Breaking the Rules: Don't Be Obsessed With Heads

Breaking the Rules: Don't Be Obsessed With Heads

Including all of the person's head in your photograph is considered to be one of the basic rules of portraits. Clipping off the top of someone's head is considered a rookie mistake. However, I want you to consider taking a different approach to that old standard.

I believe that aesthetically, contextually, and often emotionally, something interesting happens when you crop out the face or have only the face in your photo. The whole of the person isn't fully revealed. There is a certain mystery that presents itself. We wonder what's happening. It makes us think. As a result, I happen to think that cutting heads off is just fabulous. Allow me to explain.

Photographers are a funny bunch. If we are not bending over backwards to get rainbows, reflections, or animals into our frames then there is one thing that we are certainly drawn to: faces. It's understandable. We are biologically programed to look at faces. Especially the eyes, the whole "window to the soul," are usually the first thing that we look at when shown an image of a person or even an animal. That's how we recognize people. Faces are interesting and unique. It's hard to identify someone just by looking at, say, their knee caps but I bet that you could pick out your best friend if only shown photos of noses. Right?

The Guillotine Filter

I remember when I first did this. I saw a scene, and it looked good in the viewfinder, but then for reasons that I don't remember, at the last second I just tipped the camera down a bit and cropped out the guy's eyes leaving only his chin at the top of the frame. I thought it was hilarious. I giggled like a little kid. But then the more that I looked at the image, the less of a novelty it seemed, and I realized that what I had done was strengthen the photo by not including all of the guy's face. I showed it to my assistant and she really liked it. Me being me, I called it The Guillotine Filter. I've been doing this for about six or seven years now to make images like the one below.

Granted, there is a time and place for this sort of image, but when it works, I believe that it really adds something to the frame. For the record, all the images that I'm showing here are full frame, I don't crop them in post, and I rarely crop anything in general. Rather, they are seen this way in the viewfinder at the moment.

Headless photos, or at least eyeless ones, are possibly unsettling but read as interesting. By their very nature they cause us to react to the image in other than normal ways. The human-ness becomes clouded. Consider this frame below.

It's not actually headless as there is a head under that orange helmet, but because of the angle that the camera is at and the position of his face and body, it's almost an abstract while at the same time being recognizable as a photo of a person. I believe that when you take an image past the obvious and towards something that makes you spend a second, and think about what you are seeing, to take it in, and synthesize it all into meaning, then you are moving from simple image making into the world of "art."  Now, I'm not saying that the above photo should be considered "art," but it does make you think and look. If we could clearly see the face, our eyes would instantly go there, and our impression of the tones and forms in the image would be secondary to identifying it to be about an ironworker.  

Eyes Only

Conversely, in the image below I left only the eyes on up. I went in tight and wide to show the brewer in his environment, but with a very different feel than if I showed more of his face. The inside of the building was very tall, and to me this showed a sense of space and height, but the proximity of the person to the camera kept the big place feeling personal. It feels direct; the guy is right there with me but the environment has a presence as well.

I remember seeing a frame like this many years ago from the legendary war photographer James Nachtway. It was just the eyes and top of head of a little boy showing the devastation of the city he lived in during the Balkan War of the 90s. I initially thought that it was beautiful, haunting, and a very strange way to frame it all. But that photo stuck in my brain and definitely affected my way of showing people and their world. Thanks Jim!

Let's Lop the Head Right Off, Shall We? 

Consider the photo below. Without any face in the foreground we can see that there is obviously a subject. The hand has to be attached to a person here, right? Our eyes focus on the hand and what it is doing, what that symbol represents. Because it is both sharp and somewhat centered, our eye goes there first and then to the out of focus faces in the background, which gives the rest of the photo context. If I had a sharp face in the foreground, the images wouldn't be both as subtle and direct as it is.

In the next photo, I loved the juxtaposition of the tiny shoes and the relative size of his father's loving hands. I ignored the bored expression on dad's face to focus on just the hands and feet. If I included dad's face, the impact would have been lost as we would just see that the father was tired and didn't want to be there. So by removing "him," I was able to tell a different story: one about fatherhood.

Taken to a bit of an extreme would be this next frame. It's gone to the point of near abstraction, and yet we can recognize what's going on. Not a detail shot, but rather focusing on the real action of the scene, which is the boxer's leg workout. Yes, a tight shot of their faces could be good if there would be an expression of, say, pain or intense concentration, but if, as it was in this instance, the expressions were not storytelling, then what do you do? Show what they are really thinking about: the real action in the scene. I decided to take out the faces entirely to build a composition and story showing what is truly going on.

What Can You Do with a Severed Head?

On the other end of things, just cut the head off and have no obvious body. Make the focus of the image an almost disembodied face. Fair warning: you had better have an interesting foreground and background, but this can really work. It does just the opposite of removing the head: it puts all the focus on what is going on with the face. When the photo becomes all about the face, then you can clearly show a subtle internal dialog. There are, hopefully, no distracting elements to pull you away from the quiet moment. This is like the earlier photo where by removing the father's face, I could tell a different story only in reverse.

Photography is really about being highly selective in what you want your viewer to pay attention to. Good compositions direct the viewer to initially look here, and then here, and then here. With the father photo it had nothing to do with expression, but through the way that I framed it, with caring for and protecting our children. In the photo above, it's all about the light in her eyes and wistful look. If you saw the guy next to her who was smirking, again telling a different story all together, then you may not be able to focus on her story. Using a dominant out of focus foreground and smooth background, I was able to edit him out of her story and let my framing draw you to what I wanted you to know. I particularly like to use dimensional framing to pull this sort of shot off. For more thoughts on that technique see my prior article here.

There you have it, my precious secret weapon The Guillotine Filter in all it's messed up glory. I recommend that you pick one up for yourself, ha-ha, and give it a whirl. What do y'all think about this sort of thing? Happy (head) hunting!

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Simon Patterson's picture

That is a terrific article, and your examples demonstrate the points you are making very well. I will try the guillitine filter in future as a result. Thank you!

Jonathan Castner's picture

Thanks Simon. It's good to have a style but I find that we, certainly when we are getting our start, tend to follow rules not due to understanding what they are trying to help us understand in a broader sense. First you follow the rules and then you learn how to break them in creative but usable ways.

Brian Pernicone's picture

Agree with Simon. Well done, Johnathan, both in the writing and the photos.