The human face is one of the most photographed subjects in the history of the craft. It is our first means of identifying each other. It is how we first read emotion. Every combination of features is unique and provides a wealth of information to those observing it. A face is our introduction to a person and so it makes sense that a portrait would be a photographer’s first choice in introducing her subject in an image.
However, there are times when excluding a face can tell us more about a person or a scene than including it. The anonymity of a faceless image can invoke new emotions. It can allow the viewer to place him/herself in the scene. It can force us to focus on details that we might otherwise miss.
I love shooting faceless images. I enjoy the challenge of giving my viewer as much information as possible without facial features present in the frame. But shooting a successful faceless image takes some planning and intention. These are my favorite ways to capture anonymous images that connect with my audience.
Hair is a highly effective tool in revealing details about a subject without including his/her face. It can at times give us clues as to gender, age, style, and personality. Movement can be depicted through strands of hair blowing in the breeze or flying out from behind a subject in motion. Hair can imply emotion through its ability to change styles, follow the physical lead of its owner, and hide or reveal the face of a subject.
I love to use hair when possible (and my daughter has alot of it!). I am enamored with its ability to show movement in a still photograph. The way it flows lends a sense of magic to my imagery the way fields of wheat angled by the wind or waves in an ocean lend magic to a landscape.
Even more, I have experienced firsthand how hair can be a significant part of a personality. My daughter’s hair is long and blonde and she is proud of it! Observing her flip it around all the time reveals her girly, playful side and I am always seeking to capture that.
When creating your own anonymous portraits, consider how hair can be used to convey different emotions. In the photo above I used it in more of a happy way. The sun is shining, and my subject is happy and spinning with her hair flying out all around her.
By contrast, hair covering the face creates a sense of drama and guardedness. Having someone’s hair cover his or her face can lend a sense of mystery. Consider if your subject bends her head down with hair covering her face. Without features to piece together an expression, we are left to wonder what she is feeling. Is she sad? Is she angry? Explore that in your photography!
I took this shot for Sweden’s National Day. I am particularly drawn to the contrast between my daughters covered face and the bright happy colors of the flowers and flag.
Another way to cover the face in a photography is to get dramatic with shadows. Whether concealing only a portion of the face of leaving all features in darkness, shadows can add mystery and drama to a portrait while simultaneously revealing details that might otherwise be overlooked.
The ways in which you can employ shadows in your work are limitless. Use your imagination and break the rules! Look for harsh light and things that can cast unique shadows such as buildings, trees, or blinds. Move your subject around within these patterns to get the effect you desire.
Your subject can even create the shadow him/herself! Place your subject in front of a brightly lit area and capture a silhouette. Capture your subject’s cast shadow on a wall or on the ground.
See how body language becomes incredibly important in these images. Without facial features to give us information about the subject, we look to how the arms and legs and head are held to decipher the emotion of the scene.
Experiment with your subjects practicing different kinds of activities in these shadowed photographs. Running, dancing, spinning, and jumping are all dynamic movements that lend themselves well to being captured in shadow. Allow yourself to observe and be creative and don’t be afraid to try something new!
Reflections can create a somewhat distorted version of a subject. Consider how a less-than-perfect mirror, a body of water, or foggy glass renders your own reflection. You can use these imperfections to create impactful faceless portraits.
Of course you can see someone’s face quite well if the surface is reflecting clearly, so a window may not be the best way to get a faceless portrait. Seek reflective surfaces that naturally lends themselves to anonymity.
In this photograph, the puddle did not provide a clear reflection. I saw it and knew it was perfect for an anonymous portrait! I love how a puddle simultaneously reveals just a bit of what is below and what is above. It is almost like a visit from the other side. It can be intriguing or scary all at once depending on the subject and the audience.
Who has a kid who loves playing dress-up? Take advantage of that now! I loved when my children were younger and would spend hours in their sweet little costumes. Not only do those costumes act as a great motivator to get your kids in front of the camera, but you can also use them to create anonymity in a photograph!
Find costumes with hats, hoods, or masks that can at least partially cover the face (superhero costumes are always a good pick!). You can even create your own costumes with items around the house. Blankets, boxes, buckets and more are all amazing costumes in the right hands.
Only your imagination sets the limits with how you capture your costumed subjects. Let their personalities and personas take flight as they hide beneath their disguises. You might just be surprised at how that shy one shines from behind a mask!
Shooting from behind
This may seem obvious, but having your subject face away from the camera is a great way to keep his/her face out of the frame.
However, taking a shot of someone from behind can do more in an image than simply keep it anonymous. It can also give the image a sense of direction.
Consider how the subject’s averted gaze might affect the viewers of your photograph. They might see the subject as heading somewhere or looking forward to something. The might further consider where the subject is and where she is going. More than they would in a traditional portrait, they might question what has the subject’s attention and explore that more within the frame.
It is here where you can make some creative choices to guide your viewer to more mystery or to answers. Do you want to include context? Then maybe a wide angle lens would be a good choice to include as much of the surroundings as possible. Do you want to create a sense of uncertainty? Perhaps you should consider a closer crop or a perfectly clean scene where the audience cannot answer the questions of where and why. This is where you get to be the artist and guide your audience through your imagery in an intentional way.
Of course, this is only the beginning of the ways that you can begin to explore faceless portraiture. More than anything, I want you to have fun being creative and experimenting as you explore this fun way of seeing your subjects in a new way.