Photographing Emotion without FacesClient Photography
by Annie Smith
How you tell a story is important. And what people see is a big part of the story.
The face is a treasure trove of human emotion. A big smile, a twinkle in the eye, a furrowed brow — all these expressions convey emotion to the viewer and evoke the viewer’s own emotions and sympathies.
But what if you can’t photograph faces? I faced (pun totally intended) exactly that challenge when I was tasked with a photo shoot at a children’s home in northwest Georgia. To protect the privacy of the kids, the home cannot publish any photos that show faces clearly. Yet I was supposed to provide powerful images that would resonate with viewers and encourage them to support the home’s invaluable ministry.
The way to do this badly is by photographing only from a great distance, which also creates an emotional distance between subject and audience. Or by blurring and pixelating faces, as if the children were frightened witnesses in a true crime documentary. Privacy is protected, but the emotional connection is completely absent.
Here are the techniques I’ve learned for effectively creating powerful images while protecting subjects’ privacy.
How many people do you know who talk with their hands? Hands can be very expressive. Additionally, they just do a lot of stuff. You can clearly show children participating in an activity, expressing themselves, and connecting with other people, just by focusing on their hands.
With subjects facing away from the camera, you can obscure faces while still capturing a lot of body language. Are the shoulders straight or slouched? Are the arms and legs tense or relaxed? It’s called “body language” because it really does communicate!
Photographing from a distance can still produce good images, especially with groups of people. In that situation the distance is focusing on the size of the group rather than the anonymity of the individual subjects.
By focusing the camera on something other than faces, you can still show faces in a safe yet appealing way. Unfocused faces can still reveal smiles, and the angle of an unfocused head can show concentration or playfulness.
In the end, this was a challenging shoot, but a very successful and fulfilling one. When saddled with restrictions on how you normally photograph, the important thing is to take a step back and evaluate what the priorities of the shoot are. Then you can incorporate those restrictions into a new plan for fulfilling the shoot’s overall purpose.
These photographs were shot with the following equipment:
- Cameras: Two Canon EOS 5D Mark III
- Lenses: Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM, Canon EF 50mm f/1.2 L USM, Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 L II USM
- Flashes: Two Canon 650EXII-RT flashes
- Bounce Cards
- Westcott Reflectors
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