3 Tips for Taking Better People Pictures

Published on May 7th 2013

Despite the wide variety of photographic muses that people chase, nearly everyone who has a camera sooner or later will want to take photos at a party, a backyard barbeque, or (if you’re Elliott Erwitt) strangers at the zoo.

We just ALL like people pictures!

There’s also a long tradition in literature and art of glorifying, cherishing, satirizing and commiserating over the spectacle of humanity.

Photography is well suited to this endeavor, thanks to the medium’s ability to so instantaneously capture minute gestures and expressions. . . To put it bluntly, the technical challenge of photographing people is not nearly as befuddling as lighting an orchid, or trying to track a distant sandhill crane with a cannon-sized telephoto lens.

Capturing good photos of other members of our own species does have it’s own challenges, though. Here are a few bits of advice that may help you to capture that decisive moment.

1. Get very comfortable with your camera

Photographing other people in a candid setting (whether it’s your cousin Drefus or a complete stranger on Fifth Avenue) is part performance.

Think about a jazz musician doing a set, or a guitarist playing in a café. Whether they’re tuning up, improvising or lost in a familiar song, they are never uncomfortable with their instruments. That comfort level allows the audience to stay focused on the music and the performer. . . unless you have an abiding interest in music equipment you won’t pay any attention to the mics, soundboard or instruments.

When a photographer spends more time concentrating on the camera than the picture, the decisive moment is often lost. And perhaps more importantly, if you’re too busy fiddling with camera settings people will get distracted and self-conscious, and be taken out of the moment themselves, too.

Look at the scene and pay attention to your subjects. Whether you’re using an iPhone, DSLR or some other camera, know your “instrument” well enough that you can ignore the camera and focus on your subject.

2. Practice observing and anticipating people

Like any fast-paced photographic subject, the challenge with people pictures is often timing the shot. So the trick to capturing someone’s energy and emotion with a photo is usually just being aware of what’s likely to happen next.

How do you predict a great picture?

Honestly, it’s much easier to learn than you might think. People tend to act the same way in social situations, which means that you (also being a person) likely already have all the skill that’s required to anticipate what’s going to happen next. All you need to do is adapt what you know about people and put it to use behind the camera.

Here are 3 quick examples to get you started:

Listen to people’s tone of voice—when someone is about to reveal the joke’s punch line you have just enough time to compose your shot before everyone laughs.

Pay attention to body language—when one of the kids is suddenly a little too quiet it’s likely a snowball or other antic is incoming, so focus on the recipient fast if you want to capture her reaction.

Tune in to personal, interpersonal and group dynamics—when your great uncle swoops in tipsily on your great aunt for a kiss, that’s family theater at its best. You know what to look for because you KNOW these people, so position yourself and your camera early enough to record the event when it happens.

3. When it doubt, be up close. . . not far away.

Whether you’re taking photos of friends or complete strangers it’s important to be cognizant of a setting’s social space. Be personable. Be a part of the conversation. Be involved in the event, even if your involvement is only as a photographer. Don’t be aloof or hide behind the camera.

People might be annoyed if you’re too close, but if you are comfortable and confident with your photographic process, they’ll feel included instead of inspected.

Meanwhile, if you are too far away people will certainly feel awkward. While you might find it more comfortable to shoot pictures from further back, it can come off as creepy. Also, your photos will suffer because you’ll be too far away to capture the subject’s energy. All you’ll end up with is pictures of scowls and the back’s of people’s heads.

Based on physical and social settings, people have different expectations—and comfort levels—of what types of interaction will take place and how close people will stand or sit to others. (If you took a sociology class in college, try to channel that professor’s wisdom now.)

Keep your proximity to your subject proportionate to the setting. Generally, people will be much more accommodating to being photographed than you might think.

When all is said and done, candid photographic moments of friends and family are often far more meaningful than whatever else we focus on through our lenses. . . So go be a part of that office party, barbeque, or bar mitzvah—and don’t forget an extra battery.

Did you like this article? Share it!
Then check out the related posts below.
Here’s a very common scenario for new photographers. You get a camera. You take some pictures. You eventually import those photos into your image editing program. . . and you're immediately dismayed. “But, it looked so much better in real life!” you exclaim. Something's not adding up—you exper. . . read more
Capturing the right moment can be difficult—but we all want it. We want that amazing family photo (either for our own family, or a client) that showcases each person's unique beauty, and shows the love the entire family has for each other. Sometimes, this can seem impossible. . . and that's wh. . . read more
The painted portrait is just as popular today as it has been all throughout history. From the Mona Lisa to the self-portrait you probably created in painting class, portraits are everywhere. I've painted my own share of portraits, and have found that injecting a little fun into this process ca. . . read more
If you've just been using the automatic mode on your digital camera, you're probably becoming curious as to what the other modes on your camera dial are for. In today's article I'll explain what those modes are, and in what circumstances to use each one. I realize that for the most part this i. . . read more
I love black and white photography. . . it’s so simple and yet so powerful. B&W photos tend to look more polished, classic and elegant without the distraction of color. Its easy to see why black and white photography is popular for weddings and portraits, as it expresses the romantic and f. . . read more
Stay current.
Subscribe to EmptyEasel's free weekly newsletter for artists. Sign up today!
Art Contests
More art contests. . .
EE Writers
Cassie Rief Niki Hilsabeck Brandi Bowman Michelle Morris Lisa Orgler Adriana Guidi Carrie Lewis Aletta de Wal

If you'd like to write for EmptyEasel, let us know!

We love publishing reader-submitted art tutorials, stories, and even reviews.Submit yours here!