10 essential tips to work like a pro when photographing people
No matter what you like to photograph, chances are, at some point you'll find yourself shooting a portrait. Imagine being in the middle of composing that stunning Patagonia landscape image, when a weathered gaucho on his horse gallops up, providing a rare shot of those rugged cowboys. Or maybe you're walking in the French Quarter of New Orleans and a jazz musician on the street gives you a stoic pose. And who hasn't taken a few shots of their family and friends? Knowing the basic principles of creating a strong portrait is a valuable skill for all photographers.
Good portraits are created using a combination of artistic and technical skills. At their simplest, good images require you to set your camera to the right mode, focus and shoot. You're not interacting with the subject, you're simply recording a moment. On the other end of the spectrum, some portraits require elaborate sets, lighting, makeup and detailed interaction with the subject. In whichever situation you find yourself, these tips will help you create that solid portrait.
1. Establish a connection
The first step in taking a good portrait is establishing a connection with your subject. This can be as simple as an acknowledging expression or verbal consent. When I'm traveling in countries where English isn't spoken, all it usually takes is looking at the subject, motioning toward my camera and getting my subject's response. Sign language works great! If you get a "no," move on and look for other images. I've found out that most people don't mind having their photograph taken, and many people are happy to pose for a shot.
Digital cameras provide a great tool for connecting with your subject: the LCD. I was recently in Egypt photographing street vendors. When I showed them the LCD image of their portrait, they became much more willing to work with me on some simple poses. Don't be shy. You'll never get the shot if you don't ask!
Knowing what you want will help you be better prepared and be more efficient when working with your subject.
Once you've connected with your subject, you'll need to help them relax for the shot. Most people aren't used to being in front of a camera and get a little self-conscious about this special attention. I'll talk with subjects and try to find some common ground for conversation. This can be a basic question about them, their job, the weather-anything to break the ice. Don't just walk up, say hello and start shooting because this will make your subject nervous. Before you start photographing, explain what you're doing so your subject has an idea of what to expect. Your subject's hands and face are indicators of how relaxed he or she is. They reveal tension easily, and if your subject has a pained expression, your shot won't work.
Try to maintain a running dialogue while shooting to help your subject stay relaxed. Posing the hands is often key to making a strong shot. Sometimes, I'll give my subject something to hold. On a recent assignment, I photographed a university professor who couldn't relax in front of the camera. The second I put a few books in his hand, he visibly relaxed and I got the shot.
3. Choose the background
Almost as important as your subject is the background behind them. Backgrounds can make or break a portrait. If your background is busy or has hot spots, chances are this will detract from your image. On the other hand, if your background contributes some context or important information about your subject, then it can be an asset to your image. I recently photographed a man with lots of tattoos in a tattoo shop. The two choices of backgrounds were a dull green wall or a wall decorated with framed pictures of body art and tattoos. Including the tattoos on the background wall brought home the location and helped convey the mood of the image.
4. What's your point?
When you're composing your shot, you need to ask yourself, "Why am I taking this portrait?" Are you recording a particular moment—maybe a birthday or graduation? Or are you trying to express a mood or feeling, striving for a powerful image and deeper connection with your subject?
Knowing what you want will help you be better prepared and be more efficient when working with your subject. Some subjects give you only a few minutes of their time, but if you set up in advance and know what feeling you're trying to capture, you'll have more success.