Did you know that portraits don’t necessarily have to include faces? In fact, most dictionaries define “portrait” as “a painting, drawing, sculpture, photograph or other likeness of an individual, especially of the face”. Which loosely translated means that a portrait usually, but not necessarily, includes a person’s face.
That opens up a world of portrait possibilities, doesn’t it? You could shoot hands, you could shoot fingers, you could shoot eyes and ears, you could shoot curves – but today we’re going to focus on the feet.
The cool thing about feet is that they are expressive—almost as expressive as hands and faces are. Don’t believe me? Have you ever curled up your toes when you heard someone scratch a chalkboard? Have you ever wiggled them in warm sand? Have you ever run barefoot through the grass? You don’t need to include a person’s face during any one of these activities in order to convey to your viewer what that person is experiencing. We all know the joys of warm sand and grass under our bare feet, and we can make a pretty good guess about what those curled toes mean, too. So today I challenge you to capture a portrait—not just any portrait, but an expressive portrait—of a person you know using only their feet to convey emotion.
Let’s start with an easy one: baby feet. When you hire a photographer to come take pictures of your newborn, I can almost guarantee that a handful of those photos will feature that perfect little person’s perfect little feet. Baby feet are wonderful—they’re little miniatures of adult feet and any new parent will tell you that they could spend hours just admiring those 10 tiny toes.
If you are fortunate enough to have a newborn in your life right now, there are about a million different ways you could photograph his feet. Start by having an adult cup them in her hands, or shoot them perched on top of a pair of adult feet. Older babies have great feet too—so don’t neglect those baby bootie shots or photos of wobbly feet taking their first steps.
Your own feet (or, foot selfies)
Try shooting a series of images of your own feet standing in various places. This is really fun to do while you’re traveling—climb to the top of a mountain, for example, and then photograph your feet standing on that scenic lookout (but please be careful, the last thing I want is to see your fun feet photo included in a collection of “Selfies taken right before death.”) Photograph your feet standing in line at Starbucks, or relaxing in a lounge chair on the beach. You could theoretically outline your whole day this way, and maybe call the series “A day in the life of my feet.”
If you’re going to shoot other people’s feet, keep a few things in mind. One, you’re going to look silly because the most compelling feet shots are taken from the perspective of, you guessed it, the feet. That means you’re going to need to get down on your belly and shoot from roughly the same height as your subject’s laces.
Remember that just as important as the feet themselves is the place they’re standing in—unlike a standard portrait(that includes an actual face), you’re going to want to use a smaller aperture to help bring the environment into focus. But it can’t just be any background, of course, make sure it’s one that gives the shot a real sense of place. Running shoes poised at the starting line are an excellent example of a feet photo that benefits from context. But this could work with almost any pair of feet in any setting—after all the reason that we have feet is so that we can travel from one place to another. And because the purpose of feet is so indisputable, it’s difficult if not impossible to take a successful feet photo that doesn’t include some context.
Now you can take liberties with your aperture depending on what is in the distance and how much information is nearby—for example, I’ve seen some pretty great shots of feet at the beach where the ocean was nothing but a blue blur in the background. These shots work because the ocean is still very identifiable even when blurred out by a large aperture—a blurry blue top half of the frame above a sandy brown bottom half is a dead giveaway. And if you also include those fine grains of sand on the bottoms of your subject’s feet, then there’s no way your viewer could fail to understand that he’s looking at feet on the beach.
The question of whether to add more blur or less blur also depends a lot on how many distractions there are in the background. You may want your viewer to know that your subject is standing in the inner city, but if there are too many cars, pedestrians, billboards and other colorful distractions then your viewer is going to spend more time looking at those things and less time looking at that shiny new pair of Nikes. So the answer to this problem is not a small aperture, nor is it a large one—instead, it’s somewhere in the middle. You need enough blur to isolate your subject from the background, but not so much that your viewer can no longer tell where those feet are standing.
Remember that you need a faster shutter speed, too, unless you can convince those feet to keep still for a few moments, just long enough for you to take the photo. This is possible with adults and less possible with children or animals, so if you know your subject is going to be on the move and you want to capture that in your shot, you’ll likely need a shutter speed of at least 1/500, possibly even as high as 1/1000 or more. And even if you do convince those active feet to stay still, that’s probably not the only photo of them you want. You want them running, jumping and skipping too.
There are no feet more active than kid feet, unless you count professional athletes. Kids are busy, and that means that their feet are always on the move. To photograph kid feet you have to have some patience and a lot of energy—you probably already know how much energy it takes to capture kids faces, now imagine having to keep up with them while laying on your belly on the ground. If it turns out to be a bit too much for you, try taking them to a playground—there are a lot of elevated surfaces for them to play on (slides, monkey bars, platforms) which will make it a lot easier for you to get great foot photos without busting your back.
You can add a lot of interest to your feet photos by breaking them up with some animal feet. Line two kids up and put their dog between them, and you’ve got a really cool photo that says something about the lives of those two children. Or if you’re photographing a horse woman, try shooting her boots standing next to a set of horse’s hooves. Your viewer doesn’t need much more information than that to know that he’s looking at the genesis of a trail ride or a rodeo event. Let his imagination fill in the details.
You don’t need human feet at all, of course, you can also shoot just paws or hooves and you’ll still have some wonderful, unique images.
Let’s face it, some feet are gross
Now I really don’t like to say it, because it’s not nice—but not every pair of feet deserves a photo. I personally have a couple of pairs of shoes that I would not want showing up in a photo album, so you need to use some pretty good judgment when deciding not only whose feet to photograph but how to photograph them. Worn out shoes can make a great statement about someone’s busy or well-traveled life, so don’t discount them (shoes with a lot of wear make for really great black and white photos). But at the same time, know when you’ve crossed the line from whimsically weathered to flat out yucky. The same goes for bare feet—some people just don’t have photogenic feet, so you may need to have the awkward conversation about foot callouses before you spend a lot of time photographing less-than-perfect feet from an embarrassing prone position. To soften the blow, suggest your subject don his favorite (new) pair of sneakers or slippers—almost anyone’s feet can be improved with a nice pair of shoes.
I love photos that tell a story, and I don’t think any photos tell quite the same sort of story as images of feet do. You can tell an awful lot about someone by looking at her feet and the shoes she’s wearing. What do pointe shoes say about a ballerina? What do boots say about a working man? What do bare feet on a manicured lawn say about a toddler? The beauty of all this is that your viewer doesn’t have to know the exact answer. He doesn’t have to ever see the face of the ballerina, so he can’t know if she’s older or younger or dancing on stage or teaching a ballerina class to preschoolers. But his mind is going to invent a story anyway, and it doesn’t matter if it’s right or wrong. What matters is that the image got him thinking and wondering—and that is the hallmark of great photography.