Although the depth of field is a topic that is frequently brought up when discussing portrait photography, most of the time the focus is on the bokeh of the backdrop. However, in this article and the video that accompanies it, I’d want to discuss the depth of field in relation to the face itself and make an attempt to answer the issue of which aperture is ideal for photographing faces.
When Compared to Portraits, Headshots
When selecting an aperture, the first distinction I prefer to establish is whether I will be capturing headshots or portraits. As an additional point of clarification, I consider a headshot to be merely the head and shoulders, whereas I consider anything with a looser cut to be a portrait.
In my studio, I differentiate between headshots and portraits through the lighting that I utilize as well as the postures that I use. In general, the lighting for my headshots is quite straightforward and uncluttered, but the lighting for my portrait work can be rather dramatic and, for want of a better word, creative.
When I am capturing headshots, it is important to me to maintain sharpness throughout the entirety or almost the entirety of the subject’s face for a variety of reasons. As a general guideline. To begin, a headshot is basically a tool, and this is true whether you are photographing acting clients or business clients.
A natural expression should be shown in a headshot, and the person should be photographed when they are at their finest at that particular point in time. This will assist the subject to be recognized and advance in their profession.
Because of these factors, I like to maintain a level of relative sharpness over the entirety of my subject’s face, with the exception of the ears, which can have a little softer focus if necessary. This is because I don’t want my subject’s face to be somewhat blurry.
Because I usually take head-on headshots, doing this is really simple, and the results appear professional every time. I try to avoid what I jokingly refer to as “extreme posing,” which is when photographers angle individuals to such a degree that it appears as if they are falling over a cliff. When I angle my headshot subjects, I typically attempt to do it subtly.
However, even with subtle positioning, it is essential to be aware that if you are shooting with an aperture that is too wide, just one of the subject’s eyes will be sharp, while the other eye would seem blurry. A quick note before I continue: I always focus on the eye that is closest to the lens, or if they are facing head-on, I focus on the right eye. This is something I should have said earlier.
If you do this, however, and shoot wide open when the subject is at an angle, the shallow depth of field can become distracting and take away from the overall effectiveness of the headshot, which is something that we definitely do not want to do and is something that we want to avoid.
I don’t want to give you the impression that taking a headshot isn’t an artistic endeavor, and I don’t want to give the impression that a headshot shouldn’t be creative and eye-catching, but I do want to say that for me personally, a head and shoulders headshot is where I like to strike a balance between form and function. This is not to say that a headshot shouldn’t be creative and eye-catching.
As a result of all of these factors, I often take headshots using a lens that ranges from 70 to 200 millimeters and set it at about 100 millimeters. In this manner, the entirety of the face, or almost all of it, is brought into crisp focus.
It is OK for the ears of my subject to get blurry, as I have already indicated because I do not believe that this detracts from the image, and ears are typically not where you want people to focus in the first place.
It is essential to prevent having one eye that is sharp and the other that is fuzzy as well as having sharp eyes but a hazy nose. The audience is likely to find this to be very weird and distracting.
When I am creating portraits, on the other hand, I toss out all of these “rules” that I have imposed on myself and instead focus on flexing my creative muscles and doing my best to deliver my customer’s photographs that are not only distinctive and captivating but also heavily influenced by the artistic side of my personality.
I do this for a wide variety of clients, including business professionals, actors, musicians, authors, and others like them, and this is where I shoot with the aperture wide open the majority of the time. However, my perspectives on this subject have recently evolved, which I will discuss further on in this section.
The Offense of Coming to a Complete Halt
We photographers are an odd bunch, to say the least. When I take portraits, I almost feel like it’s a creative sin to shut down the aperture since I have a fast, sharp lens (or many of them), and I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks this way.
I shelled out a lot of cash to acquire that wonderful bokeh, and dang it, I want to see it in the photographs that I take! There is certainly nothing wrong with this, and I have incorporated this similar attitude into my portrait work. In fact, up until very recently, I photographed practically all of my portraits with a wide-open aperture.
To be very clear, there are several reasons why I adore this look. To begin, there is a lot more going on in a portrait than there is in a headshot, which means that it is much simpler to get distracted from the subject’s distinctive face in a picture. In this particular situation, employing a narrow depth of field may contribute to the overall drama of the image, while also assisting in maintaining the subordinate parts of the image in their proper places as just that: subordinate.
When I’m working with musicians who are holding instruments, this is one of the things that I’ll do very frequently. Because I want the subject’s face to be the major focus of the photograph, I prefer to take pictures with the subject’s instrument or any other background props blurred out of focus. Second, when I do portraits, I prefer to employ a lot of falloffs, either from the subject to the backdrop or even from the person’s face to their body. This is because I use much more dramatic lighting approaches.
This indicates that the parts of the image that are blurry also have a tendency to be in the darker sections of the frame. As a result, the face, which is the most significant aspect of the image, is highlighted even further. This is something that I will occasionally do even with narrowly cropped portraits when the eyes themselves become the dominant topic of the picture. My article and video on shooting musicians, both of which can be accessed on my website, have some discussion on this topic.
A third factor to take into account is whether or not the subject of your photograph is staring straight into the lens of the camera. When a subject is facing away from the camera, I don’t mind having one eye in perfect focus while the other eye is out of focus since I believe that this creates a more interesting photograph.
Because the spectator is somewhat separated from the situation, almost like an observer from the outside looking in, I believe it contributes to the sense of mystique that is evoked by the image.
The shallow depth of field not only amplifies the drama but also maybe gives a hint of unease to the shot, which only serves to make it more interesting to look at.
Because of this, one of my go-to portrait techniques is what I call the “Political Poster,” which is when I tilt my subject and have them gazing up and out into the horizon, giving the impression that they are pondering their future or getting ready to complete an epic endeavor.
I personally adore striking this stance, and I’ve used it for a wide variety of performers, artists, and even the rare businessperson who wants to project an authoritative and authoritative message through the picture that they provide. As I have already indicated, one of my favorite things to do when photographing this stance is to combine a narrow depth of field with it. In addition, I frequently color grade these photographs, which further improves the impact.
Just Put Your Foot Down (Already)
Before I make it seem like an easy issue and urge you to shoot wide for portraits and stop down for headshots, I want to take the time to warn you that it is not quite as simple as I am making it seem.
As is the case with anything having to do with art or creative endeavors, for every “rule” we are told to follow, there are many examples of people who broke them while experiencing extraordinary levels of success. I usually use the term “rule” in quotation marks because of this, and I believe that teaching people guidelines is more effective than teaching them rules.
Recently, when working with the London portrait photographer Ivan Weiss on a mentorship session, I was given the opportunity to play with varied lighting. This brought to mind the aforementioned fact. The lighting utilizes both continuous and strobe light, and there is no diffusion in the main light that is placed in close proximity to the subject of the photograph.
Because the strobe was too bright, even at its lowest power setting, the arrangement compelled me to do the unthinkable and stop down my lens. The only reason I did this was that the strobe was too bright. In retrospect, I am very happy that I was forced to use a narrower aperture since I am in love with the photographs that were produced.
The graphics are quite crisp, nearly to the point where they have a three-dimensional appearance. When I shoot wide, I don’t get the opportunity to see all of the detail in the background, which is something that I really like.
Because many lenses are at their sharpest when stopped down and can be slightly soft when wide open, the image of my photographer friend John that was shot below at f/10 brought out a very different side of my old EF 50mm f/1.4 Canon lens. This was because many lenses are at their sharpest when stopped down.
The Solution Is Straightforward: It’s Not As Simple As That
I’m sorry to have to break it to those of you who were hoping for a straightforward solution along the lines of “do this, not that.” The self-imposed restrictions that I had been working under were once again forced upon me to be rethought after I was presented with a problem just as I thought I had worked out what aperture works best for portraits and for headshots.
And I’m so glad that I was forced to do something that I would not have done otherwise because it reminded me that so much of what we do as photographers and artists is subjective, and based not only on our own artistic sensibilities but also on the subject we are photographing and the goals we have for the image that we are creating.
And I’m so glad that I was forced to do something that I would not have done otherwise because it reminded me that so much of what we do as photographers and artists is based
Not only this but the way that I shoot now is inextricably linked to where I am in my path as a photographer at this point in time, which is encouraging because every shot that I take is a chance for me to progress as well as reflect on my journey.
This is not to say that I will give up the general guidelines that I use in my headshot and portrait work; however, it should serve as a gentle reminder to you that the most important thing is to keep experimenting, keep challenging yourself, and also try the guidelines that are presented in this article and video too, as it will undoubtedly assist in helping you find your own unique vision as a photographer.