Although we’re surrounded by potential subjects, taking photographs of people can still be a challenge. We all frequently take photos of our friends and family, but what if you want to take photos of people you don’t know as well, or complete strangers?

Many of the entries in the People category of Our World is Beautiful 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!

Tips for portrait photography

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 photos 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.

Engage with your subject

If you want to take photographs of someone 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

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

Choose a setting that tells a story

Find a setting that tells 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 setting to add context to the image, without obscuring your subject as the main focus of the photograph.

Jeździec (Rider) – Taida Tarabuła

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 conventional poses. The best 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

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

Shoot in black and white

Lots of the entries in the People category of Our World is Beautiful 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 World is Beautiful, and so far this year she’s already entered some 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

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 all these wonderfully wrinkled faces which make up a good part of people photography).

Faith

Faith

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

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.

Swiss Festivities

Swiss Festivities 

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 capture a winning photo for Our World is Beautiful. Once you’ve got that special image, click the link below to submit your entry – where you’ll also find a gallery of all the entries so far for some extra inspiration. Remember you can enter up to 25 of your best photos, so don’t worry if you can’t pick just one!

Submit Your Photo