Tuesday, 5 September 2006

Photographing people

About ninety percent of the photos I take are of landscapes and architecture. It doesn't move (though the light does, which can be interesting) and it's never going to get self-conscious.

But I also take pics of people. And one of the problems there is that as soon as you arrive with a camera, they get self-conscious and start posing.

That's okay. As so often, patience is a virtue. I just sit around for a while, and you'd be surprised how often they start to ignore you. For instance I turned up at the shipyards in Sur, Oman - a fascinating and usually almost deserted place - to find a new wooden ship being built. I introduced myself to the foreman, who had no problem with my taking pictures.

So first, a couple of posed shots. Then I just hung about in the background. Within a few minutes I was no longer the focus of attention, and I got some marvellous shots of carpenters at work - concentrating on the task in hand not the lens.

I find a long lens is also useful. It enables you to stand just that little way away from your subject, and the distance makes it easier for you to be part of the background. I generally only use 2 or 3 x zoom - not more than that. Very useful, too, for cutting through crowd scenes to get a shot of the interesting things happening on the periphery. I look for interactions - two people haggling, a conversation going on.

The other option is to pose the shot quite deliberately, but KEEP SHOOTING. This is where 'cheese' dioesn't cut the mustard (to mix a metaphor sandwich). You're not posing a moment, but a few minutes, and shooting every few seconds. Somewhere in the mix of ten or fifteen photos you'll have one that's pure gold and a couple that are okay, and the others won't work. Because people know you're shooting, but they're not waiting for a particular moment, you don't get that frozen quality (what I call 'school portrait' shots).

The other thing I do like is to find a figure in a landscape. I took a lovely shot in Oman of a couple of women walking home with their shopping. A nice ordinary shot - except that they happened to be in the middle of a desert wadi. One man on a park bench. A vendor selling birdie whistles at the Fischmarkt in Hamburg. The difficulty is balancing the landscape and the figure - and that all depends on the story you're trying to tell.

I've got a few of my pics loaded up on flickr - mainly landscape but I'll be loading up some of the shots I've talked about, too.

Now, a request for photographers reading this - I'm a K1000 lover, but film is alas coming to the end of its usefulness for me. So I'm looking for a digital camera that would give me the same high quality as a K1000 - great lenses, reliable (mine has been dropped on a station platform from 6 foot up and still survived, with a couple of dents), sturdy, and with the very simple controls - just set aperture and shutter speed, no fiddling about with knobs and visual displays. I'm using a Sony DSC 727 at the moment but I am really fed up with the difficulty of doing anything but point-and-shoot, and looking for the mixture of simplicity and total control that the K1000 gave me. All advice welcome!


  1. Great shots on Flickr. I'm looking forward to seeing some of these people shots you're talking about here. I find my problem with taking shots of people is not only that they are self-conscious, but I feel awkward to be shooting them, myself...

  2. That's where I find I enjoy taking pictures of craft workers - I have something in common with them, and we have a natural conversation starter in what they're doing. So we both feel quite happy with me hanging round and taking photos, and them doing what they're doing.

    A wonderful book that very much impressed me is one called 'Words in their hands' with photos of typesetters - I think Cambridge University Press did it as a corporate Christmas gift. Almost no pictures of anything other than the printers' hands - and what excellent photos they were. Full of character, you didn't need to see the faces.

    Thanks for the compliment on the Flickr photos. I'm glowing happily :-)