Foto Talk: Flow & Photographing People   4 comments

One of my favorite portraits, from Cambodia.

One of my favorite portraits, from Cambodia.

The series on flow continues.  I’d apologize for not posting this on Friday as usual.  But I have a pretty good excuse.  I was busy running away from a little storm called Hurricane Matthew.  Flow, or “being in the zone”, is that state of hyper-concentration and engagement that we’ve all experienced.  Check out Part I for ideas in flow with photography, and Part II for its connection with meditation.

 The goal of these last few posts is to apply the idea of flow to various common types of photography.  I started with, beginning with Landscape and continued with Travel.  You’ll find useful tips on each genre covered, some of which may not seem to have much to do with flow.  On the other hand, I’m not offering comprehensive tutorials on each type of photography here.   The posts don’t cover many of the basics, for example, concentrating instead on more subtle stuff.  I want people to not only make great pictures but to have great fun doing it; to experience the satisfaction of being able to shoot anything and everything well.

Whew!  I didn’t plan that tangent.  Now let’s look at photographing people.  Shooting any live subject, including pets and wildlife, is in many ways quite similar to people photography.  But for brevity’s sake I will focus on people here.

Candid portrait of a Nicaraguan vaquero.

Candid portrait of a Nicaraguan vaquero.

I believe one not often mentioned reason that novice photographers gravitate toward landscape is they believe it to be simpler than photographing people (which they’ve done a lot in snapshot mode).  It seems to be more straightforward to produce professional looking results when shooting landscapes, with rules that are easier to follow (do this and then that, and you’ll get beautiful pictures).

Of course this is not really true.  With either type of photography your goal should not just be technically good photos.  This is what so many of those people who have gotten into photography in recent years stops with.  I’ve said it more than once in this blog:  an excellent photograph elicits emotion and/or tells a story.  Since your viewers are human, it’s easier to reach into the emotional parts of their brains when you photograph people than any other subject.

This young Mayan girl from the Guatemalan Highlands was easy to approach.

I ran into this young girl on a hike in the Guatemalan Highlands.  I think her smile speaks eloquently of the natural playfulness and warmth of Mayan people.

People Photography Tips

  • As with all photography there are really no rules when photographing people.  The only “rules” are those that cover all social interactions, with or without camera.
  • In my opinion there are only three keys to photographing people:  (1) be curious about your potential subjects and what they’re up to; (2) spend a little time with them rather than expecting a quick shot; and (3) relax and have fun with them.  Notice I didn’t mention lighting.  Since light is important in all photography, it goes without saying.
  • Number 3 above is probably the most important thing when photographing people.  For me it’s critical that both photographer and subject have a good time.  That way the posing takes care of itself and is most natural.  Best of all, experiencing flow is easiest when you’re just shooting and playing around with someone.  Sure, shooting a professional head shot is going to be more structured, but even there you can make things relaxed, thus capturing a more natural facial expression.

I met this young Nordic couple at a nature reserve in Nicaragua and we had some fun times together before I asked to shoot their portrait. It made a difference.

  • Next, think about the kinds of images you want.  Do you want a portrait or something more candid and active?  How obvious should the surroundings & background be?  Do you want an image with the frame completely filled, as in the image at top?  Think about that stuff ahead of time and be very familiar with your gear.  That way when it’s time to click the shutter you can concentrate on your subject, not technical matters.  You’ll also have a better chance of experiencing flow while shooting
  • Most photography teachers will tell you to talk to your subjects, that silence is awkward.  While I agree, the nature of your interaction will depend on the situation.  You need to decide when to be interactive and when to slip into the background.  It’s a feel thing.  For example if you’re shooting a group, being a part of the fun and then quickly switching to passive observer role to shoot might get you a great candid.

Moving away and being passive observer is sometimes necessary, in this case to let the horses as well as the girl be themselves.

  • Since some interaction is always necessary, what should you talk about?  Be curious about their lives and keep it light.  Joking around, being self-deprecating, even making a bit of a fool of yourself, all that can help.  It’s fine to talk about the photography & what you’re after.  It can help keep them engaged.  But unless you’re shooting a pro model you can easily overwhelm and even bore your subject.  You don’t want forced and unnatural poses and expressions.  Finally, complimenting your subject will obviously make them feel good, leading to better pictures.  But pouring it on is usually (and correctly) viewed as being false.
Although she's a model, I found talking and joking with her made it easier to move in closer for this shot, necessary since I had a 50 mm. lens.

Although she’s a model, I found talking and joking with her made it easier to move in closer for this shot, necessary since I had a 50 mm. lens.

  • While I believe photographers tend to control posing too much, some direction is called for.  You have to move people around for the best light and background.  But you can do that in a sneakily natural way.  “Hey, that looks like a cool spot to get a few shots.”  Or, “a shot of you in front of that (background) would look good, wouldn’t it?”  They don’t have to know that you’re going to blur it.  Again, the thing is to make your time together come first and the photos second, in order to ‘let it flow’.

I will follow up on Sunday by looking at a distinctive sub-category of people photography: those serendipitous opportunities we often encounter while traveling.  Have a wonderful weekend and happy shooting!

After a fun afternoon with these two Botswanans, they couldn’t help but be relaxed and happy at sunset. Rare for me, I used a flash and balanced its output with the background light.  That usually takes a number of tries to get right, so a slow-paced, relaxed atmosphere was key.

4 responses to “Foto Talk: Flow & Photographing People

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  1. I enjoyed your insight on portraits and your images as always were inspirational. Thanks! Brick

  2. Great tips, again, Michael! Though I fear I fall in that category of novice photographers that focus on landscapes (and wildlife)! People scare me!

    • Thank you very much Dries, and I actually agree people are more scary than lions. That’s one thing I learned over there is that lions are actually frightened of people. But maybe that’s what makes people a good challenge!

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