Photographs you make of people are records of your relationship with them. If it’s a good relationship —if the subject is happy and comfortable—it will show. If the person is uncomfortable and not happy about having his/her picture made, that will show too. The important thing to remember: when you are working close enough to people to make portraits, engage with them. Like this girl in Havana (right). She was standing in the street, waiting for her mother. I spent a while joking around with her, being goofy, and generally making a fool of myself (something you often have to be prepared to do if you want people to loosen up). Only then did I pull out my camera to get this shot (and lots of others too). You can tell from her expression and pose that she’s having a good time.This girl was too. The way I look at it is this: I am asking people for something (I want to take their picture). It’s only reasonable that I should give something in return, that I should at least try to make it a somewhat equitable transaction. Usually, the only thing I can give back is time, and maybe a joke or two. It is time well spent. Everyone likes to be paid attention to. It puts the subject at ease, allowing their real personality to emerge. And it allows me to get a better idea of what it is about this particular person I want to capture. If someone doesn’t want to engage with me or doesn’t want their picture taken, I don’t take it. If they are unhappy, tense, nervous, perhaps even angry, the photo won’t be any good anyway, so why bother? And there are several billion other people out there to photograph. So I move on. People are more important than photographs.
Making pictures of strangers is one of the hardest things we do as photographers. Most of us are actually pretty shy, and we don’t want to bother people we don’t know. But engaging with people is easier than you would think. Say you’re walking down a street and you see an interesting looking character working at a fruit stand. You like his face or his clothes. The wall behind him is a beautiful color. You could of course shoot the man from a distance with a telephoto lens, but you would be unlikely to capture much of his character (there’s a reason that intimacy and distance are linked). With your camera still in your bag or hanging from your shoulder, walk up to the stand. Ask the man about the fruit: Where does it come from? How long has the stand been there? Does he live in the neighborhood? What’s the neighborhood like? Anything you can think of to break the ice. Everybody is their own favorite subject, and you will be surprised how people open up if you ask them about their lives. (But you have to be genuinely interested—people can smell insincerity. And you should be genuinely interested—it will help your photos.) After you have established some rapport, ask if you might make a photo. Most of the time people say yes.
And here’s a tip: When you’re making an informal portrait of someone (after you’ve spent some time with them, of course), press the shutter button, then press it again right away. (If you are using a motor drive, just keep your finger down.) People often become tense and self-conscious when a camera is pointed at them. When they hear the shutter click, they relax a little—and you get a better photo.
In most cases, you do not want to use wide-angle lenses for portraits. They do the opposite of telephotos—they round things out and make people look a little fat, if not goofy. Not very flattering for most subjects, as you can see from the "Informal Portraits" Tips Flick and here:
But, as with any photograph, you should think about what you want to say about your subject—what about him or her do you want to convey? There are times when you might want a little distortion. If you are making a photograph of a clown, you might want that big, bulbous, red nose to be exaggerated, like Cary’s nose in the photo above right (well, the one on the left too, but I shouldn’t mention that). Or you want humor, a sense of looming, or you just plain don’t like somebody.
Think about angle too. Portraits are usually best if you are shooting straight at the person—higher or lower have connotations that we will talk about in another Actual Info. If you are photographing children, do it from their level. Kids get looked down on enough.
Engage your subject (that’s the most important thing). Use a lens that’s appropriate. Try to shoot at eye level. If you follow these three fairly simple rules, you’ll get good informal portraits.
Actual Info: Text © 2010 Robert Caputo
Photos © 2010 Robert Caputo, © 2010 Cary Wolinsky