Photo: Ballet rehearsal

Photograph by Sisse Brimberg

By Robert Caputo, August 2007

From Photography Field Guide: People & Portraits

Keep these tips from photographer Robert Caputo in mind as you're taking photos on your next trip.

  • Work your way into a situation. If you see something interesting, don't be satisfied with just a wide shot. Think about the essence of what you are photographing and work closer and closer until you have isolated and captured it. Don't be shy. People are usually happy to show you what they do well.
  • If you use objects other than your main subject in the foreground, be careful of placement. You don't want to obscure or detract from your subject.
  • Every time you hold your camera to your eye, look for leading lines, foreground elements, frames—anything you can use to lend dynamism to your image. Photographs are two dimensional but it helps if they look and feel three dimensional.
  • If you don't have a tripod and want to shoot with a long lens and slow shutter speed, use your camera bag to cradle the camera. If you're using a really slow speed, use a self-timer to avoid shake.
  • Don't just stand there—sit, squat, lie down. The angle from which you make a photograph can make a dramatic difference.
  • Create a catch-light in the subject's eyes with a small reflector, such as a dulled mirror or the silver side of a CD, to add a bit of glimmer.
  • When using an electronic flash indoors, move your subject away from walls to prevent harsh shadows.
  • A piece of very light orange gel over the face of your electronic flash can warm up the light and give it a more pleasing cast.
  • Be patient. Street scenes change by the millisecond. Find a spot you like, get comfortable, and wait, watching all the time for the elements to fall together.
  • When photographing people interacting with each other or with pets, observe their behavior and think about what they might do to express the essence of the relationship.
  • While looking through your telephoto lens, scan around the scene looking for patterns.
  • Portraits of people from other cultures have to do double duty—they have to be honest about the exotic nature of the people while conveying our common humanity.
  • If you are traveling in a foreign land, learn at least a few phrases of the local language. Your reception and ability to make photographs—and your whole experience—will be enhanced.
  • Practice in your neighborhood. Go out into the street and make frozen, blurred, and panned images of passing cars.
  • When making environmental portraits, take the time to find out what your subjects really care about and have them show it to you.
  • When you first arrive at a new location, make note of any features that strike you. Try to find ways to incorporate them into your composition.
  • Be careful if you are using a wide-angle lens to photograph a group. The people at the edges may get distorted.
  • If kids want to look through the camera, let them. They will be more relaxed and cooperative. Just watch out for dirty fingers on the lens.
  • Anticipate kids' behavior. If they are playing tag, set up near the base, compose your image, and wait for them to come running in.
  • To avoid being too anatomical when photographing the human form, try using soft focus or a little blur.
  • When you are in people's homes or workplaces, carry as little gear as possible. You want to minimize the disturbance your presence causes.
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