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Photographing an Artisan? Focus on their hands

Photographing an Artisan? Focus on their hands

When photographing people, we’re trained to focus on the face, and especially the eyes. Like any other “rule” of photography, though, it doesn’t always apply. In particular, when you’re capturing someone performing a craft or skill, the skill itself becomes a key part of the image. In the case of this woman potter who was kind enough to let us photograph her throwing a pot, her hands are what drew my attention. They moved smoothly and confidently, clearly the result of years of being a master potter – her village is famous throughout Myanmar (Burma) for its pots, which are highly-prized both there and throughout Asia.


I started the photo session with some more typical images, like this one of a pot and potter, with the women looking up where we could clearly see her face. The composition works and clearly communicates that it is a potter I’m photographing, and something about her tribal garb and location in a wooden hut. However, it doesn’t really convey any sense of her at work.

I then moved in a little tighter, and now we can see her hands, but they are still not really engaged in her task. At this point it became clear to me that it’d be hard to capture both a traditional portrait shot and her hands at work. This is particularly true when someone is performing a delicate task. Their eyes will be on their work if they are truly engaged, making it difficult to capture both a full-face view and a close-up of their hands at work at the same time.

I decided to focus on her hands. Rather than worry about getting all of her in focus, I took the opposite approach and opened my wide (of course it only goes to about f/4.8 at the 240mm I was shooting – if I’d had my on the camera I could have opened it wider, but I couldn’t have zoomed in as close without a Teleconverter). We didn’t have much light, so I bumped the ISO on my to 6400 (I sure love how far we can push these new cameras!) to get a shutter speed to 1/250s – in order to freeze her hands in action.

To finish off the look that I wanted, I bounced a tiny bit of flash fill off the roof of the building to help light her. I kept the level really low (-3 compensation and bouncing off the roof) because I didn’t want to disturb the natural light on the scene or streaming through the window onto her at work.

So the next time you’re photographing someone “in action” think about creative ways to capture the spirit of the task, even if it means breaking some of the rules of typical portrait photography.