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Photographing Faces

By Kenneth C. Hoffman

Every emotion and depth of feeling can be shown on the human face. To capture that fleeting moment on film is a challenge fit for the most talented of photographers. How can the average photographer improve his chances of recording that one-in-a-lifetime image or at least improve the ratio of interesting, true life images to the unusable, 'too-bad-she-turned-her-head snapshots?

First you must prepare your camera for the task. If the social event you are to attend is indoors, an ISO setting of 400 or 800 is recommended. A bounce flash head adds another dimension to the lighting and at the same time freezes that portion of the action not lit by strong ambient light. A fifty per cent mix of bounce electronic flash and available light usually allows a high enough shutter speed to freeze most action. A shutter speed of 1/30th is a minimum speed for hand held cameras and 1/4 sec is acceptable for a supported camera. A tripod is definitely preferred for absolutely sharp photos, but can be clumsy and obtrusive for candid work. The recent invention of the stabilized lens or CCD will add two or three lower shutter speeds without blurring. Using doorways, railings, furniture, or just the two-elbows-on-a-table method is helpful in steadying your shot.

A medium telephoto zoom lens simplifies the task of cropping in the camera. Preferable would be an F2.8 28 - 105mm zoom lens or closest equivalent. Longer telephoto lens settings are difficult to keep cropped, and require a higher shutter speed. Wider lenses introduce too much distortion for rendering the human face naturally and produce too much busyness in the composition.

Once the camera is set on the proper settings and the flash (with newly charged batteries) is bounced backwards and to the upper left portion of the room, you are ready to record those faces. In a room with low ceilings, a flash bounced straight up and used with a telephoto setting on the lens is acceptable and you are now ready to record those faces. Two or more faces in the picture should be relating to each other or to a third party. No one should be looking at the camera or the photographer. Six to ten feet away from the action is sufficient for your compositional purposes and presents a buffer zone that protects you (the photographer) from being included in the conversation. Individual faces should almost fill the view finder for good impact.

Tune your mind to an awareness of uninhibited laughter, serious facial expressions showing concentration, moments of love with hugs and kisses and hands touching. Any and all stiff frozen faces staring into the camera waiting for the flash to go off should be avoided. This is not to say you can't apportion some time to group pictures and memory shots since they are great to have, too. Try to anticipate reactions and make several exposures in a series. You can always delete the missed shots. Be patient, keep moving and be ready to move to another location if you are discovered. Of the hundreds of images you take, you will only be remembered for that one great shot.

At your first viewing of the photographs, edit them mercilessly, removing all photos which do not meet your standards of acceptable emotional content, composition, facial expression or focus. With any luck, you'll be the talk of the town.

Three hundred photos per wedding, fifty weddings a year, thirty years - but who's counting?

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