Although depth of field is often discussed in portrait photography, the conversation tends to center around background bokeh. In this article and the accompanying video, however, I would like to address depth of field as it relates to the face itself and attempt to answer the question as to which aperture is best for photographing faces.
Headshots Versus Portraits
The first distinction I like to make when choosing an aperture is whether I am taking headshots or portraits. For clarification, I consider a headshot as head and shoulders only, while a portrait is anything with a looser crop. I also distinguish headshots and portraits in my studio by the lighting I use and poses employed. My headshots tend towards simple and clean lighting, while my portrait work can be much more dramatic and, for lack of a better word, artistic.
As a general rule, when I am taking headshots, I prefer to keep the entire face or almost the entire face sharp, for a number of reasons. First, a headshot is primarily a tool, whether shooting corporate or acting clients. The purpose of a headshot is to show a natural expression and capture the subject at their best in that moment in time, in order to help them get noticed and grow their career. For these reasons, I don’t want my subject’s face to be partially out of focus and prefer to keep the entire face relatively sharp, with perhaps only the ears going slightly soft.Since I often shoot head-on headshots, this is relatively easy to do and always looks good. When I angle my headshot subjects, I usually tend to do it subtlety and avoid what I jokingly refer to as “extreme posing,” which is when photographers angle people to such a degree that they look like they are falling off a cliff!
But even with subtle posing, it’s important to realize that if you are shooting with too wide an aperture, one eye will be in focus and the other eye will be soft. Before I continue, I should mention here that I always focus on the eye that’s closest to the lens or, if they are head on, the right eye. If you do this, however, and shoot wide open while the subject is at an angle, the shallow depth of field can become distracting and take away from the ultimate success of the headshot, which is something we obviously do not want to do. This is not to say that a headshot should not be creative and eye-catching, and also, I definitely don’t want to give you the impression that it’s not an artistic endeavor, but I am saying that for me personally, a head and shoulders headshot is where I like to balance form and function.Because of all of this, I tend to shoot headshots anywhere between f/3.5 and f/5.6, using a 70-200mm lens at around 100mm. This way, the entire face or almost all of it is in sharp focus. As I previously mentioned, it’s fine to have my subject’s ears go soft, as I don’t think it distracts from the image, and ears are usually not where you want people to focus in the first place. It’s important to avoid things like one sharp eye and one blurry one or sharp eyes with a blurry nose. This is just going to look strange and distracting to the viewer.
When I create portraits, however, I throw all of these self-imposed “rules” out of the window and instead flex my creative muscles and do my best to give my clients images that are not only unique and eye-catching, but also heavily influenced by my artistic side. I do this for all kinds of clients, including business professionals, actors, musicians, authors, and the like, and this is where I shoot wide open much of the time, although my thoughts on this have changed recently which I discuss later on.
The Sin of Stopping Down
We photographers are strange creatures. I’m sure I’m not the only one who owns a fast, sharp, lens, or several of them, and almost feels like it’s a creative sin to stop down when taking portraits. I spent a lot of money to get that excellent bokeh, and darn it, I want to see it in my images! There is nothing wrong with this, of course, and I’ve brought this same philosophy into my portrait work, and up until recently, I’ve shot almost all of my portraits wide open.
And to be clear, I love this look for many reasons. First, in a portrait, there’s a lot more going on than in a headshot, so it’s much easier to be distracted from the subject’s unique face. Using a shallow depth of field in this instance can add to the drama of the overall image, while helping to keep the subordinate elements in the image in place as just that — subordinate. This is something I will do quite often when working with musicians who are holding instruments. Since I want the face to still be the primary focus of the image, I like having the instrument, or any other props in the photo, out of focus. Second, I use much more dramatic lighting styles when I am taking portraits and love a lot of falloff from subject to background, or even from the subject’s face to their body. This means that the elements of the image that are out of focus also tend to be in the darker areas of the frame, once again heightening the most important part of the image, the face. I will do this even in closely cropped portraits sometimes, where the eyes alone become the primary subject. I talk about this a bit in my article and video on photographing musicians, which can be found here.A third consideration is whether your subject is looking directly at the camera or not. I find that when a subject is looking away from the camera, I don’t mind having one eye in sharp focus while another is out of focus. In some ways, I think it adds to the mystery of the portrait because the viewer is slightly removed from the scene, almost like an outsider looking in. The shallow depth of field not only heightens the drama but perhaps even adds a touch of uneasiness to the photo, which only makes it more engaging.
For this reason, one of my go-to portrait moves is what I call the “Political Poster," which is where I angle my subject and have them looking up and out into the distance, like they are contemplating their future or ready to accomplish an epic task. I absolutely love this pose, and I’ve used it for all kinds of artists, actors, and even the occasional businessperson who wants to convey a strong, powerful, message through their image. As I mentioned already, I like combining a shallow depth of field with this pose, and often color grade these images as well, which enhances the effect.
Just Stop (Down) Already
Before I make it a simple matter and tell you to stop down for headshots and shoot wide for portraits, I will take a moment to remind you that it’s not nearly that simple. As with anything related to art or creative pursuits, for every “rule” we are given, there are numerous examples of people breaking them with incredible success. This is why I always put the “R” word in quotations, and prefer to teach people guidelines over rules.
I was reminded of this recently while experimenting with mixed lighting during a mentoring session with London portrait photographer Ivan Weiss. The lighting combines both continuous and strobes, with a hard key light positioned close to the subject without any diffusion. The setup forced me to do the unthinkable and stop down my lens, something I only did because the strobe was too bright, even at its lowest power. In hindsight, I’m glad that I needed to use a smaller aperture, because I absolutely love the results. The images are extremely sharp, and almost have a 3D quality to them. I also like seeing all the detail in the backdrop, which is something I don’t get when shooting wide. Since many lenses are sharpest when stopped down, and can be slightly soft wide open, the image of my photographer friend John below which was shot at f/10 brought out a very different side of my old EF 50mm f/1.4 Canon lens.
The Answer Is Simple: It’s Complicated
For those of you who were looking for a simple “do this, not that” answer, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Just when I thought I had figured out what aperture works best for portraits and for headshots, I was once again challenged to rethink the self-imposed rules I had been working under. 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 upon not only our own artistic sensibilities but also on our subject and the goals we have for the image we are creating. Not only this, but how I shoot today is intrinsically tied to where I am on my journey as a photographer at this moment in time, which is encouraging because every photo I take is an opportunity for growth as well as reflection.
This is not to say that I will abandon the general guidelines I use in my headshot and portrait work, but 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 in this article and video too, as it will no doubt aid in helping you find your own unique vision as a photographer.