• Article Index

  • Learn Photography

  • Family Portraits

  • Advertisements

The Eyes – Windows to the Soul


Hasselblad 503 CW camera and Hasselblad 150mm Sonnar lens with Kodak Professional Portra 160VC film

Hasselblad 503 CW camera and Hasselblad 150mm Sonnar lens with Kodak Professional Portra 160VC film

Even at a distance, occupying a small part of a larger scene, a face is like a beacon for the viewer’s attention. The face is a natural focus of interest, especially when directed towards the camera. And, while body language and gesture are important elements in story telling, it is to the face, particularly the eyes wherewe look in order to discover a sense of someone’s personality, thought’s and intentions.


It is the face, often isolated from its surroundings, which can make the most compelling portrait. Intuitively drawn towards the face the photographer uses light, critical focusing, shallow Depth Of Field (DOF) and composition (placement of the eyes within the frame) to highlight the eyes and make them the main focal points of image.

In photography light comes first. In portrait photography, except for a deliberate silhouette, you need to ensure that the face is lit. But what sort of light is most appropriate to your desired outcome?

There is a particular hard-edged style, prevalent in photojournalism, that aims to highlight subject character and the hardships of life by photographing under hard, flat light. This may be influenced by the fact that it was under such light that the photographer first noticed the subject. If well made the resulting images can be strong, moody and compelling. They may not present a pleasing likeness of the subject but, as they are not made for the subject or their mother (as is the case with commercial portrait photography) that may not be considered important. Such photography is made for a wider audience, such as a magazine, and it is the editor and, by implication, the readership that determines the look of any published images.

The approach I prefer is to make beautiful, life affirming images. While I don’t hide notions of poverty, illness or old age I choose to highlight the positive aspects associated with The Human Condition. And these aspects know no boundaries of race, gender, politics, religion, technology or relative affluence.

While both approaches can produce compelling images, the decision as to what message is to be communicated is largely up to the photographer. It might be worthwhile to consider your own intentions. Are you are making life affirming images that, despite the obvious hardships of that individuals life, celebrate the more positive aspects of life: love, family, community, hard work, sacrifice, nature, spiritual abundance?

In fact we all make decisions every time we squeeze the camera’s shutter release. Because so many folks don’t understand how to use their camera properly, they give into the machine by letting it make all the decision for them. All they have to do is turn the camera on, point it at the subject and push the button. What’s more, because batteries are rechargeable and memory cards reusable, so many more pictures are made than in the days of film. Are we now less accountable than when there was a cost associated with every single exposure?

As the process of making pictures has become so fast and easy there are, as a consequence, negative aspects that need to be considered.

The speed and relative cost advantages associated with digital cameras can have an adverse affect on composition. The quicker you are at pushing the button, the less time you have for careful, considered composition. This is particularly the case when holding the camera away from your body and composing on the LCD screen. Your ability to steady the camera and, thereby reduce camera shake by holding it up against your rock hard skull, is lost. What’s more direct light and reflections hitting the screen makes it very hard to actually see, with any certainty, what it is that’s right in front of you. You’ll struggle to see the face, let alone be able to judge the moment when the eyes are at their most communicative.

The image above was made while on a photographic adventure to Myanmar (Burma). I was fortunate enough to be able to photograph this young novice monk inside a beautiful Buddhist temple. The room was a large, dark space. Outside light was diffused as it reflected off gold leaf covered pillars, teak walls and floors. I positioned the novice in such a way that allowed the soft, reflected light to illuminate his face. Nevertheless illumination was low. I used a tripod and a 4 second exposure to make this image.

One of the ways to both ensure the subject doesn’t move and that you can achieve such great eye contact is to hold one finger up, in front of your face and parallel to your lens. The finger becomes the front point in a triangle with your own eyes as the back points. I find this technique both holds the subject’s attention and gives them something to focus on.

I made the image on a Hasselblad 503 CW camera and Hasselblad 150mm Sonnar f4 lens with Kodak Professional Portra 160VC film. This is a medium format camera that accepts 120 film. Like most Hasselblad cameras images are square and measure approximately 2 ¼ x 2 ¼ inches or 6cm x 6cm in size. I love the square format. I find it unbiased and, in the case of head and shoulder portraits, a great way to concentrate attention on the subject. The larger film size, compared to 35mm film, provides better resolution and enlarging capabilities.

Finally, composition with such cameras is improved due to the following:

  •       There are only 12 frames per roll of film, so you think more carefully before pushing the button
  •       The camera produces a physically larger image and, as a consequence, you have a much larger frame in which to compose the scene
  •       The camera is often used on a tripod, a fact that tends to slow the photographer down allowing them to pay more attention to all manner of image design elements, subject gesture and expression

© Copyright All Rights Reserved

Glenn Guy, Blue Sky Photography


6 Responses

  1. Gotta love that 160VC. Nice shot.


  2. Hi Chris,

    Right on! 160VC is my all time favorite portrait film. I never found a print film that delivered better skin tones. Now, with digital capture, I have to knock back the saturation to manage the overly hot skin tone digital cameras seem to produce.

    The novice monk featured in this portrait was a really sweet kid. I’m really happy that I was able to make the portrait. It’s a great memory that I hope symbolizes the strength of the people of Myanmar and the purity of their religion.

    All the best,


    All the best,


  3. Wow, a 4 second exposure?! I would never think to try anything even approaching one second when photographing a person, even with a tripod. Great job!

  4. It is a favorite of mine and a day full of great memories. I’m really happy you enjoy it so much.


  5. “The approach I prefer is to make beautiful, life affirming images. While I don’t hide notions of poverty, illness or old age I choose to highlight the positive aspects associated with The Human Condition. And these aspects know no boundaries of race, gender, politics, religion, technology or relative affluence”

    This is a terrific line. I enjoyed it very much. Thanks for sharing. (I’m amazed that you did a 4 second exposure)

    Jon Ball

  6. Hi John,

    Thanks so much for your kind feedback. Low light photography with a medium format blad and ISO 160 film rated at 80 necessitated such a long exposure. With no common language the trick was to communicate that to the subject.

    All the best,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: