People Photography: Step It Up!


“It is more important to click with people than to click the shutter.” Alfred Eisenstaedt

For many of us, people photography is the most challenging and rewarding aspect of the many splendors of travel photography. While landscapes and landmarks can take a lot of patience for the right conditions to occur, they don’t dodge and weave and blink or have to catch a taxi. Just try to get that shot of the Namibian sand dunes as they are boarding a train; or the Eiffel Tower while it’s out shopping for rivets in a busy street market!

Boothe Thaik Htun is a Burmese photojournalist

A lot of photographers, even pros, are uncomfortable photographing people. In the street it can be hazardous, depending on where you are of course. And asking a stranger for permission to photograph them can be daunting. Lack of confidence in ones skills can also be a roadblock. These are all reasons why Myanmar is such a great place to work on your people photography skills and gain confidence. The people are lovely and very accommodating. You don’t want to ask someone to pose for you if you don’t know your camera and end up fumbling around while they change their mind. If you are not certain of the light and the background you are looking to frame them in, this can also be self-dissuasive. We’ll discuss ways to deal with these challenges further along the narrative.

Even though there are enumerable ways & places to photograph people, from work to street to sports to headshots to nudes, etc., we will deal with the two most basic as pertains to travel – Portraiture and People in Motion. We will further separate types of portraiture into three sub-categories – classical, environmental, and candid.

Classical Portraiture – Remember those school yearbook photos of you staring straight into the camera and trying to force a smile? This type of posed image harkens back to pre-photography days, where a subject would “sit” for a sketch artist or painter. Backgrounds are neutral or at least not distracting, so that the focus is on the subject. This is Portraits 101. There are many more advanced variations of course, using different lighting, depths of field, focus points, camera angles, subject expressions, etc..

Obviously to practice classical portraiture as travel photography means you’ll have to get the consent of the subject. This can be awkward for many photographers for a number of reasons, some of which we touched on above. But with forethought, determination and a smile on your face, you can overcome them all. Not always, but often enough, even in the toughest environments.

“Forethought” is having seen the light and background you want the subject positioned in ahead of time, and having the right lens and good idea of what settings you’ll use. “Determination” is acting like you know exactly what you are doing so that the prospective subject feels like they are in good hands, even if they are a bit resistant at first. Keep smiling. Of course if they are flat out negative, say thanks anyway and move on. Part of determination in the case of being denied, is not letting it bother you too much and using it as extra incentive to get the next one. Using rejection as incentive instead of defeat is what makes for success in any endeavor involving people.

The most valuable tool a people photographer can have is good people skills. Brilliant observation! If you don’t necessarily have them or are shy, smiling goes a long way. Once they smile back, you have a very good chance. You’ll often need to employ a bit of photographer’s cunning to engage the potential subject in a manipulative way – manipulative in that your goal is getting a photograph while theirs is anything but!

For example, if a desired subject is a striking street vendor, try shopping her wares with interest and perhaps even buying something. This puts you in a good light before you ask to do the same with her. (To use this approach it’s best to not pay any attention to your camera, or perhaps do what renowned travel portraitist David Lazar does, and keep it tucked away until you need it.) After you get consent, snap a few environmental shots as she is and flatter her. If the image looks flattering, showing her might be a good idea. If not, don’t! Just keep smiling and guide her into position for the classic or environmental portrait you really wanted all along, and already had framed in your mind. To show your appreciation, you can always offer to send your subject a copy of the image. If you will be returning in the future, you can make a print and make a gift of it for them. This something we regularly do on our photo tours, and is always very much appreciated.

Environmental Portraiture

No, this is not some form of “green” photography using a Greenpeace member as subject, although it could be! In this case, “environmental” simply means including the surrounding environment of the person(s) being photographed. Ideally this environment should tell the viewer something specifically about the subject. The librarian in a sea of books; a knife maker framed by knives; a TV producer wearing a headset backed by a wall of video monitors; a Tokyo businessman packed inside a subway train reading a hentai comic. A Burmese nun in her room is good too!

Environmental portraits can be posed, candid, or semi-candid. The latter is where the subject has agreed to be photographed but goes about their business just the same, while the photographer seeks to capture those elusive decisive moments. And with that lead in, we shall lead out with a few words from a great master…

“There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”Henri Cartier-Bresson

End Part 1. Part 2 will cover Candid and Semi Candid Portraiture, along with People in Motion / Street Work.

Bennett Stevens Written by:

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