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Photographing People 101

A crucial aspect of Travel Photography, one that cannot be overlooked by most Travel Photographers, is the photography of people that you will meet on your travels. For some photographers, taking images of people is one of the most enjoyable parts of travel photography, whilst for others it can be an uncomfortable experience, and something that they would rather not do too much of. Like it or not, though, there is no question that when taking travel photos professionally, it is of great importance to get a large number of your shots with human interest in them. The viewers and purchasers of travel images expect to see people in the photographs they are buying. The addition of a person in a photograph can transform a scene, and often change it from a mediocre shot to a good one.

A person in a shot provides a sense of scale to the rest of the scene. It provides a point of interest to the shot that the rest of us will quickly recognise and identify with. There is no more powerful image, no more easily recognised feature than the human face, and it is built into our genes to look out for and pick up on whenever we see it, even if it is just a fraction of a face. Once spotted in a photo, the human face and form will provide much additional information to the viewer, often subconciously. The racial type, the sex, the clothing worn or not worn, the stance and body signals that a person gives out, and of course the facial expression: all of these greatly affect the attitude of the viewer and can change completely the message that the photograph will present. It is therefore of great importance when wandering the planet in your search for travel photographs to look for human interest whenever possible, and include it in a good percentage of the shots that you submit to the photo agencies.

Recognising the power that a human face or form will impose on your photograph, it is thus important to consider carefully the type of message that you wish the human in your photograph to put across. Often we have no control over the way that they look, the expression they have, or the clothes they are wearing, so we thus need to work with what we have and decide whether the overall effect presented is one that we wish to use, or not. We need to decide how they will be presented in the frame: the total point of the photograph, a major part of it, a balance with other elements, or a small part of the scene to lead the eye in or around the shot. We need to work quickly, as nothing changes to fast as person's expression or body language, and what might once have been an attractive addition to the scene, possibly the main reason for the photograph in the first place, can quickly be spoilt if the expression or attitude of the person changes.

Lets talk now about the actual mechanics of photographing people. For many photographers this will be a difficult or uncomfortable part of photography. In our normal day to day lives we don't go up to total strangers and ask to take their photograph. Such a request is quite intrusive, and often highly personal. When abroad in a foreign land, we might not know the language properly, or appreciate some of the finer points of local customs, yet on a trip with time limits we need to quickly get beyond this lack of knowledge and thrust a lens in someone's face whilst keeping them comfortable, relaxed, and if not smiling, then at least with an expression that is not openly hostile! Its no surprise that some photographers find people-photography the most difficult aspect of their job!

The first question we need to answer when coming upon a scene with people in it is this: are we going to approach the people and ask permission to take a photograph, or are we going to just take it anyway? The answer will be different each time. In some locations, there will be too many people to consider: we can't stop and ask them all. If people are inter-reacting with each other, will this be altered by your approach? Does the person have a particular expression or pose that you wish to capture, one that may change once you have talked to them? In these cases its necessary to grab the shot straight away. If you want to be spontaneous and where the person in question will form the main subject for your photograph and therefore fill the frame, you will need to use a telephoto lens to get the image without them noticing you. For the candid shot, there are a variety of techniques you can use to take your photograph. Keep your camera in its case or hidden behind part of your body until the last moment. Try to make the minimum of eye contact with the target, and they might not realise that the reason you are standing there is because you are about to take their photograph. Use a lens that they do not know about: an extreme wide angle will let you shoot much more of the scene than they expect can be covered. A good telephoto will select subjects who have no idea such detail is possible. Wait until people's attention is diverted before raising the camera to your eye. If they do notice you taking the photograph then don't hide or walk away: be honest about what you have just done, smile at them, nod your head by way of a thank-you. If their reaction seems friendly, this could be the excuse you need to walk up to them and say Hello. Thank them for the photograph, and show them the result on your camera's LCD screen. If they are interested or pleased with your photograph, this may be the perfect opportunity to ask if you might take another one, giving you the posed as well as the candid portrait study.

Approaching people is never easy, but the more that we do it, the more courage and confidence we will gain to continue, so don't loose heart. Its worth making the effort. A snatched, candid, photograph may work some of the time, but generally speaking, if we have asked and got permission to take a photograph of someone, the results will be more predictable. We know, for instance, that their expression will remain fixed for a while, as they wait for you to take the shot. We also know that their expression will not be hostile, and they will not turn away from the camera. All of this is useful to the photographer, and gives him a little time to take the best photograph possible.

The most important thing for the photographer when photographing people is to appear confident, even if you don't feel it. You need to work quickly, and not spend time fiddling about with your camera settings more than is absolutely necessary. You should know in advance what settings are needed for the shot, and make them before starting to take the photograph. For someone not used to modern cameras, it can be quite daunting to stare for some time into the front of a large zoom lens just inches from their face, so the quicker it is over and they can relax again, the better. The first photo you take of someone should always be as quick as possible. Show then the results, and they will be able to see that you know what you are doing, and are taking an image that does not show them in a strange or foolish manner. Show the image to their friends, standing next to them as well. The preview screen on a modern digital camera will usually provide an impressive image for someone not used to them. By showing them the shot, you will reassure them of your skill and motives: this is especially important if you are using a wide angle lens, when the percieved centre of the lens may be pointing at their stomach rather than their face. Reassure them with the results, and now is the time to ask if you might take another.

When taking portraits of people, don't just take one shot, take three or four in quick succession. The expression on your subject will change for each one, and provide a range of photograph that you can later choose the best one from. I have found that it works something like this:

  • Photo number 1: Expression fixed - this is the shot they are waiting for. Please get on with it.
  • Photo number 2: Slight surprise - oh, he's taking another one as well. I suppose its alright.
  • Photo number 3: Major surprise - gosh, this is just like a photo-shoot on the TV.
  • Photo number 4: Smile of complacence - well, if he's taking this many shots, I must be a great subject.
Most of the time, it is photo number 3 that I will use, though sometimes photo number 4 will be better.

With children, when they see their image on the camera screen, they are often so delighted that you will have no problems taking some further shots, and they may even be persuaded to move into specific poses, or change their background or angle to light slightly. With grownups, it can be slightly harder to coax them into the pose you need, though once they have been reassured by that initial photo, this will be easier. Your attitude should always be one of respect. Don't boss people around. They are normal people, not professional models, and though might be happy with a little suggestion to re-position, they certainly don't need to be told to move here, move there, hold your hand in this way, smile more, and don't look at the lens. Give people some dignity, and they will respond by giving you the images you were hoping for. Don't take photos for too long - if the shot isn't working, or their expression is never quite right, don't keep trying and trying. Your model will start to get uncomfortable, and almost certainly has something else better to do. Thank them for their time, and move on somewhere else. There's always a better shot just around the corner.

Sometimes you won't get the chance to take the shot you wanted. I am always aware that the person I am approaching has every right to say no, and refuse my request to take that photograph. Consider that this may have happened many times already, before you arrived. If I were sitting in the park at home and a succession of tourists asked for my photograph, I'd soon get tired of it. You might be the one time too many for that person. There are no rules, no special tricks when approaching someone - you just have to try. If you know how to say "May I take your photograph?" in the local language, even if you are not word perfect, give it a try. People are often impressed that you have taken the trouble to learn the phrase, especially if the language is not widely known by other travellers. I tell myself "What is the worst that can happen by asking? They can only say No, after all." Looking at it like this makes it easier for me, and I am more likely to approach people for permission, rather than the candid shot. Not only will the resulting photograph be better, but I have the chance to chat for a while, to make a new friend and to learn something more about the culture I am trying to capture on film.

If you speak the language of your subject, it might be possible, after taking the shots, to ask them for a Model Release. The subject of Model Releases is one that is hated by many photographers. They have already had enough problems getting the photo itself, and they are now have to ask a complete stranger to write down all of their personal details, and sign an official looking form in a foreign language, full of legal phrases that they may not understand anyway. It is no surprise that many Travel Photographers stick to editorial work, who's purchasers don't require such effort. So is a Model Release really necessary to bother with? The answer is yes, if you want to increase the range of potential uses, and thus sales, that your photos will have. What is a Model Release? It is a written permission to publish an image and to market their likeness. It is required by most clients and stock agencies wherever images capture people who are recognizable in those images, and when the purpose of use for those images is beyond Editorial Use. Editorial use is generally recognized by the courts to support the public good and provides some protections to such publications expected to meet that need. Usually newspapers, news magazines, and books are considered to meet the editorial-use standard although most book publishers desire model releases anyway. A Model Release helps to protect the publisher from nuisance lawsuits - that's what the whole issue is about. That's not to say that you have to get release forms for every person in a large crowd - just when it's obvious that a person is the deliberate subject of your photo. Images of public figures - like politicians and celebrities - usually don't fall under this rule. However, if in doubt, get permission. You should also note that if your image is going to be used to sell a product, it is best to have a Model Release for every recognisable person in the shot.

Photographing children deserves extra care these days, especially in the 'Western World'. The actions of certain individuals have made everyone suspicious of photographers trying to take photographs of children in the West, so be on extra guard when photographing in public areas such as the park or the beach. If you require photographs of children for your travel images, you should speak to the adult in charge of them first. Explain your purpose in taking photographs, and give them one of your business cards before asking their permission to shoot. Parents rarely object when they know who you are and why you wish to take photographs. Be aware also the a parent or guardian must sign model releases for minors if you want them to have validity.

What about Property Releases? Are they required as well? A property release should be obtained when the main subject of the image is a building, artwork or property that could be sensitive to visual representation without consent. The may apply to museum interiors and some exteriors, public artwork and culturally sensitive property. Once again, if in doubt, get permission whenever possible. Keep blanks in your camera bag. A quick search on the internet will soon provide you with some standard forms, or your Photo Agency may insist that you use the ones that they provide.

Now that we are on the subject of photo-sales and money, the thorny question arises: Is it right to pay for photos when we take them? This is a question that only you can answer, but in my opinion, I think that it depends on the situation. Don't think that a small coin won't cause a problem. Even what is a negligible sum to you may be substantial one in parts of the world where many millions of people survive on a dollar per day.If you start paying anyone who asks, you create a precedence and spoil things for photographers in the future. Beggars, though, are in the professional business of begging, so I feel that it is only right to give a small coin if they let you take their photo. Other people are often dressed up specifically to have their photograph taken by tourists, so it would be impossible not to give them a payment, but don't just pay the first price you are asked - it is often quite normal to bargain a fair price. In some places, these experienced 'professional' people will count the number of times your shutter clicks, and expect a payment for each one, so it might be more sensible to switch your camera to 'silent mode' just then. Some individuals keep tethered bears, monkeys, and other animals to earn money by getting their photos taken. These animals are not always looked after properly, so carefully observe what is going on and see how the animal is reacting to its captivity. If you feel offended by what is happening, don't take the shot, and tell the handler WHY you won't take the shot. If enough people do this, they may stop keeping animals for this use in future.


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