The Eyes | Windows To The Soul

A novice monk photographed against a pillar covered in gold leaf in a temple in Myanmar.

Portraits | The Search For Flattering Light

The image at the very top of this post was made while on a photography adventure to Myanmar (i.e., Burma) way back in December 1999.

Needless to say the photo was made with film.

I was fortunate enough to be able to photograph this young, novice monk inside a beautiful temple.

The room was a large, dark space. Outside light entered through a window and 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. 

A lovely, delicate black and white    portrait    of a young woman by    window light    in    Melbourne, Australia   .

A lovely, delicate black and white portrait of a young woman by window light in Melbourne, Australia.

Making Long Exposure Portraits

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. The idea is for them to appear to be looking directly at you, the viewer.

This creates a very intimate viewing experience which can only heighten the emotive power of the photo.


A formal portrait of a monk at the Bayon in the Angkor Wat complex near Siem Reap, Cambodia. The scare on his face is the result of being tortured, with a cigarette, by the Khmer Rouge when he was a child.


Why I Love The Square Format

I made the image on a Hasselblad 503 CWi camera and Hasselblad 150 mm Sonnar f/4 lens with Kodak Professional Portra 160VC film rated at and Exposure Index (EI) of 80.

This is a medium format camera that accepts 120 film. Like most film-based Hasselblad cameras images are square and measure approximately 2 ¼ x 2 ¼ inches or 6 cm x 6 cm in size. 

I loved the square format associated with the Hasselblad camera. I found it unbiased and, in the case of head and shoulder portraits, a great way to concentrate attention on the subject.
— Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru
Gary Bosley, Cowangie, Australia

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Sharpness Versus Resolution

The larger film size, compared to 35 mm film, provides better resolution and enlarging capabilities.

This isn’t to say that medium format images are, necessarily, sharper than those made on 35 mm film.

Sharpness is really a measure of contrast created by the separation between very dark and very light areas that exist, either side of edges, within the frame.

Similarly resolution is a measure of the ability to resolve fine details. I think folks often confuse sharpness with resolution.

While I no longer employ film to make photos I have many 35 mm and medium format images in my archives which I hope to share with you here, over time.

A portrait photo of a participant in a photography class I was running in outer Melbourne.

Great Portrait Photos | A Simple Approach

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 point of interest, especially when directed towards the camera.

Body language and gesture are important elements in story telling. However, it is to the face, particularly the eyes, where we look in order to discover a sense of someone’s personality, thought’s and intentions. 

The most compelling portraits usually occur when the subject is looking straight into the camera’s lens and, as a consequence, straight at the viewer.

Intuitively drawn towards the face the photographer places emphasis on the subject’s eyes and makes them the main focal points within the image in the following ways:

  • Uses light to illuminate the eyes

  • Employs critical focusing to drawn attention to the eyes

  • Uses a shallow depth of field (DOF) to de-emphasize other areas of the image

  • Uses composition to place the eyes strategically (e.g., rule of thirds) within the frame

I made this photo of four time world boxing champion Kostya Tszyu in an alleyway in Melbourne, Australia.

Photography Means Writing With Light

In photography light is of critical importance to the success of your images. In portrait photography, except for a deliberate silhouette, you almost always 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, photojournalistic style 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.

Such images 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 essential to the success of the story being told.

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 most images published in that space.

How I Choose To Photograph People

The approach that 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, relative affluence, fashion or access to technology.

The face of innocence. A portrait of a young boy on St. Thomas Mount in Chennai, India.

What Intentions Underpin Your Photography

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 prior to embarking on a major portrait photography project.

Are you making life affirming images that, despite the obvious hardships experienced by the subject in question, celebrate the more positive aspects of life: love, family, community, hard work, sacrifice, affinity with the natural environment or spiritual abundance?

Photographers Need To Make Every Image Count

At some level 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 almost all of the decisions for them.

All they have to do is turn the camera on, point it at the subject and push the button. That’s how they choose to make photos.

What’s more, because batteries are rechargeable and memory cards reusable, so many more pictures are made than in the days of film.

A young woman, wrapped in a hooded jacket, makes for a colorful composition placed against a deep green colored wall in Beijing, China.

Slow Down And Pay Attention To Composition

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.

For example, 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 camera’s Liquid Crystal Display (LCD).

As a consequence 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.

As a result you’ll probably struggle to see the face, let alone be able to judge the moment when the eyes are at their most communicative.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru