Real World Tips for Photographing Real People
People have held a fascination for me from the first moments that I picked up a camera in my adolescence. They were the very first things that I turned my camera toward, and it's a fascination that continues to this day.
Despite such an early start, I still face many of the same doubts and insecurities that you likely feel any time you are out in public and want to photograph strangers. Such feelings don't ever go away, but I've managed to find a way of working through those feelings to make intimate photographs of people.
The fear that people will become angry or even violent is how far we take our anxiety over photographing someone we don't know. But the reality is that most people, when approached in a sincere and friendly way, are often flattered and thus agreeable to being photographed.
Though I discuss in depth my personal approach in my e-book Portraits of Strangers, I thought I'd take this opportunity to share a few tips that I think you will find helpful the next time you want to photograph a stranger.
Begin with a Compliment
I was walking to my car after a teaching assignment when I spotted this young man talking to some friends in the parking lot. I approached him and complimented on his hair and joked about the fact that I'm follicly challenged. I asked if I could make his photograph, which he gladly agreed to.
Approaching someone with a sincere compliment about something you find interesting is a great way to start an interaction. First off, giving a complete stranger a compliment catches most people off guard. They are often flattered. Secondly, it provides them with an understanding of why you want to photograph them. They don't need to ask, "Why do you want to make my picture?" because you've already established why. Whether it's their hair, the dog they are walking or just the fact that they look great in a suit or a dress, it helps to bridge the physical and emotional gap that separates them and you.
Having Your Camera Ready
When I saw this caballero walk into the restaurant where I was having lunch, I knew immediately that I wanted to photograph him. As he and his wife were ordering their meal, I was busily setting my camera's ISO, white balance and aperture to take advantage of the light within the space. So, when I finally approached him and he agreed to my making his picture, I focused completely on keeping him engaged rather than fiddling with my camera.
As I am often making street portraits, I am always assessing the quality and the quantity of the light and adjusting my white balance, and ISO accordingly. I especially pay attention to my shutter speed and increase my ISO as needed to ensure a reasonable shutter speed that will keep my images sharp.
Stay Aware of your Light and Background
During the anniversary of Union Station, there were several people dressed in vintage clothing. I stopped this young man who I thought looked stellar in his suit and hat. Though the light was great in the initial setting, the background was far to busy and cluttered and so I moved him to a location with a simpler and cleaner background. This resulted in a much better portrait that emphasized his style.
Don't hesitate to move your subject. Often the place where you initially find your subject isn't the ideal location for a portrait. Remember, if a person has agreed to being photographed, they likely will be more than willing to move to a location where the light and the background is better if you explain simply that you are doing so to make them look as good as possible.
When I saw this fellow place his dog in his jacket, I complimented him on the dog and asked if I could make a photograph. I had a wide-angle lens on the camera, which allowed me to include him in the frame. So, when he pulled out a cigarette and lit, I was ready to include the gesture of his hands to make a better photograph than I had initially anticipated.
Don't be too preoccupied with invading someone's space especially after they've already agreed to be photographed. For the few moments that you are engaged, you have received permission to move closer to a complete stranger than you normally would have any reason to. Take advantage of that, because the result are images that are much more intimate and immediate than something you could produce at a distance with a telephoto lens.
Include the Environment
While in a small town in Guadalajara, I walked into this muffler shop and simply asked what kind of work they did there. After a brief chat, I explained that I was there as part of a photo workshop and asked permission to make some photographs, to which they agreed. I wanted to do more than a head and shoulders portrait. So I included part of this man's workspace in my composition to provide some context that explained who he is and what he does.
If the setting provides some insight into who the person is and what he does, it's a perfect time to open up the composition and include those important elements in the frame. Be careful to scan the edges of the frame to eliminate anything that doesn't serve the subject or the image. Carefully consider your composition so that you can succeed in making a strong environmental portrait.
When I saw this young man, I complimented him on his look and asked to make his portrait. I positioned him so that the background was as clean and simple as I could make it. There were cars and people passing by in the background and so I had to wait several times for them to pass. I didn't rush it and I didn't settle on just making one image. I simply explained why I was taking as long as I was and thanked him for his patience. In the end, we were both pleased with the final result.
I recommend that you don't rush things once someone has agreed to be photographed by you. It's tempting, because you don't want to take too much of that person's time, but it's important that make sure that you get the best shot possible. That's likely not going to happen if you just make one frame. As the photographer, you have the responsibility to make the most of the opportunity and to honor the person with the best image you can muster. You should be quick, but be efficient.
There is no real secret to approaching strangers. Like with anything in photography, it takes practice. Yes, there will be times when you are rejected, but the worst that will happen in those situations is that people will simply say, "no." Just thank them anyway and move on to your next subject. In due time, you will find yourself making photographs of complete strangers and not only coming away with a good photograph, but a wonderful story to go along with it.
Ibarionex Perello is a photographer, writer, educator and host/producer of The Candid Frame, which features conversation with some of the world's best established and emerging photographers. He is the author of 5 books including Chasing the Light: Improving Your Photography Using Available Light. You can see more of his work at Ibarionex.net and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.