- Category: Photo Craft
By Robert Caputo
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.
By Robert Caputo