3 Tips for Taking Better People Pictures

By Zach McCabe in Art Tutorials > Photography Tips

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.


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