artistic value of a well-composed and presented photograph.  I promise confidentiality and anonymity and ask for consent regarding my intentions in posting selected images on the internet – mostly here at ‘The Academy of Photography’ and on my Flickr photo stream. I also promise to send copies.

Incidentally, I’m delighted to state that one of my face-portraits, ‘Stared’ obtained over 11,000 views over the weekend on my Flickr photo stream;

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Face Portrait Photography is understandably about the face. The human face with all its subtleties reveals all! Indeed, age wrinkling in the skin is also promoted by habitual facial expressions. I find this particularly interesting. Am I photographing a young, soft and feminine face or a hard, wrinkled and aged one? The diversities of faces and expressions in between are endless. The face then, is a highly sensitive region capable of a multitude of expressions as stimulated by any of our five senses. With this in mind, I take as many shots as I’m able.

Every portrait tells a story about one’s life and experiences. Is the subject the ‘outdoor’ type, a sailor, a farmer or a builder perhaps or one who spends most of his or her time indoors? It is my job then, as a photographer, to add emphasis to this facial canvass and to as Wikipedia puts it, ‘…successfully engage the subject with the viewer’.  To this effect, as most portrait photographers know, the eyes convey most emotion and visual interest. Accurate focusing on the eyes therefore, or the one nearer the camera, is paramount if a portrait is to engage the viewer.

A comment posted by Thomas Kryton of ‘Digital Paint’ on my Flickr photo stream, sums it up;

“Lovely shot. The intensity of his gaze and the intimate distance create a very powerful portrait….. Great shot”.

I always shoot RAW and in colour, however I find it more appealing to post-process the image with the subject’s facial characteristics in mind. In ‘Stared’, I wanted to emphasize his ripe old age. To this effect, I used a sepia tone and employed devignetting (or a negative-vignette to borrow a Photoshop term) with the intention to further guide the viewer towards the subject’s strong and steady gaze.

Cropping the Face – The Intimate Crop

One very important aspect to my style in face-portraits revolves around how to crop a particular image. I give a great deal of consideration and though about what to include, accentuate or leave out altogether. While there is no right or wrong to this predicament, I like to crop in very tightly to reveal features and add intimacy with the viewer. To this effect and referring to the ‘Stared’ portrait posted on Flickr, flickphoto10, an excellent photographer himself, insightfully comments;

“Beautiful crop Robert; it brings out the strong expressive look in this man’s gaze. I love the treatment too; it suits the subject to a T!”

I call this the ‘Intimate Crop’.  The face-portrait of the elderly man above is one example of this tightly cropped approach. It seems to me that such ‘visual intimacy’ engages directly and strongly with the observer, while also giving space to further appreciation of other visually-vital details. These may be facial wrinkles, creases and rhytides, or as shown here, the pursed lips and straggly eyebrows!

Composition and Camera Settings

Observing the ‘Rule of Thirds’ horizontally and vertically, while positioning the face to one side of the image, added a sense of balance to the photo. I find that the ‘eyes’ balance the ‘nose’ in a visually pleasing manner while the cotton handkerchief knotted around his head frames the face.

Clipping out the left ear and the jaw altogether could be debatable or even objectionable by some, but I personally find this renders the portrait with a higher degree of visual interest. It may be ‘breaking the rules’, but by doing so, I allow the viewer to move beyond the subject’s physical boundaries. This, in my opinion, adds visual power to the photograph, not very easily perceived through the viewfinder.

While there is no ‘best’ portrait lens, I consider my 50mm f/1.4 prime lens a favourite for face-portraits. On a Nikon APS-C image sensor format DSLR, the lens effectively becomes a short telephoto lens as the apparent focal length is increased by 1.5 times, delivering an equivalent of 75mm Full Frame. The sharpness and quality of prime lenses are undisputed. The wide aperture allows shooting in low light without sacrificing shutter speed and also gives very pleasing blurred backgrounds and bokeh.

This image was shot at f/3.2 with a shutter speed of 1/250s at ISO200. I prefer to set the camera to ‘centre-weighted’ metering as I seem to get better results than I normally would using ‘matrix-metering’ setting.

While I hope that you enjoy this image, I would appreciate any comments, observations and interpretations you may wish to share.

Thank you,

Robert Chircop.

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About Robert Chircop