Although we’re surrounded by potential subjects, taking photographs of people can still be a challenge. We’re all confident in taking photos of our friends and family, but what if you want to experiment with photography of people you don’t know as well, or complete strangers?
Many of the entries in the People category of the CEWE Photo Award have been captured by photographers whilst on their travels, and many of these images are candid, documentary-style shots which are quite different to the posed pictures you might take of people you know.
Photographing people in this way can require a step outside your comfort zone, as well as a careful, considered approach, but get it right and you’ll be rewarded with fantastic photographs – photographs that make perfect submissions for our photo competition! Here we provide you with tips on how to photograph people, including advice on capturing the most natural portrait photography poses and how to compose and enhance your shots.
Tips for photographing people
Regardless of the kit you’re using, whether that’s a high-end DSLR or your smartphone, by following some basic rules and taking time to set up each shot, you can take better photographs of people using any camera.
Once you’ve found a subject, there are one or two things you can keep in mind to help you capture that perfect portrait.
1. Engage with your subject
If you want to take photographs of people you don’t know, it’s important to be open about who you are and what you want to do. Don’t have your camera in your hand when first approaching, as this can be off-putting. Engage with your subject and build a rapport with them before starting to take photographs. Once the person feels at ease with you, they’re likely to be more amenable.
Before you travel, make sure you research the culture of the destination you’re visiting. Be sensitive to local customs and learn a few key phrases to help you communicate. Different cultures have different opinions of photography and being photographed, so educate yourself to avoid causing offence.
Hello – Paweł Stępień
2. Try to blend in
To capture candid shots, try to be as unobtrusive as possible. Use a long lens and put as much distance as possible between you and your subject. If you’re in a location for long enough, people won’t notice you as much, so be patient and wait until you feel that you blend into your surroundings.
Spending time studying your subject will also help you to anticipate their behaviour. Have your camera ready to go with the aperture and shutter speed set in advance so you don’t miss a good photo opportunity. Learn to predict your subject’s reactions to a given situation – for example, if it’s raining, how do they move or interact with their environment differently?
Whatnap – Julien Andre
3. Choose a setting that tells a story
The best portrait photography settings are those that tell the viewer more about your subject’s life. Whether that’s a single room, a street or a city, choose surroundings that help to tell the story of your subject. You should use the setting to add context to the image, without obscuring your subject as the main focus of the photograph.
Jeździec (Rider) – Taida Tarabuła
4. Avoid conventional poses
Your friends and family can make handy test subjects when you want to practise your portrait photography skills, but even when taking photos of people you know, you should try to avoid any forced or conventional poses. The best portrait photography poses are natural, so let them be themselves. The good thing about photographing friends and family is that you can keep taking photos until you get one you’re happy with (or until their patience runs out!). Be creative with how you compose and frame your portrait to show your subject in a new light.
Relacja (Relation) – Małgorzata Dziedzic
5. Blur the background
A blurred background works well with photos of people, especially if their surroundings are less important. Set your lens to the widest aperture (lowest f/stop number) to achieve a nice background blur and enhance your subject. This is a simple yet effective trick that will give your portraits that professional feel, and really make your subject stand out.
Fiskelycka med far (Fiskelycka with father) – Michaela Hjelm
6. Shoot in black and white
Lots of the entries in the People category of CEWE photo awards are shot in black and white. Black and white portraits show off texture in more detail, whether that’s skin, hair or the background behind your subject, which in turn gives the image depth.
Without the distraction of colour, it can also be easier to focus on the individual. In well-lit photos, there’s a greater contrast between light and shadow, making images more three dimensional. For a portrait with more depth, that captures a certain mood, try making it monochrome.
Przyjaźń (Friendship) – Maciej Przeklasa
“I like capturing moments in which the person is as natural as possible”
Alexandra Lavizzari had one of her photographs ranked very highly in the final results of our previous photography competition, and since then she’s entered even more brilliant images, particularly within the People category. Here she explains her approach to photographing people, and offers some top tips for other photographers on how to take portraits.
“Taking pictures of people is very different from landscape photography; first of all landscapes don’t mind what you do, whereas people either realise and agree that you aim your camera at them, refuse and turn away, or are totally oblivious of what you are doing.
A Good Chat
I try to be as discreet as I can because I like capturing moments in which the person is as natural as possible, and for this I usually keep a certain distance and use my 55-300mm lens. Images of people should, in my opinion, fulfil at least one of three criteria to stand out as special photographs.
One, the person in the picture should have something unique in his/her face, dress or manner (typical examples are wonderfully wrinkled faces, which make up a good part of people photography).
Two, the person is doing something extraordinary which will intrigue the viewer. I think my picture of the four Tibetan monks could count as an example for this category; it is not a simple portrait of monks but a spontaneous document of the monks’ everyday life with two monks discussing serious matters – as one would expect – and the other two right next to them caught in a moment of relaxed playfulness and camaraderie, which shows that monks are human beings after all and not always engrossed in religious thoughts.
Serious and Not So Serious
And finally three, the person forms a striking aesthetic unity with his/her surrounding, like these Swiss men dressed in bright red against a grey background.
If you are out to take pictures of people, the main tip I can give is to be ready at any time to start shooting and never to concentrate solely on the people you want to photograph but always take in the environment they are in as well. The environment tells the person’s story, gives him or her a further dimension which in turn gives the viewer a deeper insight into the person’s culture and personality.
And last but not least: I think it is advisable to be very critical of one’s work and boldly discard pictures which are merely exotic or nice: people deserve to be shown in their poignant uniqueness, that is the challenge which I am trying to live up to – with still a lot to learn.”
Feeling inspired to head out with your camera and take some photographs of people? Now you’ve picked up some tips, it’s time to put them into action and then show off your best work. Put your favourite photographs of people you know into a custom photo book or take your best portraits and turn them into a canvas print gift. Or if you’re feeling more adventurous now, try making some strangers the subject of your people photography and capture a winning photo for our CEWE Photo Awards. Remember you can enter up to 25 of your best photos, so don’t worry if you can’t pick just one!