How to Photograph People

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Young man, Half Moon Bay, Melbourne

Photography can be split into a range of genres, one of which is people photography. But there are so many ways to photograph people that it's sometimes necessary to break up that genre into a series of sub-genres as follows:

  • Candid: where the subject appears unaware that they are being photographed.
  • Action: where the subject is photographed frozen or blurred in such a way to describe movement.
  • Formal: whether head and shoulder, half or full length; as an individual or as part of a couple or group; and being directed by or working in collaboration with the photographer. It's usually the case that the subject is separated from their surroundings via framing, camera orientation, lens focal length and depth of field. 
  • Environmental Portrait: also working under direction or in collaboration with the photographer, but in such a way where the subject appears in an environment to which they seem to belong.

The Location

We can classify the above photo as an Environmental Portrait. It was made at the beautiful Half Moon Bay in suburban Melbourne. It's a lovely location, particularly close to sunset when the sandstone cliff face is bathed in warm light. A word of caution: the terrain is fragile, so please avoid climbing on or walking too close to the cliff face. Let's all stay safe and help preserve this lovely location for generations to come.

What's in a Name

While on one hand tagging a photo as an environmental portrait might be considered irrelevant by some, the term is part of photography's vocabulary and, as such, can help to describe the differences between one kind of photo and the next. And by being able to deconstruct a photo you're that much closer to producing a similar result yourself.

Subject Placement

Under normal circumstances, when asking a subject to turn their head away from the camera, I'd ensure there was more space on the side of the frame into which they are facing. You can achieve this simply by taking a step to one side which will have the effect of moving your subject away from the centre of the frame.

Incidentally, if you were to place your subject much closer to the edge of the frame to which they are facing you'd create an image with much more visual tension. Think about a photo that talks to the lack of hope a prison in a detention centre might feel.

In this case I was happy with my subject placed quite central, at least on the left to right axis, as it adds a slight tension to what is otherwise a very beautiful portrait. I have my own reasons for doing this which don't need to be discussed here. After all portraits are landscapes of a kind. They can explore the landscape of the mind, whether it be that of the photographer or of the subject.

Speak to Me of Color and More

Of course composition doesn't end with subject placement. You'll notice the range of contrasts within the scene. There's the warm orange of the cliff face against the cool blue of the sky and the contrast between inanimate rock and the human form.

You might also notice other differences and similarities between the cliff and sky. One is textured and the other smooth. But it's interesting that the texture in the rock is referred to, albeit subtly, in the clouds.

As Above So Below

Landscape and human, sky and rock, air and earth, above and below. Talk about similarities and differences.

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Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru