How to Take a Portrait Without a Face

I love a challenge.

And that’s exactly what I got when I was contacted by a new client looking for a portrait. Not just any portrait, mind you, a portrait where I couldn’t show his face. Wha?

Why would someone want to pay good money for a portrait where you couldn’t see their face? Was he in the witness protection program? Nope. Maybe he was horribly disfigured in a pie eating contest and was looking for a photo to put up on some dating site. Uh-uh.

Turns out he is one of the top voice over actors in Hollywood. He needs a headshot for his agents to send to producers and directors, but he doesn’t want his appearance to influence their mental image when they listen to his VO demo.

So how do you take a portrait without seeing the person’s face? Let’s run down some of the possibilities:

  • Silhouette: Sounds French. Oui! Oui! I could photograph him in shadow and light the background. Problem solved. Wait. Dig deeper.
  • Crop: I could just crop his head right out of the frame. No. Then it would be a neck shot instead of a headshot.
  • Obscurification: This time honored technique dates back to when photographers roamed the earth on the backs of dinosaurs. If you’ve never used it, tighten your shoe laces because I’m going to knock your socks off. How to use obscurification: put something between the lens and your subject.
  • DOF: Not Doh! like when you hit your head on a door or realize you dropped the last ice cream sandwich on the floor. DOF: Depth Of Field. You know, like when you use a wide aperture so only a small portion of the image is in focus.

Sure I could use any of these techniques, but I decided to use all of them.

A word of caution, if you plan on using a very shallow DOF (I ended up using an aperture of 1.6) you’re probably not going to be able to use your big guns (strobe wise) because the light will be too powerful even at the minimum output. So I broke out my Canon 580ex IIs because they aren’t as bright as studio strobes. You can dial the 580s down to 1/128th without much fuss. To add to the trickiness I was going to snoot a beam of light across his face, mostly on his mouth since this image is going to represent him for his voice over work. Get it? Voice = Mouth. You probably figured that out. Anyway, because I needed to get the light nice and tight, I had to move it really close. That meant that even dialed all the way down to 1/128 it was still TOO MUCH LIGHT coming from the key strobe. Did I cry? Okay, maybe a little, but then I popped on an ND gel. It’s like the ND filter I wrote about, only the gel knocks down the light coming out of the strobe instead of knocking down the light going into the lens. Now I had a range of light I could work with.

Silhouette: An orange gel on anther 580 for the background easily cut an outline around my subject.


Crop: I was using my lovely Canon 85mm 1.2 — this lens has been the key ingredient in making the creamiest images I’ve ever taken. However, I was going in so tight for the crop I had to slap a 12mm extension tube on there so I could focus from that distance. Getting in close not only gave me the crop I wanted, it also shortened the depth of field even more (which was good in this situation), and gave me a more intimate feel which can be a very nice thing to have.

Obscurification! What could I put between his face and the camera? It needed to add to the visual story of the photograph, look interesting, but not be too distracting. We went with a Neumann microphone. They are works of art in themselves and I think it really fit what we needed.

Add a little direction and some acting and there you have it. That’s how you take a portrait without a face.

The final image:

The lighting setup.

Take a listen to the impressive vocal stylings of VO master Mr. Taylor.

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5 Comments

  1. Excellent job! One question, with what program you draw that lightning set-up picture?

  2. Thanks! The photo lighting setup was drawn in Illustrator. I’ll keep using that because once I build an object I can reuse and resize it. Eventually I’ll have little versions of all of my gear and it won’t take that long to illustrate a set up. This first one took a while. :)

  3. Sweet image mate very impressed, you got some imagination there

  4. Dear Mr. K,

    I am so impressed with the way you express your mind and embed every technical knowledge inside your picture.

    Thank you.

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