Photography

5 Questions to Ask Yourself to Help Improve Your People Photography

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.