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Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Back to Photography for a minute - People Photography

 This blog started out as a vehicle to talk about photography.  It has morphed into more of a discussion of other, more important, subjects, but, today, I want to bring it back to “picture taking.”  I still take pictures for a living and I do it pretty much every day.  My current focus is on community, but the principals involved in my craft are the exact same as when I was chasing birds and animals.  Today, people are the more common subject and I see them as nothing more than a highly sophisticated version of the other animals that I spoke of photographing in previous blog posts.  The blue bird is fearful of the photographer, while the human is more often shy, but the practical result is, in most cases, very similar.  When the subject becomes aware that they are being photographed, both people and other animals have a tendency to act in ways that are contrary to the photographer’s objectives.  In the case of animal photography, stealth and dissimulation are king.  In the case of human photography, psychology is paramount.  Some folks enjoy being photographed and, as soon as they see a camera, begin posing.  (Few are very good at it.)  Others have never seen a photograph of themselves that they like and flee as quickly as possible.  The vast majority are somewhere in between.  The result is most often photographs that are very obviously posed and not at all reflective of the personality behind the mask.

The best “portrait photographers” are also the most adept at practical psychology.  I am not one of those and I find "family portraits" to be a very difficult photograph to make.  Line seven people up and get everybody facing the camera and smiling at the exact same time.  If the group includes a very young subject, plan to shoot a lot of frames just to ensure that the youngster is looking roughly in the same direction as everybody else.  If you can get smiles on every face, so much the better, and a frame in which everybody’s eyes are open at the same time is solid gold.  I admit to having some serious problems with the artificiality of the average family portrait, because it is the only time in real life that that particular arrangement of bodies occurs.  It is, by definition, in the same photographic category as law enforcement’s “mug shot,” the school graduation picture, and the high school football team photograph.  And it shares all of the same psychology.  

My preferred portraits are of people doing something other than standing at attention, in a row, with an empty smile, reluctantly presented, because they are required by some malicious, higher authority to be there against their will.  A photograph of an artist painting a picture may well be a great portrait, but it is probably less interesting than a photograph of a person doing something more dramatic.  The activity that the person is engaged in is, in itself, not important to the portrait, but may be to the person being photographed.  Portraits can have added psychological dimension for the individual.  I have a photograph of me meeting the King of Thailand that is, in itself, a stiff, ordinary mug shot, but it has considerable significance for me in that it triggers a whole host of memories, (including performing as Pinkerton in a Thai language adaptation of Madam Butterfly for the King and Queen and their court.)

So, how do I approach people photography?  My first objective is to become part of the scenery, psychologically.  Ideally, I would not even be noticed, but that is rarely possible to accomplish in the real world.  In certain, high intensity, situations it is possible, but most one-on-one photographs are made with the camera in close proximity to the subject.  Somehow the photographer has to convey the fact that he or she is not going to publish a photograph that is in any way demeaning of the subject.  This is an exceptionally important requirement that can not be overemphasized and the principal way in which it is conveyed is through the body of the photographer’s work.  A photographer that publishes a lot of “gotcha” images is not going to have the trust of his or her subject.  Period.  Second, in importance is frequency.  The more often the photographer appears on the fringe of a person’s life, the more he or she fades into the background.  Another important aspect of the photographer’s task is staying out of the way.  And finally, it is exceptionally helpful to never ask a subject that is engaged in an activity that he or she finds to be important, to move a little bit to the left.  The worst thing that the photographer can say while engaged in this kind of photography is “smile.”

Talking equipment, I favor a medium length zoom lens with a bit of wide angle capability.  The one that I use presently is a 24-105 Canon lens.  One of the advantages of this kind of photography is that extra gear gets in your way, thus making a bag not only unnecessary, but actually harmful to your image.  The secret to this type of portraiture is to be interested, not pretend to be interested, but genuinely be interested in what your subject is doing.  That interest is more valuable than all of the photography rules written by all of the great photographers and all of the fancy photography equipment made by all of the great camera companies.  Not only will it help in your relationship with your subject, but, even more importantly, it will inform your photograph, and improve the experience of the person seeing it.  Finally, it will also educate the photographer and that will improve his or her life as well as their photography.

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