How To Photograph A Chinese Beauty

A portrait of a beautiful young woman in the Forbidden City in Beijing, China.

I photographed this lovely Chinese girl in the grounds of the Forbidden City in Beijing, China. I imagine she was what you might call a local tourist.

I made two images: this one and a slightly more distant photo which shows the generous dimensions of her bag and more of here boots. While those elements seemed important in telling the original story, that of a relatively affluent local Chinese tourist, the closer view allowed me to concentrate more on her face.

What Faces Attract You?

Actually we’d just passed each other and I felt a sudden need to make her photo. She has a lovely face and it’s fair to say that I’m attracted to folks with round faces, high cheek bones and upward turned mouths

What’s more I really dug her comfortable fashion sense. Just look at those muted colors and all that delicious texture. Really, she’s made for the camera.

Backgrounds That Add To The Story

And then there’s that crazy background, full of color and texture. I remember thinking at the time that it must be a bit like Elvis’s bathroom.

But too much information, scattered around the frame, can be overly challenging for the viewer. Usually a professional portrait is made with the background thrown out of focus through the use of critical focusing (e.g., on the eye closest to the camera) and a shallow depth of field to render the background out of focus. Some might say that the more out of focus the background, the more professional the result.

This image was made at a relatively modest aperture of f/6.3, which I deemed sufficient to produce an image with sufficiently large depth of field to keep the entire image sharp, from foreground to background.

But look carefully and it’s pretty obvious that the distance from foreground to background is not great. While opening the Canon 24-105mm f/4 zoom lens I was using at its maximum aperture of f/4 would have produced a slightly shallower depth of field, it wouldn’t have made all that much difference to the overall look of the image.

Achieving A Professional Out Of Focus Background

To make the subject stand out from the background I would simply ask her to move forward, one or two steps, to create a greater physical separation between her and the background. Now the relationship (i.e., distance) between the camera’s sensor and the subject verses that of the camera’s sensor and the background would be far greater than what you see in the above photo. After refocusing on the subject (e.g., the eye closest to the camera) and selecting a wider aperture (e.g., f/4 or wider) the background would be thrown significantly out of focus.

Want to abstract that background by throwing it completely out of focus. Simply move the subject even further away from the wall and refocus once again. If that’s not possible you’ll achieve a similar result, albeit with an altered composition, by moving closer to the subject and then re-focusing on the eye closet to the camera.

So Should The Background Be Blurred Or Sharp?

Many years ago, in a galaxy far, far away I was a traditional wedding/portrait photographer. I photographed around 250 weddings and over 100 family portraits. As my studio was in a small country town I needed to do a range of work to keep the cash flow healthy. That involved school and kindergarten photography, debutant balls and even a funeral. Almost without exception photos of individuals or couples were made with out-of-focus backgrounds, particularly when made in the studio.

But it’s been a long time since I was a traditional wedding/portrait photographer which means I’m no longer constrained by the look/fashion associated with that kind of photography. I’m still all about making beautiful, life-affirming images and if I see someone in the gutter I’m likely to pick them up, rather than photograph them in that state. I’ve photographed many poor and disadvantaged folk, but I always do so in a way that explores notions of beauty, empathy and hope. I’m motivated to explore the possibilities like offers us, not by the state we currently find ourselves in. I’m much more interested in what people have, rather than what they don’t.

Photographers - Know Your Audience

Rather than a traditional portrait photograph, made for the customer or their mother, I wanted to create an image more closely aligned to the documentary and photojournalist traditions and their potentially wider audiences. In this case the background against which I photographed my subject was almost as important as the subject, and the best way to explore the relationship between subject and background was to render the scene with lots of detail. That’s why sharpness, from foreground to background, was required.  

If I remember right, after being granted permission for the photo, our subject began to put that colorfully covered guide into her bag. But I liked the way the colors, on the front cover of the guide, connected and contrasted with the colors in the background. As a traditional portrait photographer I would have seen that guide as being a distraction, but in the documentary and photojournalistic tradition including the guide can work on two levels. It helps tell the story of a local tourist visiting an iconic cultural site. That’s probably how a commercially orientated photojournalist or editor might read it. But an artist, like myself, working within the documentary tradition would be more interested in the relationships (often visual) explored and the connections between similarities and differences that the inclusion of that item brings to the image.

Parting Is So Bitter Sweet

After making this image this beautiful lady was called away and out of my life. But our relationship, brief as it was, lives on here in and through this photo. Yellow in Chinese culture signifies happiness and I remember thinking that, after paying so much attention to this yellow brick background that, around the corner, a yellow brick road might await me. That was all I needed to keep going and, after many years, the promise beyond each hilltop and each corner continues to push me onwards and into the next adventure.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru