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On Assignment (6): Photographing People

Matt Bradley (mbradley)

Keywords: on_assignment, mbradley, previsualization, photojournalism

This is the sixth part of a series on On Assignment.

On Assignment (6): Photographing People

Turning on the Charm

The keys to successfully photographing people? Respect, Enthusiasm and Fun. In that order.

Respect: You don’t just walk up to a stranger — no matter their nationality or circumstances — and stick a camera in their face. That’s no way to treat anyone, much less wind up with a strong image. Instead, when first meeting potential subjects, keep your camera in the bag and take some time to talk, with an interpreter if necessary. This lets them get to know you a bit and grasp what you’re up to.

Enthusiasm: Express interest in your subject and excitement about taking their picture. This can’t be faked. Honest energy and enthusiasm usually prove contagious. And this sends an important underlying message: that you will do your dead-level best to depict them in a pleasing and positive way.

Fun: During the shoot be sure to let your subjects know how well they’re doing. Take time to pause, hit the camera’s playback button and show them a few shots. They’ll love it! And the resulting confidence boost will pay off in spades when they’re back in front of the camera.

I met 13-year-old Hoang Mai Ly (left) and her 15-year-old sister, Hoang Anh Ly, while visiting their parents’ farm in Vietnam. After photographing the family, I looked for a place to take some sister shots.  Posing people stiffly shoulder to shoulder is an absolute last resort. I needed a prop. At last we found an inviting tree, where I did my best to follow the above advice.


Location: Gia Lam Village, Lam Dong Province, Vietnam
Client: Heifer International
Click for an enlargement


Being Inconspicuous

Of  course, sometimes it isn’t possible to communicate with a subject, or you want a totally natural, unposed shot. If that’s the case, try to follow these guidelines:

Ethical / Legal: Is this person(s) depicted in a positive way that cannot be construed as false or defamatory? If so, and it’s a public event or in a public place, I feel free to shoot if the picture is for personal or “editorial” use. If the images are to be sold for commercial usage, then a model release is required for any recognizable face. If you sense that your presence is making people uncomfortable, it’s time to back off.

Practical: To avoid being noticed, try to blend in as much as possible, including dress, actions and carrying minimal photo equipment. A big bag, sophisticated camera and long lens can draw unwanted attention.

The Environmental Portrait

If you enjoy photographing people, shooting environmental portraits is a great way to exercise your photographic vision. The goal is to communicate something significant about a person or persons, their profession, family, hobbies, even their personality. This requires you to think and carefully plan the visual elements of a composition before releasing the shutter. Sailmaker Willy Poulsen, a Denmark native, made sails in several locations before finally settling in southern Alabama. The warm weather and easy-going lifestyle there suited him just fine. The lighting in Willy’s shop was fluorescent; not good, because it tends to give a green tinge to a photograph. So I had him sit close to an open doorway and work on a sail as I shot. His body position and the sail fabric suggested a vertical composition. Using a 24mm wide-angle lens let me stay close to Willy while revealing the interior of his shop in the background.


Location: Fairhope, Alabama
Client: Sailing
Click for an enlargement


When a subject is seated or otherwise stationary, I recommend using a tripod and a cable or electronic release. After checking focus and exposure, you can then essentially forget about the camera and chat freely with your subject, while maintaining eye contact and concentrating on his or her expression.

The Passage of Time

Without doubt, one of the most delightful aspects of working as a professional photographer involves the people you meet. While shooting agriculture on Arkansas’ Grand Prairie, I was introduced to farmer John Ed Tarkington. “I’m the fourth generation of my family to farm this place,” he told me. “Ever since we had two boys, my dream has been to work side by side with my sons.” John Ed went on to say that he’d changed both Will’s and Sam’s diapers on tractors. He’d pack sandwiches and baby bottles, then take them out to the fields where they would spend the day together.

So I used this family history to plan an environmental portrait of the three in a combine cab. We turned the machine away from the sun to avoid harsh sunlight beaming through the windshield. A polarizing filter helped remove most of the reflections from the glass.


Location: near Almyra, Arkansas
Client: National Geographic
Click for an enlargement


In this case, I not only got the photographs I needed, but formed a friendship as well. That bond paid off 18 years later when I revisited the Tarkington’s “Triple T” farm for an updated environmental portrait to include in a forthcoming book. Hard-working, easy-going and straightforward is exactly how I wanted to depict John Ed Tarkington with now-grown sons Will (left) and Sam in this return portrait session. That was my visual statement. An equipment shed supplied props and added color, to visually support their portrayal as farmers. Raising a large overhead door let soft, indirect light spill inside the dark interior, illuminating my subjects. I composed for a simple, tight image — my environmental portrait and nothing more.


Location: near Almyra, Arkansas
Book: Arkansas
Click for an enlargement


Slow Day at Jan’s

Of course, one of the best ways to take effective people shots is not to pose. Once arriving at a location and receiving permission to take pictures, I like to find a way to photograph when my subject is engaged in some activity and not paying attention to the camera. Many times this method requires an investment of time. Several years ago, Time magazine wanted to sample the mood from middle America on some hot political issue or another. How they happened to choose the small town of Marshall, Arkansas, I’m not sure. But that’s where they sent their writer and me on a humid, early July day. The writer spent quite a bit of time interviewing customers at the town barbershop, which told me he must be a pretty clever guy. After all, it’s hard to duck a reporter’s questions when you’re confined in a barber’s chair sporting half a haircut. Business had slowed by the time I got around to considering a “scene setter” image of the barber shop. I had already taken some interior shots but they didn’t seem very promising, so I stepped outside to look around.


Location: Marshall, Arkansas
Client: Time
Click for an enlargement


When I saw Jan through the front window reading a newspaper, I knew I had my shot. I wanted the visual statement to be a scene-setting snapshot of everyday life in rural America. Jan provided a subtle center of interest and the front window filled out the rest of the composition, reflecting a main street scene complete with Fourth of July flags. Once again I was reminded how important it is to take time to try and consider all the visual options when on location.

Three Generations in the Kitchen

Many farm houses in Poland are surprisingly large. That’s not because farming there is a lucrative activity, but rather because these homes usually shelter multiple generations. While shooting in southeastern Poland, my goal was to depict this close-knit family relationship by capturing scenes of everyday life. Kitchens are a common center of activity, as with this family who welcomed me and my camera into their home.


Location: southeastern Poland
Client: Heifer International
Click for an enlargement


In deciding how to compose, I determined camera position by taking advantage of a large window behind the countertop (just out of sight to the right of the picture). It provided soft light on the center of interest — the young mother — and the countertop. A vertical composition with a 24mm wide-angle lens filled the viewfinder with my subjects, while emphasizing the foreground activity: making pierogies (Polish dumplings). With my camera on a tripod, about all that remained was keeping an eye on the background and let the interaction between grandmother and granddaughter determine the moment of exposure.

(3 Votes )

Originally written on August 18, 2020

Last updated on December 17, 2020