What I’ve Learned (So Far) About Photographing People

I’m in the midst of a Konmari Method overhaul. I’ve pulled boxes and boxes of photographs from my shelves. There are hundreds here, dating back at least 15 years. And as I toss photo after photo into the trash I realize one major thing: I do not like my photos without people.

People are interesting. People have incredible variety. Bodies are fascinating creations. I love landscapes and sunsets and architecture, but these cannot show ephemeral emotions like happiness, frustration, love, and curiosity. People are the real challenge for me. Especially, I recognize, because I am a bit afraid of them.

This is not at all a comprehensive guide, just a taste of what I have learned – so far – about photographing people.

1.Don’t be afraid. 

This woman was SO excited to have me climb up and sit next to her on a trip to India last year. She was darling.

Fear is the biggest reason that in the past I rarely photographed people. Although I may seem outgoing, meeting and talking to strangers makes me anxious. I really have to gear myself up for it, and it tires me out quickly. However, I also feel that photographing people well requires a bit of intimacy and connection. So it takes some courage, a good dose of faith in the kindness of strangers, and some thick skin in case it doesn’t go well to surmount these obstacles. Luckily, I’ve been rewarded 98% of the time I make the effort to cross the invisible barrier.

2. Smile

Americans as a whole tend to smile. A lot. And I am definitely no exception to that. I’d recommend this article which posits that we do so because we are a country of immigrants and it helps us transcend language barriers. You might also consider this as a way to connect with people and break the ice when traveling in foreign countries.

Man Shaving Pushkar Holy Lake, India. How to improve your travel photography

How to improve your travel photography, Indian schoolgirl

3. Be honest about what you find beautiful.

I use photography as a way to capture and share what I find beautiful and interesting in the world. And much like item 1, I have found that simply telling a woman she is beautiful or visibly sharing my curiosity in something grants me access to a more authentic interaction. I know many photographers successfully make voyeuristic-style photographs, but I think those require a certain honesty about the voyeur-intent as well to be successful.

Try not to be a Voyeur Without Intent.

How to better photograph people, improve travel photography

How to better photograph people, improve your travel photography

4. Avoid using Zoom. 

Zoom is great for animals, sports games, or other setups where you have physical restrictions. But it compresses the photos, makes focus and composition harder, and often lowers the quality of the photo. It is also a comfortable crutch for not facing the fear and intimacy items I mentioned earlier. So, if I’m not going to ruin a game, put my life in danger, or spook an animal, then I try to get closer. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.

One note of caution here, zoom is also a good tool for being respectful.

How to improve your travel photography. Nepal funeral

Nepalese funeral. While it’s acceptable to photograph funerals in Nepal, it’s best to do so from more of a distance. The people standing in this photo are the deceased’s family. Close photography would intrude on a tender ceremony.

5. Be respectful. 

The world you want to photograph already exists, and cultural rules are interesting (and sometimes exasperating) parts of it. Breaking taboos, barriers, levels of respect, and so on either should not be done or should be done very, very carefully. Be very mindful of witnessing ceremonies and rituals.

For example: cremation in Varanasi, India should not be photographed. It’s acceptable to photograph it in Nepal, however. Turn off the shutter sound on your camera if you’re going to photograph silent or quiet prayers like the moment below. Don’t photograph people who are naked without their knowledge or consent. Don’t stop traffic for 2 full minutes while you fidget with your camera so you can get just the right shot and don’t swarm a subject with a group of photographers. You wouldn’t like being swarmed by strangers either.

Holding a camera does not absolve you of social niceties.

Buddhist Temple Chiang Mai, Thailand. Improving people photography

6. Learn to love light. 

Among other things I had to relearn and remember that middle of the day light can be harsh and wipes out most interesting features. Meanwhile sunrise and sunset are warmer and softer.

I’ve started deliberately organizing tours so that I can catch sunsets. I will even arrange things to catch sunrise (despite the fact that I abhor getting out of bed early.) All because light matters. A lot.

How to improve your people photography. Improve your travel photography.

Train Station in Jodhpur, India. Playing with light and shadow. 

Jodhpur, India dye works. Playing with light.

7. Be playful with people. Really interact. 

Recently I went on a trek to meet the hill tribes of Northern Thailand. I was shocked when a young girl raised her arms to me in the universal sign for “pick me up.” Now, not only can I not photograph well with a child in my arms, I’m not generally that great with children. They always leave me feeling a bit exposed and naked because they see so much. Plus, I don’t know any good games like this guy, who’s journey I love to follow. So this was a huge improvement from my past interactions with children.

But if you want authentic, relaxed interactions, or if you want to get past shyness or some initial rejection then it takes interacting. And if you want to be able to respectfully ask someone to move into the light or look at you while you snap a shot quickly, I think you should take some time to play. Kick around the soccer ball, hold the baby if the parents ask, join the singing if you know the words, etc.

Interacting with subjects as a photographer

The incredible Michael Lee, from whom I learned most of these skills.

8. Move your body.

Lightroom can only fix so much. And it’s much more interesting to look directly into someone’s eyes as they work on a blanket on the floor, than it is to look down upon them. In addition to walking or trekking to reach points of interest, shooting itself can be very physical. Get ready to squat, lean, bend over, reach high, balance on a railing and more. I rarely photograph in a skirt or shorts because pants protect my knees better when I kneel. And I have definitely laid flat out on the ground to get certain shots. Explore different levels and how things change in your photographs.

I have so been here…. photo not of me though 😉

9. Up your technical skills and use manual mode. Or at least Av, Tv, etc. 

I approach the technical side of photography by first seeing something interesting in the world, and THEN making the equipment see the same thing I do. It’s how I approach every upgrade of equipment, and every new piece of skill. What do I see? What does the camera see? And how do I get the two to align better?

There are lots of tips and articles to help with this. There are also a number of classes run by different camera brands such as Leica, Canon, and Sony or local affinity groups. Michigan State University runs a free series on Coursera on photojournalism and the MoMA and University of London run photography art and history classes on the same platform.

Camera shop owners are often also good resources. Especially the independent camera shops. As are more technically advanced photographers, if they have the time and willingness to share.

Tibetan monks in Sera Monastery

This shot from Tibet was partly luck, as it’s hard to control subjects. But I wouldn’t have had even a chance at it without going manual and studying up on some technical skills.

10. Practice. 

It doesn’t all come together at once. Practice. I try not to mourn the lost shots too long. And while it’s hard, I work to give up on the idea of perfection.

I also need to practice my technical skills. A lot. It never fails to amaze me that as soon as I touch down in a new location I expect my photography skills to be at master level despite the fact that my camera hasn’t been touched in 6 weeks. I studied photography, art, and design in university. Had I been a bit more mature and thoughtful in my early college years, I likely would have majored in it. Which is all to say that once upon a time I knew how to shoot 100% manual (including manual focus), and develop my own negatives and prints in a dark room. And then over time I lost all of that skill. All of it. It has taken a lot of effort to rebuild my skills.

Finally….

Don’t forget enjoy! Put the camera down sometimes and just drink in the sites. Learn the history, listen to the songs, and then show a new slice of life through the lens.

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