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Photographing Faces – How to Get the Best Portraits
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Photographing Faces – How to Get the Best Portraits

It isn’t a large canvas, the human face, but even with the same number of component parts (two eyes, a nose, one mouth) the result is limitless variation. Arguably the first thing we remember seeing in life, and the most memorable element of everyone we meet throughout our years, it should not be surprising that some photographers choose to shoot faces exclusively.
Farmer photograph

Old-time photo equipment required lengthy exposures, often in studios, to obtain high-quality portraits. Thankfully, since the days of Kodak, candid portraiture the capturing of a face quickly, or even on the sly, or after a verbal request along a hiking trail high in Peru’s Andes Mountains (as in the photo above) has been a fun and comparatively effortless pursuit of almost all us travel photographers (that’s you and me and almost everyone these days) who wish to return home with the memorable faces they encountered on a trip.

I’ve looked at hundreds of these faces shot by guests over the years when they’ve emailed me their images. While most shots perform the function of having recorded the face that they remember, time and again I’ve heard from them some dissatisfaction with the results. There’s general discontent at their photos do not provide what they remembered. They complain that the faces are in focus but they just aren’t as arresting as they felt it to be when they took the shot.

Almost always when I’ve heard this and looked again at their shots I’ve written back that in my opinion (and I hurry to add that it’s just the personal opinion of a fellow snapper) the faces lack the power and immediate fascination lent them by one simple quality proximity.

Farmer in Cusco portrait

It’s probably happened to you. You’ve seen a remarkable mug on a human or animal. You take a shot. Yet when you look at the picture you’ve snapped you find you’ve lost what attracted you in the first place the feeling of connection that comes when you’re up close, when every line by the eyes tells you of decades spent smiling as with the gentleman above who kindly stopped for me on a sidewalk in the old Incan capital city of Cuzco, Peru. The full-size photo on my computer screen lets me see those smile/squint-against-the-sun lines individually, just as I remember them. The strong, hawk-like nose is prominent, and each curling white beard hair stands out against the man’s brown-skinned chin. All this with just a shutter click.

Are you as happy with your people pictures? If not, chances are good that the reason isn’t the difference in our cameras at least not in these two instances, for both snaps above were taken with a wide-angle lens similar in focal length to that of many point-and-shoots. The difference is very likely the human, good-hearted tendency not to be in a stranger’s face with your lens when trying to take a shot.

How do I avoid antagonizing strangers and still get a powerful close-up? There are two techniques that I employ, the first of which is to move farther away physically and let my zoom telephoto lens get close instead. Here’s an example:

Guest in Africa portrait

I used my favourite “long” lens, an expensive and weighty 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom, to frame this good face from many paces away before he saw me, for I wanted to be ready to catch that first (and usually the best, most natural-looking) smile. We’d completed a tough hike through the Andes an hour or more before this shot. After being restored with coffee and cakes, this man had taken a chair on the lodge lawn to enjoy his pipe and the views down the Salkantay Valley to the high mountains beyond.

When I first noticed him outside and threw up my camera to pull him into view, I immediately liked the paralleling diagonals of the back of the wood chair, the pipe stem, and the front of the blue shirt. I tried to hold these in place as I stepped carefully forward, hoping I wouldn’t fall into a hole or bump into a wandering llama. All would have been ruined if the good guy had, justifiably, turned toward me with a frown for bothering him when he was trying to relax. But this was several days into the trip, and by then I usually have a good feel for my quarry. I doubt I”™d be as nice with me around all the time, but very few of you over the years have responded with rocks. Thanks.

Choosing Your Focus and Depth of Field
Okay, let me add just another note or two about this picture before I get back to shooting faces with point-and-shoots (or an equivalent wide-angle lens on a larger camera body). Notice that the background is completely blurred, allowing our eye to pick up the details of face, hair, pipe, glasses, and hand very easily. This was a conscious decision on my part before I began my approach. After shooting for a while, learning photography basics, and really looking at your pictures (at the ones you like and peering even harder at the ones you don’t, and then asking yourself why you feel the way you do about them), you will learn how to “paint” into photos the effects you like and avoid the ones you don’t. It’s a delight.

So, having already decided, before I took the shot, to “drop out” the background (make it a complete blur) I focused precisely on the face, or rather on that exact part of the face that must be in focus to look “right” to the viewer. That part is, of course, the eyes. If it’s impossible to get both eyes in focus, and it often is when shooting with a long telephoto, it usually looks more natural to have in focus the eye that’s closer to you. Try it both ways and you’ll see.

The sun was back behind the mountains, so my settings of 1/200 shutter speed at an ISO (film speed) of 400 allowed me to “open up” my lens completely to its maximum aperture (lens opening) of f/2.8. As many of you already know, the wider the lens opening the less that is in focus in your shot. Had I wanted to put the background into focus I would have had to “sacrifice” shutter speed (that is, shoot at a slower shutter speed), so that I could move to a higher-number f/stop. The higher the f/stop number, the smaller the lens opening, and the greater your “depth of field” (that which is in focus) in the photo. These are inexact comparisons, but still helpful: think of f/2.8 as the size of the top of a juice glass; when in this position light pours through the lens to bathe your film or digital sensor. Think of the other end the tiniest opening of your lens (f/32 on my zoom, f/22 on many lenses) as the top of a pink eraser on a pencil.

Are you point-and-shoot photographers ready to scream? That is, if you haven’t already quit reading? Photography basics are terribly confusing when approached in this manner, and in another piece I”™ll suggest a photo primer that does a wonderfully easy job of explaining the few photo basics that most of us find confusing at first. But I’ve added the little bit above because of the wide-ranging photography knowledge base of the guests I’ve met over the years on ALA trips. I don’t want to bore those who know more, nor drive away the less-informed through confusion. I hope you will forgive me and again for throwing something in which will seem elementary to some and obscure to others.

Photo Cropping Tips
I want to point out another compositional element in the shot of the pipe-smoker (who is an amazingly strong hiker, I should add), before we move on to the somewhat candid portrait of the smiling lady in the ball cap below (“somewhat” because she caught me aiming at her from afar, and sweetly smiled). Earlier, I mentioned the man’s hand. Can you guess why I included it in the photo? No, not “because it was there.” With the lens I was using I could have chosen not to have it in the picture, and with photo software (even some that is free on the web) one always has the choice these days to crop a shot as one wishes.

You’ll find the answer by looking again at the photo and keeping track of your eye movement. It’s natural for us to do with paintings and pictures of faces what we do in real life look first into someone’s eyes. My own first glance, if I’m recalling it correctly, then moved to the man’s great smile, and next toward the top right corner. There it banked, like a ball on a pool table, following the curve of the head and diagonally along the line of the shirt and chair until it ran into and was banked back north again‚ by the hand. The knuckles keep the eye from floating out of the picture. The fingers send one’s gaze back in the direction of the eyes, propelled by the long and graceful slight silver curve of the pipe stem.

Don’t believe me? Okay, block out his hand with your own, or a sheet of paper. It’s still a wonderful, natural smile, but to my eye it’s much less of a photo. It doesn’t “work.” Or at least it doesn’t work as well. For similar reasons, the first photo of the man in the red sweater works much better to my eye than does the second, the gentleman I shot in Cuzco. Why? Because of the almost perfect triangle formed by the top of the first man’s hat, elbows, and strong hands. Google up a quick picture of Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” and you’ll see that same eye-pleasing balance of a triangle. I won’t go into the details of the “Golden Ratio” or “Golden Rectangle” theories involved, primarily because I haven’t a clue about them. I remember, but only vaguely, hearing the terms in a high school or college art class, but I’ve got a lousy memory for such things anyway. My guess is that they’re involved.

But I do know just what you know, and that is when I like a photo or painting, and when I don’t. I can’t always figure out why until much later, often when I’m shooting. Or when I ask someone else. There’s nothing like a pair of fresh eyes when it comes to seeing something more (or less!) in a picture. This applies to liking something too some element or effect or technique in a shot, but not being able to name it. So what? It makes discussing the point with someone else a bit easier, but not knowing that the pleasing meandering line (say, of a river) in a shot is generically referred to as a “Hogarth’s Curve” won’t keep you from capturing it in your photos. And people for centuries were liking the feel of paintings that employed the “Rule of Thirds” before anyone applied the term. We’ll run through a bunch of these in another Photo Corner, but in the meantime don’t let anyone high-hat you because you can’t put a name to a feeling. It’s feelings, our emotions, that produce the best pictures. Memorize every art book and photo manual in the world, but if you’ve got a dead eye and a pallid heart your shots will show it.

Ah I got off subject, yet again. I was moving toward telling you why I don’t like the photo of the second man as much as the first. I crouched a bit when shooting him so that I could have the blue sky on either side, and I do like that pretty blue color.

But my eyes fly off the shot in each direction, right out of the sky and away from the subject, the man himself. If I’d had time to turn the camera vertically or grab another lens, but I didn’t. And if I crop this particular shot I end up with too small a file for my liking. Still, there is emotion present. And there is, of course, that wonderful fissured face, each line and ravine and gully hinting to those who look closely of the years and toil that created them. I love the face, but I only like the shot.

woman posing with Austin Adventures hat

You’ve heard the line (from a song I think) Smile, and the world smiles with you. Look at the lady in the ball cap (another hiker in Peru), and you’ll feel the truth in that line. Don’t ever underestimate the power of a single face to convey the emotion you’re looking for, be it the happiness of a trip with loved ones and new friends, or the pathos of war.

There’s so much more to say about shooting faces, and we can return to this subject if any of you wish to (and I hope you will). But at present I will only supply the second of the two techniques I employ to “avoid antagonizing strangers and still get a powerful close-up.” (Bet you thought I’d forgotten!) I’ve already discussed the use of long lenses, such as my favorite telephoto zoom for “sniping” from a distance, which allows me to compose my shot more carefully before I squeeze off. Again, these lenses are great for allowing you not to invade someone’s “personal space” or some animal’s, as in this shot!

Leopard close-up

Use a long enough lens and after a while a person or animal will become bored with you:

photo of Leopard yawning

– and will return to its natural pose and let you get the shot you want.

Photographing Strangers: How to Get a Good Close-Up
But if the distance is too great, or your telephoto not long enough, or if you’ve decided (as most people do for very good reasons) that adventure trips are about the adventure, not about photographing the adventure, and you’ve therefore brought along only a lightweight point-and-shoot, how do you get those close-ups?

The answer is that you don’t, at least in the case of a leopard. But with your own species it’s usually amazingly easy. Honest. I’ve been doing it for decades, and it even works when you’re abroad and don’t know the language, which for me unfortunately is everywhere that English isn’t spoken (I had years of Spanish and a couple of Vietnamese, but like math and science and full-time work, and, for that matter, marriage, it didn’t stick). Don’t think of photographing someone as something that you do to the other person, but instead as a joint effort. This will be conveyed in your face, in the honesty of your desire, and in your eagerness to capture something that you value. The results are often remarkable.

I’ve griped more than most about digital dust and the post-production time involved when shooting digitally. But I’m the first to admit that the ability to show someone the shot you took only a split second before is a fantastic tool for getting permission to take a second, more carefully composed photograph. You snap the first, you look at it, you show it to your “model” (who usually will enjoy seeing him- or herself), and in words or at least demeanor reflect that you like the result but you’d really really like to do better if given a second chance. (Note: It’s slimy not to be genuine in this. And most people will know if you’re faking. If you don’t really like people you should consider shooting landscapes instead.)

Don’t think of the first shot as a throw-away, for it could be the only one you’re allowed. (I forgot to mention, I think, that you’ve of course asked permission before even the first snap, right?) A bus could pull up behind your model in the meantime and ruin the effect you were looking for. But that second shot is often a sweet one in close-up, join-me-in-this-pursuit face shooting, when a fellow human has joined in your effort to preserve what I remember most of all from the nearly fifty countries I’ve visited. Not the bustling cities, or tranquil countryside, nor even the lovely winding rivers or grandest mountains. What I remember most of all is mugs.

Photograph of old woman smiling
Two very fast additional tips: In Third World countries always carry coins. You can’t object to the poor taking advantage of one of the few opportunities they have of obtaining some change. Even if I pay for the privilege, I still work hard to engage the person in the communal effort. I get far better photos as a result and we both have a whole lot more fun.

And the second tip: Don’t be brokenhearted and give up photography or the delight of shooting faces if you’re turned down now and again when you beg for a shot. If you sincerely want the photo your desire will come across, and most often with humans anyway they’ll say yes. With animals you’re sometimes out of luck.

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