Photo: Shinjuku commute

Photograph by David Alan Harvey

By Robert Caputo, August 2007

From Photography Field Guide: People and Portraits

People pictures fall into two categories: portraits and candid. Either can be made with or without your subject's awareness and cooperation.

However near or far your subject, however intimate or distant the gaze your camera casts, you always need to keep in mind the elements of composition and the technique that will best help you communicate what you are trying to say.

Get Closer

The most common mistake made by photographers is that they are not physically close enough to their subjects. In some cases this means that the center of interest—the subject—is just a speck, too small to have any impact. Even when it is big enough to be decipherable, it usually carries little meaning. Viewers can sense when a subject is small because it was supposed to be and when it's small because the photographer was too shy to get close.

Don't be shy. If you approach people in the right way, they'll usually be happy to have their picture made. It's up to you to break the ice and get them to cooperate. Joke around with them. Tell them why you want to make the picture. Practice with people you know so that you are comfortable; people can sense when you aren't.

Settings—The Other Subject

The settings in which you make pictures of people are important because they add to the viewer's understanding of your subject. The room in which a person lives or works, their house, the city street they walk, the place in which they seek relaxation—whatever it is, the setting provides information about people and tells us something about their lives. Seek balance between subject and environment. Include enough of the setting to aid your image, but not so much that the subject is lost in it.

Candids: Being Unobtrusive

You may want to make photographs of people going about their business—vendors in a market, a crowd at a sports event, the line at a theater. You don't want them to appear aware of the camera. Many times people will see you, then ignore you because they have to concentrate on what they are doing. You want the viewers of the image to feel that they are getting an unguarded, fly-on-the-wall glimpse into the scene.

There are several ways to be unobtrusive. The first thing, of course, is to determine what you want to photograph. Perhaps you see a stall in a market that is particularly colorful, a park bench in a beautiful setting—whatever has attracted you. Find a place to sit or stand that gives you a good view of the scene, take up residence there, and wait for the elements to come together in a way that will make your image.

If you're using a long lens and are some distance from your subject, it will probably be a while before the people in the scene notice you. You should be able to compose your image and get your shot before this happens. When they do notice you, smile and wave. There's a difference between being unobtrusive and unfriendly. Another way to be unobtrusive is to be there long enough so that people stop paying attention to you. If you are sitting at a café order some coffee and wait. As other patrons become engrossed in conversations or the paper, calmly lift the camera to your eye and make your exposure. In most cases, people either won't notice or won't mind. But be judicious. Don't keep firing away and become a nuisance. They will mind. You can also set the camera on the table with a wide-angle lens pointed at your subject and simply press the remote release when the time is right. Modern auto focus and auto exposure cameras make this easy to do as well.

Anticipating Behavior

An important element in people photography is knowing your subjects well enough to be able to anticipate what they are going to do. It's the only way you are going to be able to get pictures of it. If you wait until you see it, it's too late. The key is to watch people carefully. Always have your camera ready. If you're going to be shooting in one situation, set the aperture and shutter speed in advance so you don't have to fiddle with them while you're shooting. Watch people through the viewfinder. If you're paying attention, you'll sense what's about to happen.

Predicting Relationships Within the Frame

A great deal of people photography is understanding human nature and being aware of how people usually react in given situations. If someone is sitting in a café he will usually look up when the waiter approaches. People will generally smile when they see a baby or open a present. Crowds rise when a batter smashes a ball that looks like it's headed for the seats. Think about the situation you are photographing and how people are likely to act in it. Then prepare yourself for the moment.

Candids With Consent

Unobtrusive candids seek to be fly-on-the-wall images that catch people going about their business seemingly unaware of the camera and the photographer. This yields images that are more toward the objective end of the objective/subjective continuum, though there is not, of course, any photograph made by a human that is completely objective. Candids with consent, made when the photographer is actively engaged with the subject and the subject is conscious of this involvement, are very different. Photographs are records of the photographer's relationship with his or her subject. In consensual candids, the relationship can be either obvious (the subject looks directly into the camera) or subtle—the relationship is implied because the image feels more intimate. We sense that the photographer was physically close to the subject and that the person was aware of being photographed.

Engaging Your Subject

The first order of business is to engage your subject. This is where we all have to learn to overcome our shyness and approach people in an open and friendly manner. Be up front about who you are and what you're doing. Don't just barge into a scene with your cameras blazing. In fact, it is usually best to leave your camera in its bag when you first approach people, so as not to frighten them. Take time to engage the person in conversation, just as you would if you didn't have a camera. Remember the Golden Rule. Think about how you'd feel if someone approached you and wanted to make a photograph. How they did it would determine how you would respond.

Approaching Unfamiliar Cultures

One of the keys to success in photographing cultures different from your own is doing as much research as you can before you go. Talk to people who have been there and get their recommendations. Find out if there are any taboos about photography, and if so, what they are. Another key to success is to be sensitive to local customs and the different reactions people may have to you and your camera. Learn a few simple phrases in the local language so you can at least say hello to people and ask if you can make photographs of them.

Some people have no problems with photography, and you should treat them in the same courteous and respectful way you would treat people at home, by engaging them and seeking their permission. Others have objections to photographs being made of certain individuals or groups. Some people object on religious grounds. Some feel that you want to make fun of them, to show their poverty or some other aspect of their lives to the world. Other people believe that when you make an image of them you are stealing their soul or in some other way taking something away from them.

They are right, of course. Photographers talk about capturing the essence or spirit of a person or place. We do take something, and we profit by the taking. You should always respect people's feelings and beliefs. There are selfish reasons for this—you don't want to be beaten up or thrown in jail. But the main point is that people are always more important than photographs. You don't want to abuse people, and doing something against a strongly held belief is abuse. And the photographs would probably not be very good anyway.

You may be asked to pay for photographing certain people. My advice is to comply with such requests. You pay for a postcard when you travel, why not for an image you make? It is usually not much money to you, but may be quite a lot to the people you want to photograph. If you do not want to pay, you can always move on.

The Casual Portrait

Wherever you are with your camera, always be on the lookout for those moments when a person's character shines though. If you have a formal portrait session with someone, make some frames of him while he straightens his tie or while she brushes her hair before the formal sitting. Walk back to the car with her and shoot her on the street. If you are on a spring picnic with the family, look for that moment of bliss when your wife leans back, sated, to enjoy the caress of the warm sun. If you're on the street, look for the impatient expression on a pedestrian's face as he waits for the light to change. Always be on the lookout for the telling moment. Every person has a story, and every picture should tell part of that story.

Environmental Portraits

Portraits are about people. Environmental portraits are about people and what they do with their lives. They are about the kind of house a person lives in and how they decorate it; about what kind of work they do and where they do it; about the surroundings they choose and the things they surround themselves with. Environmental portraits seek to convey an idea about a person by combining portraiture with a sense of place.

Group Portraits

Group portraits are hard to do well, and the larger the group, the harder they are. It's not easy to get a good, telling photograph of one person, and the problems are compounded exponentially with groups. We have all had the experience of trying to get the family or the ball team to pose for a picture. Just getting all of them arranged so you can see their faces is hard enough. Then, of course, you want an image where everyone looks good—no one's eyes closed, no grimacing. Making group portraits takes imagination, patience, and diplomacy. Use your imagination. Find a way to relate the group to an environment that expresses something about what kind of group they are. Do it literally, humorously, dramatically, or by complete contrast. Get ideas from them.

Familiar Subjects

Our family members are the people we photograph most frequently. We record the momentous occasions and the occasional moments. Albums full of baby pictures, first steps, Little League games, Halloweens, Thanksgivings, and weddings mark our passage through time. These photographs are our memories made real and are probably the most important pictures we will ever make or have. You should apply thought and technique just as rigorously, if not more so, to photographing your family as you do to any photo assignment. There is no better group on which to practice photography. No others will be so trusting or willing to indulge your ever present camera, your fumbling around with lights, and your mistakes. When you are photographing strangers, you either get the picture or you don't. There is no going back to a fleeting moment. With your family, you can work on getting a similar moment again, and again, and again.

Hands and Other Details

The hands of a farmer, a pianist, a baker. The feet of a ballet dancer, a long distance runner, a place kicker. The belly of a pregnant woman, the bicep of a weight lifter. Hair caressing a pillow, fingers clutched in prayer, a peering eye. The details of the human body make great photographic subjects, either as expressions of ideas or emotions, as graphic shots, or as a way to say something about an individual. Whenever you are photographing someone, try to think of details of their body or dress that would get your message across in an indirect way.

Are there particular parts of their body or items of what they wear that are important to what they do for a living or a hobby? Does some part of them really stand out? Can you find a way to abstract what you want to say about the person by using one of these elements?

The point is to use your eyes and your imagination, whether you want to use detail and abstraction to say something about an individual or about the beauty of the human body. If you are making photographs of details of the human body, you will be working intimately with people and will have to direct them, tell them where to pose, and how.

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