People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log

Exercise: Portrait scale and setting

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Find a suitably attractive setting and take portraits to the following scales:

  • Face, cropped close
  • Head and shoulders
  • Torso
  • Full length

Select the most successful images from each of the four subject areas, and consider how a viewer will react to each portrait in terms of the weight of attention to different elements.

Quick disclaimer: I decided to get cracking on this first exercise before doing too much reading and research. This way I’ll have a benchmark on where I am at the start of this section. I hope to see an improvement over time that will make me look back on this exercise and maybe cringe a little – this will mean I have progressed! I may even re-do this exercise later when I’m feeling more educated… but for now, this is my standard, for better or worse!


Setting: I thought this kitchen was suitably attractive and appropriate for an informal portrait – well, before I saw the end result I did anyway (see notes below on backgrounds).

Subject: this is Mike, my very good mate from down the road.

I shot over 50 images in total but many were similar. I got it down to a shortlist of 12 shots. Below I’ll whizz through the options and at the end I’ll select what I believe the best in each group.

Note that all these are straight out of camera, with the exception of the two final crops.

Face, cropped close:

  1. I used the available light, including ceiling mounted spotlights, which cast distracting light and shade onto the face; also, the crop isn’t really tight enough
  2. With spotlights off and diffused flash bounced off the ceiling and the light is more even; the crop is tighter on the face

Head and shoulders:

  1. Too far back, too much background; ceiling lights creating unwelcome light/shade patches
  2. Composition better and he’s smiling – but ceiling lights still casting patches of light and shadow onto skin
  3. With bounced flash but with ceiling spots still on – still not right
  4. Lights off, bounced flash only, and like the close face shot the skin tone is now much more even


  1. Again I started with the available room lighting but in this instance switched to a vertical format – again, shiny patches where the spotlights catch the skin; on the plus side, good facial expression
  2. With diffused bounced flash – better skin tones, but more serious face; also, messy background elements
  3. As per 2 but framed slightly tighter from the bottom edge… I prefer the framing but the flash has made the skin a little paler and blown the highlight a bit on the mug

Full length:

Lighting is same on all three so differences are composition only:

  1. This has the most serious expression…
  2. This has a smile…
  3. And this is the least traditional pose, with the face partly obscured – but the eye contact is still there


Face, cropped close:



Closer crop looks better to me, and light is more even. The focus is on the eyes as it should be, and a very shallow depth of field makes the rest of the features soften from fairly close to the radius of the eye area. The background is suitably blurred so as not to detract. The viewer will lock onto the eyes.

Head and shoulders:

Head & shoulders

Head & shoulders

A little like the first, the lighting and the shallow depth of field help the focal points to stand out. Again, the eyes should be the first thing the viewer rests on, then to a lesser degree the whole face shape. The background isn’t too distracting.




This is the ‘least-bad’ of my options here: I prefer the vertical ratio (I should have taken more this way on) as it better fills the space and reduces the distraction of the background, so helping the view to focus on – I believe – the eyes, then the whole face, then the mug. Yes, the light across the face is a little distracting but if I had to work with this, I could improve it a little in post-processing. The background is still too busy and I should have either chosen another location or moved Mike further away to help the background melt into blur.

Torso - crop

Torso – crop

In terms of composition, with hindsight I should have repositioned the camera to keep the three cups (above the head) out of frame. Cropped version above gives an idea of this.

Full length:



Again, the best of the bunch but not a successful shot. In all of the options I placed him too far to the right of the frame, making this look like an advert for the oven… at least in this one the fact that he is drinking and looking over the top of the mug add a little more focal interest. I hope a viewer would see first the eyes, then the mug, then scan down the body (or they could of course just stare at the oven, which wasn’t my intention). As per the last one, moving Mike further away would have helped to separate the subject from the background significantly.

Full - cropped

Full – cropped

Again, framing wise I should have gone in closer to remove distractions in the top of the frame, as per crop above. Cropping tighter also makes the subject move a little towards the centre, and so less oven-centric.

What I’ve learned

A few things!

  • Light: identify, work with and where possible control the light sources – keep looking at how they are rendering the subject
  • Background: keep the subject off the background to achieve the right depth-of-field separation that makes the viewer focus on the person not the background (unless it is a contextual portrait)
  • Background: watch out for distracting elements, ideally before the shoot but look around the subject before pressing the shutter too
  • Framing: generally, better to fill the frame with the subject; vertical format is more natural for torso and full-length shots

What I think I did right is

  • Focus: on the eyes
  • Flash: use indirect and diffused flash to even out skin tones
  • Overexpose slightly: dialled in +⅓ EV to help brighten up the skin tones a little
  • Aperture: wide open for most shallow depth of field

Generally I learned that this portrait lark isn’t as easy as it looks! Lots to think about that isn’t second nature yet. Onwards and upwards!

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