How To Photograph People

A young woman amidst the hustle and bustle of the floating market near Bangkok in Thailand.

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, the most obvious being as follows:

Candid Portrait

Candid portraits are very much of the moment and seem to be made in a way where the subject appears unaware that they are being photographed. That's not necessarily the case, but it's a common perception.

Whether you're standing back and employing a long telephoto lens, or working much closer in a way that doesn't invade the subjects sense of person space, the image generally explores an emotion or the response to an unfolding event.

Even when working in a collaborative way with your subject, the candid portrait relies on timing and very much explores the notion of a moment in time.  

Action

The very notion of sports or wildlife photography suggests that, to be able to successfully record (I don't like the word capture) action, you first need to be where the action is.

The idea is to make the best use of the situation and the equipment you have to photograph the subject in a way that best illustrates the action undertaken and the emotion and effort involved. It's all about movement and whether you freeze the moment or explore movement within the still frame you're looking to make a descriptive and visually arresting image.  

Formal

Lovely, delicate black and white portrait of young woman by window light.

The ubiquitous formal portrait has survived changes in fashion, style, photographic format and methods of presentation.  Whether head and shoulder, half or full length; based upon an individual, couple or group; fully directed or created in a more collaborative manner with your subject/s the formal portrait has great merit.

A lovely luminous portrait of a young man seemingly day dreaming.

This three images featured under the Formal Portrait subheading were all made at a low light portrait photography workshop I ran in Eltham on the outskirts of Melbourne, Australia. The late autumn day provided soft, flattering light that was ideal for portraits. I particularly love the luminous quality of the light on the subject’s face, which I’ve worked to enhance on the desktop.

I wanted the image to explore the notion of daydreaming, an important process that so many folk seem to discard during the middle years of their lives. As part of finding time for oneself I think its wise to set aside time to daydream, ideally outside in the natural world. Let the mind wander and just Be!

A close up portrait of a young man alongside a statue in Eltham, Australia.

Backgrounds are often incidental to a traditional formal portrait, serving as little more than a backdrop, whether in the studio or the natural world. As an alternative it’s fun to work your subject in with one or more elements within the environment in which you’re working.

I’m a huge fan of the Lord of the Rings, both the books and the films. This statue reminds me of some of the, albeit larger, statues in those monumental films. All I needed was Aragorn, who I always preferred in his guise as Strider, to bring the composition together. I was really happy with the intense gaze of my subject, which I feel adds a dramatic edge to the image

A young man looks out towards Half Moon Bay from the cliffs above the beach.

The Environmental Portrait

In candid, action and formal portraits it's usually the case that the subject is visually separated from their surroundings. That can be achieved via framing, camera orientation, lens focal length and depth of field.

However, there’s another sub-genre of people-based photography that’s worth exploring. It’s referred to as the Environmental Portrait. In this case the subject is 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. Examples of such environments include the following:

  • place of residence
  • place of work
  • place of play (e.g., sport, hobby, etc)
  • place of worship

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. It's also worth noting that, by being able to deconstruct a photo, you're that much closer to being able to construct a similar image yourself.

The Location

Needless to say, in the case of the environmental portrait, the environment in which the subject is depicted is of critical importance to the success of the image. And by environment I don’t just mean the background. It might help to think of the word environment, in this case, as the surroundings in which the subject is depicted.

The environmental portrait of the young man looking outwards 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. 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.

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 prisoner 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, yet the shapes of the clouds are somewhat referenced in the textured rock.

Connecting Disparate Elements

Landscape and human, sky and rock, air and earth, above and below. The more the photographer/artist is able to both separate and link these otherwise disparate elements the more compelling the image is likely to be.

Photography should be fun. I hope that by deconstructing the various forms of people-based photography you’ll be in a better position to enjoy the process of making great images, more often.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru