5 Questions to Ask Yourself to Help Improve Your People Photography

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They say the lines on a person’s face can tell a thousand stories. Getting the photo that tells those many stories is the holy grail of photography. So what can you do to create standout people photography, especially if you don’t already know the person?

The approach that every people photographer takes is different, but below are five questions that all most will have asked themselves. Each photographer may answer the questions differently and yet still produce amazing results, as photography styles are all different, of course. To improve your people photography, take the time to look at these questions, and ask how they apply to you.

5 Questions to Ask Yourself to Help Improve Your People Photography

This is a photo of a Shaman from Malaysian Borneo. A connection had already been formed with this man after my friend told him I’d photographed for National Geographic. So we were able to use off-camera flash as he posed for us.

1 – Long lens or short lens?

The chances are when you start photographing people you’ll use a longer focal length. This can be true of people who you know, it’s especially true of people you don’t know. Photographers who enjoy street photography will tell you that using a 50mm lens is best. But the truth is that it really depends on the situation.

The long lens

This really means any lens over 85mm on a full frame camera. The nice thing about these lenses is that you can photograph from a distance that’s non-invasive. This is great because you don’t need to interact with the person you’re photographing, and this is terrible because you don’t need to interact with the person you’re photographing.

There are good reasons for and against direct interaction with your subject, something we’ll come to later. The reason you may come to use a long lens is that it compresses the scene, and allows you to focus in on the person, without outside distracting elements.

5 Questions to Ask Yourself to Help Improve Your People Photography

A longer lens was used in this photo, resulting in a simpler photo.

The short lens

This means lenses 50mm or below, with the 50mm lens being the street photographers go-to lens. Using a lens like this will force you to interact with the person you’re photographing on some level. It’s far better to build a rapport with the person than going with hit and run. Besides the advantages you will gain from building rapport, wider lenses also allow more context to be seen in the frame.

5 Questions to Ask Yourself to Help Improve Your People Photography

Using a wider lens can improve your portraits. This was photographed at 50mm, and more of the story behind the scene can be seen.

Now, of course, you can get prime or zoom lenses that are both long or short in focal length. When it comes to people photography, the larger aperture that prime lenses offer is a great advantage. Photographing people with prime lenses is, therefore, best and will to improve your portraits.

2 – What technique works best?

There are many different approaches to people photography to improve your portraits. As discussed above, choosing your lens will help. Applying techniques like bokeh can also get you better results. A few ideas that might help you are described here.

Shoot from the hip photography

This means leaving your camera at your hip and photographing without lifting your camera to your eye. How can this be good photography you may ask? Those experienced at this technique know how to use their camera, and can pre-visualise the result without needing to confirm it with their eyes.

  1. To take photos like this focus the lens to a set distance in front of you.
  2. Use an aperture of f/11 or smaller to have more depth of field.
  3. Choose an ISO that allows for a fast enough shutter speed to avoid motion blur.
  4. Make sure your camera isn’t too crooked, although some angles can work for this style of photography.
  5. Walk past the location you wish to photograph, and hit the shutter as you’re walking or with a brief pause.
5 Questions to Ask Yourself to Help Improve Your People Photography

This scene from the New York subway was photographed from the hip.

Use the light

The correct use of light will always improve your people photography. There are occasions when natural or artificial light can drastically improve your photo. At night you will need to look for a strong artificial light that people can stand near, during the day a shard of sunlight through a gap in the roof could also be used.

Here are some tips for using light to your advantage:

  1. Take up position away from the light source. You will want people walking towards you and into the lit up area.
  2. Wait until the magic moment comes, and the person’s face is well lit by the source of light.
  3. Have your camera focused on the area where the person will become lit up, and switch the camera to manual focus.
  4. Expose for the person’s face. This will mean the background appears very dark, or even black. The background may be at a -2 or -3 exposure value.
  5. Wait for people to walk into the lit up area, and then photograph them. You will need to wait patiently for people to walk by, into the correct area.
5 Questions to Ask Yourself to Help Improve Your People Photography

This man was lit up by artificial light, giving the photo a low-key, high-contrast look. Learning how to use light will improve your people photos.

Patience

Waiting for people to walk into the light isn’t the only time patience will be needed. You might have a natural frame like a doorway, so you will need to wait for someone to walk through it. This approach is not unlike fishing, and the time spent waiting for the right moment can be calming. The most important thing is to make sure your composition and camera settings are already set. Now it’s just a waiting game for somebody to walk past. Alternatively, you could speed things up by asking a friend to walk into the frame.

Forming relationships

5 Questions to Ask Yourself to Help Improve Your People Photography

The value of building relationships in photography is important, it will improve your portraits. This was the first time I saw the monk, Cheongsan. I didn’t interact with him at all, and this is the result.

The very best way to take photos of people, time permitting, is to form a bond with them. Taking the time to interact, and find out about the person you want to photograph will almost always give you a much better photo. The chances of them giving you permission to photograph will be much higher, and you can control the scene more.

Once you have permission you then have the choice between a staged or candid photo, since you can ask the person to ignore you when you are shooting. The chance to get a great photo that you can share with them can form a lasting connection with you as a photographer. The level of interaction also depends on time, whether it’s 30 minutes or several hours. The types of photos you may get if you’re able to revisit the person on several occasions will also improve dramatically.

5 Questions to Ask Yourself to Help Improve Your People Photography

The next time I saw Cheongsan, I made the effort to approach him. As a result, he let me take this photo and gave me a business card.

3 – Do you ask for permission?

When the person you’re photographing is your friend or a model, then in most cases asking permission would not be needed, and indeed might be strange to ask. Photographing a stranger is a different proposition though, so to ask or not to ask, that is the question.

There is no one correct answer to this conundrum, but certain situations may dictate your actions. If you want a truly natural moment, with no hint of a staged photos then you’ll want to try and avoid asking permission. The caveat to that statement is that if you have time to build a friendship with those people you wish to photograph in a natural way this is also possible, after getting permission to take the photograph.

5 Questions to Ask Yourself to Help Improve Your People Photography

The next time I visited Cheongsan, I had contacted him ahead of time and asked if I could take some photos of him. You will improve your people photography even more by setting up a shoot with someone.

Asking permission is the polite thing to do, and will often improve your photos. You need to have thick skin when asking people though, as asking on the spot will lead to many rejections. You need to ask yourself how you can form a relationship with someone even quickly to smooth this process, so you’re more likely to have the person say yes. Is the person you want to photograph a vendor, for instance. Perhaps you need to show some goodwill and buy one of the things they’re selling. If you’re in a country where English is not spoken asking permission may involve the use of body language. So perhaps learning a few polite words like please and thank you for going along with those non-verbal cues would be prudent.

The general rule on whether you should ask permission is up to you. When the photo you’re taking is in that person’s personal space, it’s much better to ask permission.

5 Questions to Ask Yourself to Help Improve Your People Photography

I loved this man’s glasses and general style, so I asked if I could take his picture. I got a posed photo, but loved the way he posed.

4 – Candid versus staged?

This is related to the question above, but you can get candid photos even after asking permission. If the quest here is for authenticity, can you capture a great moment with your camera that’s natural? This is the aim of many photographers. However, if your aim is to tell a story through a series of photos you should really try and get a mixture of both. On an individual basis, let’s weigh up both the pros and cons of candid and staged photos.

Candid captures

This requires a keen eye, sharp reflexes, but also absolute patience. When walking around taking photos you have to be hyper aware of your surroundings in order to get photographic moments that last the blink of an eye. Photographing split second moments means you need to be utterly absorbed in your surroundings, you need to become the surroundings.

You almost have to achieve an internal meditative state. Staying on the move means you are going to the moment of capture. This means you need to be very quick to catch it. Alternatively, you can find a location, compose your photo, and then wait for the right moment to come to you. This approach can take hours, so you will need a lot of patience!

5 Questions to Ask Yourself to Help Improve Your People Photography

This photo taken was taken in the harbor in Yangon. There is nothing staged about it, I just had to wait for the right moment.

Staged shots

Once the photo is going to be staged, you have a lot of control over how the photo is taken. At this stage the person you’re photographing has consented and will be actively involved in how the photo is produced. When done well, this often leads to a more striking photo than one produced candidly, you are in the realms of a visual storyteller.

The photograph could be a simple head shot, or a more complex photo when your model interacts with their surroundings. As the photo is staged, you can ask your model to stand in the best position for available light, and the background. Your model should be well lit, with the eyes illuminated by the light in the frame. If you have off-camera flash with you, you might even consider using this to really improve your portraits.

5 Questions to Ask Yourself to Help Improve Your People Photography

In this photo, I asked the lady if she would pose for me. After getting permission, I was able to set up the photo and use off-camera flash to light her face.

5 – Where should you take people photos?

The answer to that is anywhere there are people, which is more or less everywhere. You can also choose a location to visit such as a market. Below are a few ideas you can try, though you may have some better ideas specific to where you live.

  • The market – This is the stock location for many people wanting to take people photos. There will always be people at the market. You can take photos of the vendors, customers, or the vendors and customers interacting. The downside is the people working in the market may not like yet another photographer take photos of them. This is where building relationships with the people in the market can help.
  • Public transport – A great reason to avoid the taxi, and leave your car at home. Getting on public transport is a great way to explore a location, and the people there. Be aware that in some locations you will need to get permission from the transport operator, as well as the people you are photographing.
  • A harbor – Anywhere there is a river will likely have a harbor. The life of people working in these places can produce great photographs. You will need to be prepared to wake up early in the morning to see the fishermen at work. This is another great example of how building relationships help, you might be invited onto one of their boats if you get to know a fisherman.
  • Festivals – This could mean a cultural festival such as Chinese new year, or a rock concert. Festivals will have people dressed in attention grabbing clothes that look great when photographed. You may find people more open to having their photo taken at an event as well, because they’re having a good time, and are often dressed well.
5 Questions to Ask Yourself to Help Improve Your People Photography

Visiting places people work can be good locales for people photography. A sulfur mine is an extreme example, however, going to extremes will improve your photos though.

Getting model releases, and paying your model

Whether or not to pay for a photo is another question many people ask about. It is up to you to judge each situation for yourself. Photos being taken for a specifical commercial usage are the types of images where you should pay the model a percentage of your fee. When the photos you are taking are for personal use, paying the model is at your discretion. Chances are you will find someone who will let you take their photo for free, so it’s a nice gesture to send them an image once you have processed them.

Once you decide to pay the person to take their photo, it’s unprofessional not to get a model release. If the person you’re paying won’t sign a model release then don’t pay them, and move onto somebody else. The reason you are paying for a photo is you intend to use it for promoting your work, or for direct commercial usage. This means you need to get a model release, and there are apps available for smartphones that make this very easy.

5 Questions to Ask Yourself to Help Improve Your People Photography

This is one of the miners at Kawah Ijen in Indonesia. He signed a model release and was paid for this photo.

It takes practice to improve your people photography

Now it’s your turn. It’s time to go out and practice your people photography in your local area. Are there any ways that you like to take portraits that are different from this article? I’d love to hear your ideas as well, so please share them in the comments below.

What’s your favorite people photo you’ve taken? Again share your great photo with us, and describe how you went about taking it. Finally, get out there and get some new people photos. Hopefully, some of the ideas in this article will help improve your images.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Simon Bond is a National Geographic featured photographer from the UK. He’s an educator who shares his creative style of photos. Want to learn more about refraction? Do just that by getting Simon's refraction photography course.

  • Geoff

    Many thanks for the useful tips, Simon. What seems obvious to me is the clear difference between portrait and street photography. Although a street photograph can be a portrait and vice versa there is a basic difference in approach. The subway scene above is obviously a street photograph: it’s spontaneous and possesses an element of hit-or-miss. While the second monk photo is a portrait: it’s clearly posed, the body language is arranged, the lighting assisted. Attached is a street photo of mine taken at a concert recently. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/6c7778ef8eb19506d80da82b085a790784f5aeea1862ccbaad3a7cabb9e2f1a3.jpg .

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