Research: Photographing People – Techniques & Tips

For this post, I intend to discuss useful tips and techniques for photographing people, that I have found within my research.

During this research, as well as general advice, I have tried to consider aspects of photographing people I feel less confident about, or that I am unsure of how to compose for a particular audience or perhaps aspects that I might need to experiment with further.

For example, I lack confidence in knowing how to compose or control a models pose within a portrait. As a result, I found an article that demonstrated what to avoid when composing a model and how to avoid this.

10 classic posing mistakes every portrait photographer makes (and how to fix them)

 | Photography Tips | Portraits | 14/10/2013 00:01am

Portrait photography used to be subject to all sorts of ‘rules’, and while many of them have been thrown out now there are still a few that are worth considering to get you started and prevent unflattering images.

Continuing her series looking at some of the common mistakes photographers make across all genres, our head of testing, Angela Nicholson, takes a look at some of the worst posing mistakes portrait photographers can make, and suggests how to avoid them.

Posing Mistakes Portrait Photographers Make: 01 Uncomfortable subject

How to set up and shoot a group portrait indoors: step 5

If the subject is uncomfortable there’s a chance that they will look uncomfortable and as a result the images make awkward viewing.

Chat to your model before you start shooting and discuss the types of photographs that you (or they) would like to produce.

Show them a few examples of images that you like and explain why they work. Showing them a small selection of images that don’t work can also help avoid a few pitfalls.

Get to know your subject a little so that you can chat between shots and help keep them relaxed.

Explain to them how you want them to sit or stand and suggest that they try a number of poses or looks from that position.

If something’s working let them know, but if it isn’t be tactful and say something like, ‘that’s great, now let’s try…’

Posing Mistakes Portrait Photographers Make: 02 Awkward hands

6 stellar self-portrait ideas: go outside

Inexperienced models often struggle to know what to do with their hands.

Having the arms hanging limply by their sides rarely feels or looks right, but slipping them lightly into the top of trouser can work well.

Crossed arms can also be very effective, but beware of them creating a barrier to the viewer.

Unless you want to convey anxiety or tension, make sure that the hands look relaxed rather than clenched. It can help to give your subject something to hold or asking them to touch a near by prop.

If they’re standing behind someone who’s seated for example, they could put their hands on the chair back or the other person’s shoulders.

10 classic posing mistakes every portrait photographer makes (and how to fix them)

 | Photography Tips | Portraits | 14/10/2013 00:01am

Posing Mistakes Portrait Photographers Make: 03 Shooting women with shoulders square-on

Setting up your summer portrait: clothes and accessories

Our shoulders are usually the widest part of our body and shooting so that they are square-on to the camera can make women look bigger than they want to appear.

It’s much more flattering to have the shoulders turned slightly as this narrows the shoulders and the waist while accentuating their curves.

Posing Mistakes Portrait Photographers Make: 04 Neck creases

Professional Photographer to the Rescue: studio portrait photography demystified

If your subject’s body is turned away from the camera and they’re looking towards you they are very likely to have unflattering creases in their neck. This can be addressed in a number of ways.

It may be possible to hide the creases, for example, with the collar of a jacket or shirt or a strategically arranged scarf.

Alternatively you can reduce the rotation of the neck by adjusting the shooting angle and/or asking them to turn from their waist.

Posing Mistakes Portrait Photographers Make: 05 Clothing marks visible

Strap marks or clothing impressions are classic errors which can be avoided by preparation.

If your model is going to be wearing a strapless dress in the shoot, for example, make sure that she changes into it, or some other loose clothing, well before the appointed shooting time.

Sock marks on legs and ankles are similarly problematic so if you want to shoot someone with bare feet, make sure they remove their shoes and socks well in advance.

Remember, the older your model, the longer the skin will take to lose marks from tight clothing.

A warm bath or shower can help, but the main requirement is time and make sure the water isn’t too hot or your subject will be bright red.

Posing Mistakes Portrait Photographers Make: 06 Looking the wrong way

Best outdoor portrait photography lenses: telephoto lenses

As a rule you want your subject to face into space in the image rather than straight into the edge of the frame.
You don’t want them to look cramped within the shot.

Strictly speaking this is a compositional issue, but if your subject moves between shots and tries different poses, take care to reframe accordingly – especially if the camera is on a tripod.

Posing Mistakes Portrait Photographers Make: 07 Heads all at the same height

Family Portraits: 10 tips for setting up your home photo studio

Shooting a small group of people in a line with all their heads at the same height can result in an image that looks like a police identity parade.

Try to break up the line a little, perhaps by having someone sat in a chair, another on the arm of the chair and a third stood behind or sat on the ground in front.

It creates a more interesting dynamic with a triangle running between the heads that will draw the viewer in and around the photograph.

Posing Mistakes Portrait Photographers Make: 08 Unwanted headwear

Wasting Pictures: remove clutter

In all the excitement of arranging your model’s posture it can be easy to forget where you are posing them, so don’t forget to check the background.

Whether you’re shooting inside or out, look out for lamps, posts, poles, plants and trees etc behind your subject, you don’t want anything to appear as if its sprouting out of the top of their head or they’ve selected an unusual hat.

Posing Mistakes Portrait Photographers Make: 09 Up-the-nose-shots

Band Photography: tips for taking promo shots that rock

Although shooting from below eye-line isn’t quite the anathema it once was, you need to avoid shooting up the nose of your subject as it’s generally unflattering.

This can be avoided by asking them to look down, but they won’t thank you if this results in a shot with a row of chins or lots of creases in their neck.

Raising the angle of view just a little can make a huge difference.

Posing Mistakes Portrait Photographers Make: 10 Expecting young children to pose

3 stupidly simple lighting techniques that will transform your family portraits

If you’re lucky you might manage to fire off a couple of shots of a young child ‘posing’ before they get fed-up, but as a rule it’s best to give them something to do to distract them while you take a few shots.

This can be as simple as giving them a picture to colour or handing them an old camera to play with and telling them take a photograph of you.

A jack-in-the-box can also be useful, although aware that some children don’t like surprises!

You need to move around them to find the right angle and move the props rather than asking them to tip their head back or move their arm etc.

Provided you can keep them interested, you’ll be rewarded with natural looking images and a range of expressions.

Another useful reference point was through an article published in National Geographic – people & portraits tips.

Photo: Shinjuku commutePhotograph by David Alan Harvey

By Robert Caputo, August 2007

From Photography Field Guide: People and Portraits

People pictures fall into two categories: portraits and candid. Either can be made with or without your subject’s awareness and cooperation.

However near or far your subject, however intimate or distant the gaze your camera casts, you always need to keep in mind the elements of composition and the technique that will best help you communicate what you are trying to say.

Get Closer

The most common mistake made by photographers is that they are not physically close enough to their subjects. In some cases this means that the center of interest—the subject—is just a speck, too small to have any impact. Even when it is big enough to be decipherable, it usually carries little meaning. Viewers can sense when a subject is small because it was supposed to be and when it’s small because the photographer was too shy to get close.

Don’t be shy. If you approach people in the right way, they’ll usually be happy to have their picture made. It’s up to you to break the ice and get them to cooperate. Joke around with them. Tell them why you want to make the picture. Practice with people you know so that you are comfortable; people can sense when you aren’t.

Settings—The Other Subject

The settings in which you make pictures of people are important because they add to the viewer’s understanding of your subject. The room in which a person lives or works, their house, the city street they walk, the place in which they seek relaxation—whatever it is, the setting provides information about people and tells us something about their lives. Seek balance between subject and environment. Include enough of the setting to aid your image, but not so much that the subject is lost in it.

Candids: Being Unobtrusive

You may want to make photographs of people going about their business—vendors in a market, a crowd at a sports event, the line at a theater. You don’t want them to appear aware of the camera. Many times people will see you, then ignore you because they have to concentrate on what they are doing. You want the viewers of the image to feel that they are getting an unguarded, fly-on-the-wall glimpse into the scene.

There are several ways to be unobtrusive. The first thing, of course, is to determine what you want to photograph. Perhaps you see a stall in a market that is particularly colorful, a park bench in a beautiful setting—whatever has attracted you. Find a place to sit or stand that gives you a good view of the scene, take up residence there, and wait for the elements to come together in a way that will make your image.

If you’re using a long lens and are some distance from your subject, it will probably be a while before the people in the scene notice you. You should be able to compose your image and get your shot before this happens. When they do notice you, smile and wave. There’s a difference between being unobtrusive and unfriendly. Another way to be unobtrusive is to be there long enough so that people stop paying attention to you. If you are sitting at a café order some coffee and wait. As other patrons become engrossed in conversations or the paper, calmly lift the camera to your eye and make your exposure. In most cases, people either won’t notice or won’t mind. But be judicious. Don’t keep firing away and become a nuisance. They will mind. You can also set the camera on the table with a wide-angle lens pointed at your subject and simply press the remote release when the time is right. Modern auto focus and auto exposure cameras make this easy to do as well.

Anticipating Behavior

An important element in people photography is knowing your subjects well enough to be able to anticipate what they are going to do. It’s the only way you are going to be able to get pictures of it. If you wait until you see it, it’s too late. The key is to watch people carefully. Always have your camera ready. If you’re going to be shooting in one situation, set the aperture and shutter speed in advance so you don’t have to fiddle with them while you’re shooting. Watch people through the viewfinder. If you’re paying attention, you’ll sense what’s about to happen.

Predicting Relationships Within the Frame

A great deal of people photography is understanding human nature and being aware of how people usually react in given situations. If someone is sitting in a café he will usually look up when the waiter approaches. People will generally smile when they see a baby or open a present. Crowds rise when a batter smashes a ball that looks like it’s headed for the seats. Think about the situation you are photographing and how people are likely to act in it. Then prepare yourself for the moment.

Candids With Consent

Unobtrusive candids seek to be fly-on-the-wall images that catch people going about their business seemingly unaware of the camera and the photographer. This yields images that are more toward the objective end of the objective/subjective continuum, though there is not, of course, any photograph made by a human that is completely objective. Candids with consent, made when the photographer is actively engaged with the subject and the subject is conscious of this involvement, are very different. Photographs are records of the photographer’s relationship with his or her subject. In consensual candids, the relationship can be either obvious (the subject looks directly into the camera) or subtle—the relationship is implied because the image feels more intimate. We sense that the photographer was physically close to the subject and that the person was aware of being photographed.

Engaging Your Subject

The first order of business is to engage your subject. This is where we all have to learn to overcome our shyness and approach people in an open and friendly manner. Be up front about who you are and what you’re doing. Don’t just barge into a scene with your cameras blazing. In fact, it is usually best to leave your camera in its bag when you first approach people, so as not to frighten them. Take time to engage the person in conversation, just as you would if you didn’t have a camera. Remember the Golden Rule. Think about how you’d feel if someone approached you and wanted to make a photograph. How they did it would determine how you would respond.

Approaching Unfamiliar Cultures

One of the keys to success in photographing cultures different from your own is doing as much research as you can before you go. Talk to people who have been there and get their recommendations. Find out if there are any taboos about photography, and if so, what they are. Another key to success is to be sensitive to local customs and the different reactions people may have to you and your camera. Learn a few simple phrases in the local language so you can at least say hello to people and ask if you can make photographs of them.

Some people have no problems with photography, and you should treat them in the same courteous and respectful way you would treat people at home, by engaging them and seeking their permission. Others have objections to photographs being made of certain individuals or groups. Some people object on religious grounds. Some feel that you want to make fun of them, to show their poverty or some other aspect of their lives to the world. Other people believe that when you make an image of them you are stealing their soul or in some other way taking something away from them.

They are right, of course. Photographers talk about capturing the essence or spirit of a person or place. We do take something, and we profit by the taking. You should always respect people’s feelings and beliefs. There are selfish reasons for this—you don’t want to be beaten up or thrown in jail. But the main point is that people are always more important than photographs. You don’t want to abuse people, and doing something against a strongly held belief is abuse. And the photographs would probably not be very good anyway.

You may be asked to pay for photographing certain people. My advice is to comply with such requests. You pay for a postcard when you travel, why not for an image you make? It is usually not much money to you, but may be quite a lot to the people you want to photograph. If you do not want to pay, you can always move on.

The Casual Portrait

Wherever you are with your camera, always be on the lookout for those moments when a person’s character shines though. If you have a formal portrait session with someone, make some frames of him while he straightens his tie or while she brushes her hair before the formal sitting. Walk back to the car with her and shoot her on the street. If you are on a spring picnic with the family, look for that moment of bliss when your wife leans back, sated, to enjoy the caress of the warm sun. If you’re on the street, look for the impatient expression on a pedestrian’s face as he waits for the light to change. Always be on the lookout for the telling moment. Every person has a story, and every picture should tell part of that story.

Environmental Portraits

Portraits are about people. Environmental portraits are about people and what they do with their lives. They are about the kind of house a person lives in and how they decorate it; about what kind of work they do and where they do it; about the surroundings they choose and the things they surround themselves with. Environmental portraits seek to convey an idea about a person by combining portraiture with a sense of place.

Group Portraits

Group portraits are hard to do well, and the larger the group, the harder they are. It’s not easy to get a good, telling photograph of one person, and the problems are compounded exponentially with groups. We have all had the experience of trying to get the family or the ball team to pose for a picture. Just getting all of them arranged so you can see their faces is hard enough. Then, of course, you want an image where everyone looks good—no one’s eyes closed, no grimacing. Making group portraits takes imagination, patience, and diplomacy. Use your imagination. Find a way to relate the group to an environment that expresses something about what kind of group they are. Do it literally, humorously, dramatically, or by complete contrast. Get ideas from them.

Familiar Subjects

Our family members are the people we photograph most frequently. We record the momentous occasions and the occasional moments. Albums full of baby pictures, first steps, Little League games, Halloweens, Thanksgivings, and weddings mark our passage through time. These photographs are our memories made real and are probably the most important pictures we will ever make or have. You should apply thought and technique just as rigorously, if not more so, to photographing your family as you do to any photo assignment. There is no better group on which to practice photography. No others will be so trusting or willing to indulge your ever present camera, your fumbling around with lights, and your mistakes. When you are photographing strangers, you either get the picture or you don’t. There is no going back to a fleeting moment. With your family, you can work on getting a similar moment again, and again, and again.

Hands and Other Details

The hands of a farmer, a pianist, a baker. The feet of a ballet dancer, a long distance runner, a place kicker. The belly of a pregnant woman, the bicep of a weight lifter. Hair caressing a pillow, fingers clutched in prayer, a peering eye. The details of the human body make great photographic subjects, either as expressions of ideas or emotions, as graphic shots, or as a way to say something about an individual. Whenever you are photographing someone, try to think of details of their body or dress that would get your message across in an indirect way.

Are there particular parts of their body or items of what they wear that are important to what they do for a living or a hobby? Does some part of them really stand out? Can you find a way to abstract what you want to say about the person by using one of these elements?

The point is to use your eyes and your imagination, whether you want to use detail and abstraction to say something about an individual or about the beauty of the human body. If you are making photographs of details of the human body, you will be working intimately with people and will have to direct them, tell them where to pose, and how.

Photographing People When You Travel

  • Learn a Few Complimentary Words

    Photograph by Catherine Karnow

    Catherine Karnow is a San Francisco-based photographer whose work has appeared inNational Geographic, National Geographic Traveler, and other publications. She has been teaching photography workshops since 1995.

    Photographing people in a foreign country presents a specific set of challenges, among them increased anxiety, language barriers, and unfamiliar customs. But when you’re abroad, as at home, it’s most important that you gain the trust of your subjects. This is what will allow you to photograph people as they are in their shops, their favorite cafés, and even their homes. Always emit a positive vibe and approach your subjects not as a camera but as a person—let your smiling face be the first thing they see. And ask permission to shoot when you feel it’s appropriate.

    Before I travel to a foreign country, I always learn a handful of complimentary words like “beautiful” and “wonderful.” Even if they’ve agreed to be photographed, many people are uncomfortable in front of a camera and uncertain of what they should be doing, so it’s essential to be encouraging by repeating positive words. While in France, I came across a farmer and his wife heading home for lunch in their classic Citröen. They were confused about why I wanted to photograph them, so I explained that it was because they were a handsome couple and the car was wonderful. Simply conveying that I saw something beautiful in photographing them was reason enough, and they gave me time to make this gentle portrait.

  • Sit Down and Have a Drink

    Photograph by Catherine Karnow

    Socializing with the people you hope to photograph lowers barriers and puts your subjects at ease. I was lucky to be invited to the home of these Russian twins whose likeness to Lenin has led to parts in movies and print ads. During my visit, I wanted them to be themselves and found that we all became more relaxed once I sat down with them to share a bite to eat and shots of vodka. Their English was good enough to make (very) small talk, and between looking at their photo albums and conversing with gestures, I was able to get natural, spontaneous photos. —Catherine Karnow

  • Be Culturally Sensitive

    Photograph by Catherine Karnow

    Cultural sensitivities vary greatly around the world, so it’s always important to get to know the customs of the country or region you’re visiting and to understand when it’s okay to shoot and better not to. If I’m uncertain, I ask permission of a person in charge or try to catch someone’s eye to get an affirmative nod. When in doubt, keep a respectful distance. At a temple in Beijing, I wasn’t at all sure of the correct etiquette for photographing these monks, so I stayed well behind them and decided to include the beautiful old bell to make this shot. —Catherine Karnow

  • Buy Something

    Photograph by Catherine Karnow

    When I’m shooting in a market or shop, I always make it a point to buy something. In Hong Kong, I walked into the city’s oldest herb shop and was astounded by all the drawers of dried herbs, roots, and strange reptile specimens. Behind the counter, the shopkeeper was weighing mysterious items and wrapping them in bits of paper. It was all so fascinating that I could have spent the entire afternoon shooting photos there. To make a positive impression on the shopkeeper, I asked her to put together a package of remedies for me, gesturing to convey my various ailments. Since I was now a bona fide customer, she didn’t seem to mind being photographed—and even seemed rather pleased. —Catherine Karnow

  • Make Friends With Pets

    Photograph by Catherine Karnow

    It may be a surprise to learn that one of the hardest places in the world to photograph people is in Paris, home to so many legendary photographers. Although I’m fluent in French, my perfectly crafted requests are often denied. Parisian cafés are particularly daunting places to shoot—as soon as I raise my camera, I’m greeted with angry looks. My solution has been to approach the patrons who have dogs. Since the French love to bring their dogs to cafés, I usually have a selection of subjects to choose from, and they rarely object when I ask if I can photograph la petite Fifi. During the cooing and petting, the owners often come around to allowing themselves to be in pictures too. —Catherine Karnow

  • Know That Sometimes People Don’t Mind

    Photograph by Catherine Karnow

    Having photographed people in foreign countries for over 35 years, I’ve found that sometimes people don’t actually care if you photograph them. Of course, how you act can make a difference. I tend to smile a lot, look happy, and emit a pleased presence, as if we were all having a great time. But sometimes, even from the start, people honestly don’t care. I was in a tiny village south of Shanghai one clammy March when a traveling opera troupe came to town. They were performing in the local temple and twice a day donned colorful silk costumes and entertained the audience with their dramatic singing and acting. In between performances, they ate meals, smoked cigarettes, played cards, or got ready for the next performance. My Chinese was little to nonexistent, and I had no translator. Much to my surprise, they didn’t pay the slightest attention to me, so I just shot away. During the four days I spent with them, we barely communicated outside the occasional smile and nod. Every once in a while, it’s nice to be a fly-on-the-wall photographer. —Catherine Karnow

  • Accept Invitations

    Photograph by Catherine Karnow

    In certain countries, I always seem to get invited to weddings and parties. In the lobby of my hotel in Jaipur, India, I met a bridal party getting ready for a wedding about to take place on the hotel grounds. After offering my congratulations and shooting a few fun snapshots that I would email to them, they generously invited me to the wedding. Indian weddings are about as photogenic as any event can get, so I eagerly accepted. Weddings and parties are great places to shoot because people are joyous, festive, and usually delighted to be photographed. —Catherine Karnow

  • Overcome Anxiety

    Photograph by Catherine Karnow

    Every time I start an assignment in a foreign country, I feel shy all over again. To get warmed up and into the groove, I’ll sometimes begin by photographing my guide or a doorman at my hotel. They’re usually willing subjects, and the environment is unthreatening. In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I was drawn to the gentle features of the bellhop stationed in the hotel lobby, so I decided to spend some time shooting his portrait. Seeing his pleasure at the image on the back of my camera gave me the confidence to venture outside and start my shoot. —Catherine Karnow

  • Communicate Clearly

    Photograph by Catherine Karnow

    People who look confused and distant in portraits probably were confused and emotionally far away when the photo was shot. To get a direct, unwavering gaze, you have to clearly and persistently communicate your intentions. I was with the clergy members from a village church in Transylvania one Sunday, and as they were about to go home for lunch, I suddenly decided to do a group portrait. My translator was nowhere to be found, so it was up to me to ask for the few minutes it would take to get a powerful portrait. I gestured for everyone to look directly into the lens. Gracefully, keeping my hand gestures gentle and nonaggressive, I pointed to my own eyes and then touched the front of my lens. The men were distracted, though, so I gently guided darting eyes back into the lens. When people sense passion and a resolute desire, they respond despite any language barrier. —Catherine Karnow

  • Take an Interest in Your Subjects

    Photograph by Catherine Karnow

    If you show a genuine interest in your subjects and their work, your portraits will communicate the bonds that you’ve created together. In Sydney I came upon a wonderful shop that sold didgeridoos. As soon as I saw the owner’s soulful eyes and splendid leather hat, I knew I wanted to photograph him with the instruments. But I could sense his shyness and knew enough about the Aboriginal culture to understand his reticence. So I started by getting permission to shoot the didgeridoos and asked him to explain the significance of the various carvings. As we talked and worked together, he saw that I was fascinated with his artwork and culture. After shooting the didgeridoos, I gently asked him if he would pose with his own creations. I was happy that he easily agreed, and I knew that he felt proud. For the subject to have had as meaningful a time as I’ve had is deeply important to me. —Catherine Karnow

Another example is an article I discovered that offers a general outline of how to capture good quality editorial portraits.–photo-6757

Quick Tip: Creating Excellent Editorial Portraits

By ,11 Jun 2011

Portraits in magazines or other publications are different than what you might want for purchase for a graduating senior or an engagement announcement. Typical portraits, like these, are keepsakes and are filled with smiling faces. The main subject, and often the only element is the photo, is the person. The best editorial portraits include something to show why the person is being recognized, especially if they aren’t famous. Today, we’ll be taking a quick look at what goes into editorial portraits.

Wide Angle View

When learning to take portraits, you’ll hear over and over again that telephoto lenses are the way to go. They’re flattering to the subject and can produce soft backgrounds. When shooting editorial portraits, wide angle lenses are often preferred for a couple reasons. First, they allow you to easily include background elements that add to the story of the picture. Second, they allow you to get closer to your subject which creates a sense of intimacy. This isn’t to say telephoto portraits are never used for editorial portraits, but don’t feel like telephoto is your only option.

Rosson Crow is a Brooklyn-based artist. She standing in her exhibit, which was paired with custom painted motorcycles, at the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S. I shot this photo from a low angle to line up the elements in the shot.


As with any portrait, expression is key. For editorial portraits, keep in mind that the expression may not be joy or happiness. Don’t force your subject to smile. Have a conversation with them while keeping them framed in your camera. In between sentences or statements, their expression will reflect what they’re talking about. If you’re having them do a deliberate or tricky pose, like balancing on something, it may be necessary to prompt them and give them a count-down, but generally this isn’t needed.

This tennis player I photographed has that competitive look in his eyes. Notice that in this image the addition content is not in the background, but in the foreground.


Including the environment in your photo allows you to add another layer of information. The background can tell us where a person works, what they do or even what happened to them. This might mean using a deep depth-of-field, which is also typically not recommended for regular portraits. The combination of a deep depth-of-field and a wide angle view can work great for editorial portraits. Also remember that “including the environment” doesn’t always have to mean including the entire enviroment, often only part of it is necessary.

This mother of two agreed to be photographed at her husband’s grave, who died serving in the Army in 2005. In this photo, she is posed, but her children became part of the enviroment. Even though it was bright outside, I still lit this portrait.


Just because you’re shooting on-location doesn’t mean you get to ignore lighting. Natural lighting can work, but it’s a gamble. Maybe light only comes through a window in the afternoon, and you’re there at 9 a.m. Having off-camera lights at your disposal is very important. It’s a very rare to produce a good editorial portrait that doesn’t have a well-lit face. Also practice balancing ambient light and the light from your flash by making your shutter speed slower. It’s hard to include a background when it’s pitch black.

This photograph was made in a dark diner. I lit the owner of the diner from the side with a flash in an umbrella. I used a long shutter speed to allow the lights of the diner to come through.

Making Do with Unrelated Backgrounds

Sometimes things don’t work out. The artist you’re photographing is having their studio fumigated. The runner has pulled a muscle. The person is studies medieval philosophy. Sometimes you just can’t put your subject in an appropriate environment. There are two things that you must now do. First, it’s time to think abstractly. The person is a doctor who treats depression; put them in front of a blue wall. Second, you need to make sure your other elements are perfect. The lighting and expression must be compelling enough to make up for the lack of an informative environment.

This is an organizer of a film festival. We met at a place which (obviously) wasn’t a theater. I utilized a wall of glass block to, hopefully, create a subtle reference to the silver screen. She was lit with a single flash bounced off a wall to act as a fill light.

Keeping it Simple can be OK

We always strive for unique angles and interesting lighting. I encourage you to do this every time you shoot. But know when to back off. Know when to get off your knees, abandon three-light setup and just take a picture. Occasionally, we get lucky and find something that doesn’t need any help from us to look compelling. Look for those moments and try not to get lost in technique. Some times we’re so worried about our composition and shutter speeds, we forget to just look.

This is professor Herbert Shapiro, who taught at at the University of Cincinnati during the Vietnam War. He was also there when the school was shut down after the Kent State killings. He was once arrested along side his students during a peaceful protest.

Some More Examples

Restaurant owner Aunt Flora had some great windows in her restaurant that I used to create this natural light portrait.

Bam Powell is a musician. We met in a park for his portrait: not exactly his natural environment of night clubs, but he was willing to perform an impromptu version of the Pledge of Allegiance yielding this photo.

This portrait is more about the environment than the person. He helped to redevelop this old structure into new condos and apartments.

This musical couple calls themselves Shiny and the Spoon. They recorded much of their first album in this tiny attic space. I consider this a portrait because they were prompted to go to this space, but the music vibe took over and they started playing. I didn’t want to miss the moment.
Another example of this is an article that offers suggestion of 10 practices that every editorial photographer must know.

10 Practices Every Editorial Photographer Must Know

By ,25 Jun 2013

Breaking into editorial photography is a great way to get more exposure, build your portfolio, and receive unique assignments that will allow you to work with models, real people, and even allow you to travel the world.

If you’re already an accomplished professional, transitioning to editorial photography can be fairly easy if you can remember a few things that make it different than typical portraits.

1. If the Article is Already Written, Ask to Read It

There may be an angle or a specific item or location the writer talks about in the article that you should focus on. Your images are to compliment the article, so giving the story a quick glance can help you look for specific items in stores, or help you visually set a tone for the shoot. If it mentions an old antique chest, ask where it is located. If it describes a specific dish, request it to be made, because often readers will want a photo to reference.

Being overly prepared and educated on what you are shooting will help you prepare when you’re on site shooting and will also impress the art director.

2. Ask if a Specific Orientation is Needed


Some editors already have an idea of layout for the story content. Don’t be afraid to ask for the predicted size for the feature or orientation preference they have in mind. However, still shoot horizontally and vertically for every shot for options as content can change.

Knowing that the story text will overlap the image can also help you go into a shoot looking for a clean background or shoot with a shallow depth of field that won’t compete with text.

You may also not know if the content will be on the right or left, so make sure you shoot with the subject looking in both directions so they don’t look off the page.

3. Shoot for the Cover


If you’re not a vertical shooter, get used to shooting verticals. Especially if you want to do magazine work. Typically magazines know what their feature story is for the publication so if you are shooting a part of the assignment, there’s a fairly good chance you can land the cover. Make sure you leave space for the magazine header. Do this by avoiding busy backgrounds and keeping signage out of your shot.

If you’re not used to shooting verticals, consider investing in a battery grip with a vertical release. It will help you make straighter shots.

4. Be More Mindful of the Details

There is still only so much that can be done in post. Editorial art directors like smart, sharp images with straight lines and clean composition. Sometimes fixing crooked horizons in post can’t fix it as well as just taking a step to the left or right.

The new Upright Tool in Lightroom can do wonders for straightening out lines in architecture, but it’s not perfect. Throw a couple curves in with the lines and you might be out of luck. Get it all right before you leave the scene.

5. Take a Step Back


Often photographers are in the habit of cropping in the camera. The difference with shooting for magazines is that the images often take up the entire page and need bleed room. You can avoid any images from being thrown out by simply giving extra room along the sides. Take a step back before taking the shot. It might be hard to get used to, but remember extra space is needed for the bleed. You don’t want your images to be unusable because you’ve shot too tight.

When magazine designers talk about a page having a bleed, they mean that the design or photos go all the way to the edge of the page. Think of it as the ink bleeding off the paper. In order to do this correctly, the design elements are bigger than the actual page. Then the page is cut back to it’s final size. This cutting is never exactly precise, so you need the extra wiggle room to make it look right.

6. Be Active in Model Selection


Your assignment might require models and you could be given access to a modeling agency’s talent database. If this is the case, know what the magazine’s demographic is. While most of us are attracted to youth, a magazine’s readership might be more sophisticated therefore it’s important to find subjects that fit the editorial’s readership.

Don’t be afraid to ask to look at the models with the art director and give feedback on preference. You can also recommend stylists and makeup artists that you prefer that may help strengthen your shot.

7. Take into Consideration Who You Are Shooting


By knowing your subject’s profession or role in the story, you’ll be able to capture them in a way that compliments the tone of the article. Your images of a comedian should not be shot in the same way as your images of a CEO.

With every photo, make the environment, props, pose, outfit, and mood of your subject all match the overall message of the shoot.

8. Be Professional and Quick

Art directors enjoy working with photographers work quickly, just as any other boss would. The sooner you can wrap up a shoot, the less likely you are exhaust the subject or take up too much of the art director’s day. This all goes toward getting the more jobs from these people later.

You’ll also need to edit well and deliver quickly. I find that my editing for editorial is not as soft or romantic as my wedding photography, but more bold, clean and saturated.

9. Turn in Your Assignments Early

I often hear complaints from editors waiting for images that were taken several weeks ago so they can lay out their magazine in time for deadline. The sooner you deliver your files, the quicker you get hired again for another assignment.

With so many freelance photographers working on the same issue, being one of the easiest to work with and turning in assignments quickly can easily make you to stand out among the rest when it comes to the next assignment that needs to be given out.

10. Know the Purchasing Cost and the Release Date


Editorials tend to have a waiting period, such as 60 to 90 days after the issue comes out when they prefer no one has access to your photographs. If you are the copyright owner, and you should fight to be, you’ll often want to sell images to the subject of the shoot or other involved parties.

Most often the pay you receive from an editorial shoot is less than what you’d normally charge for marketing usage, so know what you would charge for purchasing rights for one image, or the entire session, plus usage.

You should consider giving images to people for free if you think you’ll work with them again. A restaurant’s chef might be doing a cookbook, throw him a few free images to see if you can land shooting the whole book. You’ll also run into the same models over and over again, so giving them free images fosters a good relationship.

Keep in mind, if a business wants to purchase an image that features a model from an agency, you must speak with the agency because they have a rate in mind for their models to get paid as well. It will drastically increase the price, but it may cost less purchasing an image you’ve already taken than it would to rehire an entire group of professionals to shoot again. Don’t be afraid to ask for a fair amount.

The Editorial World is Small

I’d like to leave you with this final thought, the editorial photography world is small. Even in the biggest cities like New York and London, it seems that everyone knows everyone else. Therefore, it’s very easy to get shut out altogether.

Being professional, level headed, fast working, humble and nice is just as important as making good photographs.

I also found an advice page relation to environmental portraits specifically, an area of editorial photography that holds greater creative interest and future potential.

Environmental portrait photography: how to shoot candid reportage-style portraits

 | Photography Tips | Portraits | 13/11/2013 00:01am

Learn how to shoot environmental portrait photography, as we show you how to break out of the studio and take reportage-style portraits of people going about their everyday business.

Environmental portrait photography: how to shoot candid reportage-style portraits

Add a modern twist to your portrait photography by getting out of the studio and into the big wide world. Environmental portraits are shots of people taken in their natural surroundings, the places where they live, work or play.

This environmental portrait photography style is commonly used by magazines and newspapers as including background detail and elements of someone’s environment tells more of their story than a plain portrait shot.

As well as dipping a toe into documentary photography, environmental portrait photography is ideal if you’re ever asked to photograph a business, or if you just want to add something fresh to your portrait work.

The other great advantage to this type of environmental portrait is that your subject will be far more relaxed in their everyday surroundings, so it’s easier to get a natural pose from your model. It’s easy to take environmental portraits with impact with just your DSLR, kit lens and a bit of patience, and we’re going to show you how to do it.

We headed to Society Café in Bath to snap the coffee shop’s staff at work. A busy environment like this is an ideal place to practise taking portraits in as there’s plenty going on and the background is attractive and provides a narrative.

The key to getting environmental portrait photography right is finding a good balance between your subject and their background. Remember that the person is still the focus of the shot, and their surroundings are just there to add interest and hint at their personality and life.

Follow our guide for tips on how to use props and different setups to build a great collection of portraits, how to vary your shots with wide angle lenses and monochrome effects, and how to pick the right settings for great images every time.

How to shoot environmental portrait photography

How to shoot environmental portrait photography: step 1

01 Get candid
Warm up by snapping some candid shots of your subject going about their normal routine – here, barista Ash is making coffee. Try not to be too intrusive as the less your subject notices you’re there, the more relaxed they’ll feel. It takes people a few minutes to stop feeling awkward in front of a camera.

How to shoot environmental portrait photography: step 2

02 Add props
Add a prop to show more personality and to give your subject something to pose with, like Katie’s cake here. This is also a great solution if you’re working with an uninspiring background; tools of the trade or even pieces of uniform, such as a chef’s hat, instantly add interest and detail.

How to shoot environmental portrait photography: step 3

03 Simple monochrome
Further enhance the reportage feel by converting your photo to monochrome in post-production. Black-and-white has timeless appeal and is also a great way to make a busy shot like this one more restful to look at.

How to shoot environmental portrait photography: step 4

04 Perfectly posed
When you’ve taken a few candid shots, ask your subject to pose for you. Position them in their surroundings in a way that keeps them in the foreground as the main focus of the shot and keep chatting to them while you snap to keep their face animated and natural. If the background feels too busy, dial down to an f-stop like f/3.5 to blur it.

How to shoot environmental portrait photography: step 5

05 Widen up
For a different look, whip a wide-angle lens like our Sigma 10-20mm out of your camera bag and try including more of the surroundings in the shot. This is an especially effective trick if there are multiple people milling around as you’ll be able to capture them all in one photo.

How to shoot environmental portrait photography: step 6

06 Find the light
If you’re shooting indoors, like us, position your subject near a natural light source. We asked barista Alistair to pose next to the café’s window for a brighter final portrait, but another option in low light is to ask a friend to use a golden reflector to bounce more light onto your subject’s face.

Setting up your camera for environmental portrait photography

Setting up your camera for environmental portrait photography: switch to A mode

Switch to ‘A’ mode
You’ll need to shoot handheld and be prepared to move quickly to grab great shots in a busy working environment, so shooting in Manual might not be the best choice. Switch to A mode so you’ll have control over your aperture but the camera will take care of other settings for you.

Setting up your camera for environmental portrait photography: increase ISO

Bump up your ISO
As we’re photographing indoors, a higher ISO like 1600 lets us compensate for the low light. The final images may be grainier, but it’s worth it for the freedom to move about and get photos that are reliably sharp each time.

Setting up your camera for environmental portrait photography: narrow aperture

Pick a narrow aperture
You might normally use a super-shallow depth of field in portraiture, but when you’re taking environmental portraits you need to avoid knocking the background out of focus completely. If you’re using your kit lens, choosing a narrow aperture such as f/8 will allow more of the surroundings to stand out and tell their part of the story.

7 Tips for Photographing People at Public Events

by IBARIONEX PERELLO on 10/22/2013


The best way to get past any fear that you might have of photographing strangers is to make pictures of people at public events. Be it a concert, parade or street festival, people are there to see and be seen.

The reservation that some might have about being photographed by someone that they don’t know seems to go by the wayside when they are part of a crowd. This makes it easier to approach people. They often feel very flattered to be noticed amongst a throng of hundreds or thousands.

But while it becomes easier to approach people, this same situation is not always ideal for making portraits. Here are some 7 tips that can help you contend with some of the frequent challenges of photographing people at a public event.


Find the Light First

A portrait is only as good as the light that you shoot it under. And when it comes to a public event, there is always an abundance of bad light, especially if you arrive during the middle of the day.

I prefer to look for a spot where there is a nice quality of light. It could be strong directional light in the late afternoon or some diffused light in an area of open shade. Once I find it, I’ll camp out there and look for subjects that will allow me to take advantage it. I will allow the subjects to come to me and once they agree to be photographed, I will move them into that good quality of light.


Stay Aware of the Background

With so many people milling about, the backgrounds can be incredibly cluttered. So, as well as the quality of the light you should also be looking for as clean a background as you can.

I sometimes find such a background with a the side of a tent at the food court or just a nearby wall. Regardless of what it is, I’m looking to find something clean and simple to help keep the viewer’s attention on my subject. When I can find good light and a clean background, I’m already halfway there.


Get in Close

Sometimes, there is nothing that you can do with the background. There are people moving around. There are distracting signs or banners behind the subject and you can’t just go up to someone and have them remove it just so that you can make a better picture.

That’s when I move in close and will fill up the frame with the subject’s face. Getting in tight allows me to not only eliminate those distractions, but it also makes the subject’s face the most important thing in the photograph. As I have an affinity for characters, rather than just “pretty” faces, I have frequently used this approach to my advantage.


Take Advantage of Depth of Field

An effective way to reduce the impact of the background is through the creative use of limited depth of field. By throwing the background out of focus, your sharp subject can appear to pop off the frame for a very beautiful portrait.

To achieve this, I will often use a longer focal length in combination with a moderate to wide aperture (e.g. f5.6, f4, f2.8. I tend to prefer a moderate aperture to help keep most of the face sharp, but I will sometimes use an extremely wide aperture such as f2 or f1.8 if I want to emphasize a smaller area of the face.

A telephoto focal length of 85mm or longer will also help you to achieve that shallow depth of field, but it will also create compression. Compression is the optical effect that makes the background appear that it’s closer to the subject than it actually is. That combined with a shallow depth of field provides a great look to the background.


Use the Environment

Sometimes, the things behind the subject are not a bad thing. They can actually provide a sense of place and reveal something about the subject. It becomes a way of telling the story of the subject and the happenings around them.

For these shots, I will use a wide angle lens and move to close to my subject. I keep the subject relatively close to the camera so that they are a dominant element in the frame. I will normally compose them off center and use the rest of the frame to include the important elements behind them. I will favor a moderate to small aperture in order to increase my depth of field to keep both my subject and background relatively sharp.


Take My Picture

When people see you making pictures and taking it seriously, you will often be approached by people to make their photographs. Always take advantage of such opportunities. Some people are not expecting you to say yes, but you should never look a gift horse in the mouth.

If I have found the light and the background, a willing subject may complete the trinity of a good photograph. I will immediately make some photographs. But since most people are mugging for the camera or giving me the V-sign, I will quickly approach them and ask to change the position or body language to help improve the photograph. All the while I am complimenting them for something that I find interesting about them in the hopes of keeping them long enough to make the kind of picture I want.  But there are times when the subject gives you something better than I could have come up with and I just go with it.


Have Fun

The camera provides you the ability to meet and talk to people that you might not encounter during your normal day. It is a wonderful opportunity to have a name and a story to go along with your images.

Even when my conversations with my subjects only last a few moments, I get to take away more than a good picture, but also a memory of that person and who they were that lives outside of the photograph. I often enjoy sharing those stories as much as the photographs themselves.

Asking Permission to Photograph People

A Post By: Darren Rowse


“I’m heading to India next week and am looking forward to using my new DSLR. I’m particularly looking forward to photographing the people I come across but am a bit worried about whether I need to ask permission before photographing them in the street or other public places. Any suggestions?” – question submitted by DPS reader, Graham.

Thanks for the question Graham – you’re not the only person asking it. In fact I’ve written on this topic previously in my series on Travel Photography but I thought I’d go over my approach to asking permission to photograph people, especially in a foreign country.

Keep in mind that this is my own personal approach and that others do it much differently.

1. I always ask for permission if the person will be the main subject of my photo – I figure that I’m a guest in another country and that I want to behave like I’d expect someone to behave if they were in my home – with respect and friendliness.

2. If a person is a minor subject in a larger photo I don’t seek permission – it’s just not logistically possible to ask everyone on a street if you can photograph them!

3. Getting ‘permission’ can mean different things in different situations – often it’s simply a matter of holding up your camera and smiling with a raised eyebrow. Other times you might actually ask but gesturing will usually be sufficient enough to get a nod or a shake of the head. I find that it’s quite rare to get knocked back from a friendly approach.

4. If permission is not given or I’m sensing the other person is not comfortable with my actions I always stop and politely move on. I’ve found that in come cultures people say yes just to be polite but don’t really want you to take their shot. If I’m getting these vibes I stop immediately.

5. Before you travel do some research on what is and isn’t acceptable culturally – last time I traveled I was amazed to see how many people in the tour group I was with who had no clues about the culture they were visiting. As a result they often dressed and acted very inappropriately and annoyed a lot of locals by breaking social taboos. While this isn’t directly related to taking photos it does have an impact upon those you meet along the way that you might wish to photograph.

6. Smiling at the person and maintaining strong eye contact before, during and after taking your photo does wonders – for starters it helps with getting permission, then it helps them relax and lastly it shows your appreciation and that you value the person. Show a genuine interest in the other person, their life and what they’re doing and you’ll not only get a great shot but you’ll leave a positive feeling with the person – you might even learn a thing or two and make a new friend.

7. If I’m watching a performance or show where photography is allowed I don’t ask permission of individuals – I figure they’re doing it for some sort of payment and are used to it.


8. If photographing children I take extra care to get permission from a parent where there is one present. I think photographers need to be particularly careful in this area.

9. I don’t pay or tip people for photographs – I know many photographers do this but it’s something I’m not comfortable with. I do travel with little gifts from home (toys, pens, badges etc) which I like to give to people I meet along the way but don’t use these as ‘payments’ or bribes as such.

10. Don’t travel in a large group – One of the keys that I’ve found to getting good street photos of people is to travel in small groups or (when it’s safe to do so) alone. There’s something about a large group, all carrying cameras, coming up to a person that is very overwhelming. If I am traveling with a larger group I tend to hang back on the edges of the group and look for my own opportunities.

As I’ve written before – “Keep in mind what you’d feel like if a stranger walked up to you in your neighbourhood and asked for a photograph and act in a way that you’d want to be treated in that kind of situation.”

Throughout this wealth of information, I found it reassuring that there was so much knowledge available to consult upon almost every dynamic and issue involving when photographing people, in an effective and ethical capacity.

Through this research and previous references for editorial and fine art portraiture, I have been able to recognise the strengths and weaknesses within photographing human subjects. One of the core aspects of this is that there must be a mutually beneficial relationship between photographer and subject.

The role of a photographer far exceeds that of physically an capturing an image we must begin by considering both the aesthetic (technical) and conceptual (narrative) impact, as well the effect this might have upon the life and situation of the people we intend to photograph.

Although it can be quite intimidating at times, often people aren’t as hostile as they might first appear, a kind and sincere attitude goes a long way to reassure people of your intentions.

The final stage of this research is to reflect upon each subject and start to formulate ideas for a potential portrait as a starting point of developing my work.



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