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A creative blog on The Whole 9

The Photography Blog is written by members of The Whole 9 Creative Photography Circle. For a short “bio” on today’s contributor, scroll down to the bottom of the blog. Enjoy! – Mike Hayward, editor

Five Tips for Photographing People

Trey Ratcliff ( offers up a short list of tips for photographing people on the street.  While I’m not necessarily 100 percent in agreement with all that Trey says, he does bring up some good points.  See what you agree with and tell us what you think he left out.

1) “Keep an extra camera ready for people shots.  When walking the streets, I normally have my “big” (D3X) camera ready to go for city landscape shots. My tripod is on.  My wide-angle is on.  It’s in that “mode”.  If I am going to have to switch lenses, it will take forever, and the moment will be lost.  So, I carry a second camera (D3S) on a sling around my shoulder for people shots.  On that camera, I have a 50mm prime lens.  Now, you don’t have to have this exact setup by any means, but having ANY kind of second camera for people shots is recommended.

2) “If they are clearly not looking at you and will not notice you, just start taking photos.  You’re a photographer, dammit.  Just do it.

3) “If they ARE likely to notice you, be confident and deliberate, softly asking permission with your eyes.  This is a very subtle and hard thing to explain.  I usually raise my eyebrows while I raise my camera, clearly indicating, ‘I’m about to take a photo.  Everything is okay.’  If they don’t want you to, they will make it clear.  Usually, they say it’s just fine.  People like to be thought of as interesting.

4) “If they are very close, I ask permission out loud.  Often times, I don’t want them to pose… so I say something (smiling!) like, ‘You look very interesting — can I take a photo?’  Once they say yes (98% of the time they do), I usually ask them not to pose and carry on about their business.  Then I start taking a bunch of photos and enjoy the pressure of capturing the moment.

5) “Don’t be shy!  You’re not a 9-year-old girl.”

Photo credits: Top five images  -;  last image  (directly above)  c. Bart Everett.

  1. Hey, who is the babe in photo #5?

  2. It’s rumored to be the Whole 9’s very own Heidi Huber. I think she should change her first name to “Hubba-Hubba”.

  3. I think these are all great tips…but then again the only photography I take is mediocre on a good day ;)

  4. I love photographing people but as you can see it takes me too long.

  5. I love to take photographs of people, but aside from performance events and pre-arranged portrait sessions, I’ve never felt particularly comfortable doing it. And believe me, as a photojournalist in war zones and disaster events, I’ve been as determined to ‘get the shot’ as anyone I know. But at a certain point, grabbing the picture without permission, particularly when a person knew I was doing it, began to feel like an aggressive, almost hostile act on my part, so I ended up retreating a bit from that aspect of photography.

    The thing is, I believe what makes a photo of a person interesting usually involves capturing them when they’re not self-conscious; when they’re just being themselves and interacting naturally with their environment. This is not to say I’m not looking for drama; in fact the drama, the implied narrative, the expression of emotions is what makes a photo powerful. But I’ve found that although you sometimes get lucky, the more aware a person is of the camera , even if they’re cool with it, the less powerful the shot is likely to be. The exception, as I’ve noted previously on this blog, is where you actually have the time, willingness and ability to gain your subject’s trust (as Diane Arbus would do). This is where a person is most apt to expose their soul. Alternative to that, I believe the only other way to get that level of revelation is when your subject is completely unaware of you taking their picture.

    So what to do? As Trey says, having a couple cameras ready to shoot is helpful. Things happen fast on the street. If you have to fiddle around, you’re gonna miss it. I also believe that the smaller and less obtrusive a camera is, the more likely you’ll get those candid, special moments. Big cameras and lenses attract attention and are intimidating. Having a powerful zoom on your compact camera is also a great help, allowing you to maintain your distance. Crowds and events, especially performance type events where people are focused on something else, are excellent places to photograph people. A bit of trickery can’t hurt either, as I’ve suggested here before, getting permission and pretending to photograph someone’s prize poodle is an excellent way to also photograph them at close range. I’ve also found that having an accomplice can be helpful; a pretty wife or charming boyfriend to engage someone in conversation will distract their attention away from you (but you’ll still probably have to first ask their permission to take photos).

    One last thought- It’s worth considering what one’s actually looking for and trying to accomplish in photographing people. If you’re trying to capture the flavor and reality of a particular place or situation, you’re going to have to work with the people who are there. It’s possible to stage these types of shots, but it will almost always come off as phony and theatrical. On the other hand, if your interest isn’t in a specific place or person but more about the human condition in general or the inclusion of figurative human iconography in a larger visual and/or conceptual ‘landscape’, you might consider working with a model. A truly great model/actress can often give you far more than you might expect, physically, emotionally and dramatically. You can have them dress the way you’d like, place them in the environment as you see fit and if they’re truly professional they’ll be able to intuit your direction or you can relinquish control and just let them run with it.

  6. oh yes, that babe in photo 5. i am a lucky man, because that is my adorable WIFE!!! but this was great. i am by no means a photographer, but i am interested in it, and somehow take some pretty good photos. this was informative. thanks.

  7. @awaken2sun -
    “Mediocre” is a state of mind. A person of your nature cannot be limited by what you think but only by what you feel. If your heart (bliss) is in the subject of your photography (e.g., taking photographs of your daughter), how can anything turn out less than perfect?

    @briannieman -
    THANKS SO MUCH FOR THE PHOTO! I really like it when people comment to The Photography Blog with an accompanying image.
    I see the problem: You’re using Photoshop CS5; things will go much faster and smoother for you when you switch to PS Elements 7 or PSE 8.

    @poorgood -
    You _are_ a lucky man… and I know you don’t need a photograph to remind you of that fact.

    @dangerousideas -
    Now THIS is what I call a comment! Thanks,M!

    Let’s see if I can shake you out of that pitifully passive “comfort” zone you’re in when it comes to taking images of strangers.

    My first advice to street-shooters (photographers who take their camera out on the street for the purpose of capturing images of interesting people – which wouldn’t necessarily apply to dangerousideas) is

    (1) SEE THE SHOT. Develop an eye for those things that define a truly photogenic person. This quality doesn’t _always_ involve good looks, outrageous costuming or dress, or striking facial features. Sure, these things help make the shot interesting, but I have trained my “eye” to look for the personal aura that “smears” and “trails” around certain people.

    The more vibrant these auras, the more I need to capture them. No, not everyone has this kind of “thing” pulsing out from their bodies. And I certainly don’t go up to them and say something like, “Wow…That’s a pretty nice nimbus you have there! Mind if I get a shot of it before the sun comes up?” But when I _do_ see it, I know I have to

    (2) GET THE SHOT. Hardly anything is going to stop me. (@dangerousideas) I’m not going to be shy or timid about going after what I want.) And I know that the _first_ “trick of the trade” (shooting stangers on the street) is to

    (3) HAVE A GOOD LINE OF “CASUAL” BANTER that should always begin with a smile and a compliment:

    (a) “Wow! That’s a great outfit you’re wearing! Where’d you get a (insert clothing item here) like that?”

    (b) “I bet you get a lot of compliments about it. YOU DON’T?!? Well, you should! It’s really great!”

    (SHIFT GEARS now)

    (4) “Could I get a picture of you?” (By this time I have unobtrusively switched from my intimidating BIG camera with its BIG lens to my itty-bitty, mighty-megapixeled Canon Powershot, powering it up as I pull it out.

    At this _VERY_ moment, you’ll notice the spark of a quasi-frightened look growing in your subject’s eyes – it’s the question that asks “WHAT ARE YOU, SOME KIND OF PREVERT?” (They’re so frightened now that they can’t remember how the word is pronounced)

    BE PREPARED TO RESPOND to just the look in their eyes, and get your “pat” response out there _FAST_:

    (5) “I really enjoy taking photos of interesting people. I’m a semi-professional photographer, and while I mostly shoot scenic stuff, I like photographing people the most. Can I take your photo?

    FIRM UP THE REQUEST with what I call the “QUID-PRO-QUO” offer:

    (6) “If you like, I can e-mail you a copy of the image – If you like it, maybe you can use it on something like your Facebook page or something.”

    Remember to say “…or something.” It helps to get your subject’s mind running in the right direction.

    Be psychologically prepared for the “No, you can’t take my picture” response. Charm, diplomacy, smiles, and quid-pro-quo offers don’t always get the image.

    If “No,”

    (7) “I understand… no problem. It’s always kind of freaky when a stranger wants to take your picture. I hope you’ll change your mind later. I’ll be walking around taking other pictures and, if you see me, maybe you’ll say ‘yes’ then. Thanks.”

    If, “Yes,”

    (8) Great! Thanks! Could you stand over here? Perfect! Could I ask you to face your body in that direction? Terrific! Could you turn you face and shoulders a little toward the camera now? That’s the ticket! Okay, chin up a little bit, please. Nice… I bet you have a great smile…”


    (9) Wait a minute… I think you blinked. Can I get another one, please? Maybe this time you could look off at the sunset. Great! Would your friend like to step in and pose with you? I can shoot another one if you’d like…”

    I call this “the old in-for-a-dollar, in-for-a-dime” technique. Get the second image, a third if possible. Position your subject a little differently, etc.

    Finally, remember to get the e-mail address from your subject and to say “thanks” a final time.

    The reason I think you’re uncomfortable with taking photos of strangers on the street (or elsewhere) _isn’t_ because you’re not a “people person” (I know you are); I think it’s because you haven’t realized your own confidence and ability to “act out” a scenario akin to something I’ve described above. All it takes is a little rehearsal, a little practice… going from the first line (“Wow! That’s a great-looking _______ you’ve got there!”) to the last (Thanks!”) This may all sound insincere and – at first – it is. It’s all very contrived with just one purpose in mind.

    But, as you become more and more comfortable with your lines, you’ll gradually realize that everything you’re saying is (gasp!) true. You’re not being aggressive – you’re being friendly. Your friendly interaction and compliments should relax your subject. Push come to shove, tell your subject to think about something fun and relax.

    Someone (Susan Sontag, I believe) once said once you photograph something, it can never be the same. The point here, M., is (as I hope you will agree) that you must “see” the image before you capture it. This is your challenge: to re-create the image you saw in your mind, you must direct the subject to “become” the image you saw in your mind. Directing a subject out on the street is little different from directing a subject in the studio. Of course, they’re self-conscious. Your task, grasshopper, is to alter their consciousness and take them somewhere else.

  8. I’m thinking maybe I should have included an example of aura capture. (of course, developing an in-camera “shutter lag” technique helps.)

  9. @dangerousideas:

    “I also believe that the smaller and less obtrusive a camera is, the more likely you’ll get those candid, special moments. Big cameras and lenses attract attention and are intimidating.”

    And sometimes a big camera will attract the attention of people who _want_ to have their photo taken – they will march right over, stand in squarely front of you, and hard-as-hell pretend to be involved looking somewhere else.

  10. Thanks, Mike! Good tips and some excellent lines and techniques for eliciting cooperation that I’ll try to remember. Truthfully I may be a bit ’shy’, even anti-social, but as you can see from my post, I still do plenty of photographing people in the course of a day ‘on the street’. You’e probably right about the comfort zone thing though. Maybe I’m just too lazy or more likely too much in my own world when I’m out exploring. Engaging in demanding social interaction can break my concentration. It’s probably me who doesn’t want to be ‘intruded upon’, as much or more than the person I might want to photograph. Never really thought about it in that light before. Thank you!

  11. @dangerousideas -

    Stick with what you enjoy most.

    My suggestions are only for photographers who enjoy photographing people (essentially what we would call “strangers”) and/or want to develop their skills in that direction. If your photographic bliss is in another area (such as photojournalism, landscape, travel, portrait, etc.), I can only recommend that you develop your photographic skills in that direction.

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