Cultural documentary and NGO photographer Russ Taylor, aka NomadRuss, offers his tips for photographing people.
You can’t be shy when you’re photographing people. It helps if you like people, interact with them, and get to know them a bit. Be upfront about what you’re doing.
Russ Taylor, aka NomadRuss, is a cultural documentary and NGO photographer, as well as wilderness guide who’s been leading trips for over twenty years. His adventures span the globe, from Southeast Asia to South America, and throughout the United States, too, which he documents on his photoblog.
From gorgeous landscapes to snapshots of people, his photography is varied and full of life, reflecting the many places he’s trekked and cultures he’s observed. Last fall, he published a blog post with tips on photographing people that is practical, accessible, and inspiring — and the accompanying images are incredible. We’re happy to invite him as a guest contributor to share it with you.
I’m often asked about how to photograph people. Here are ten tips I’ve learned through my experience with a camera:
Get close to people. You can’t be shy when you’re photographing people. It helps if you like people, interact with them, and get to know them a bit. Be upfront about what you’re doing. Most people don’t mind at all, and when someone says they don’t want their picture made, I just say, “no worries,” and move along. Find a person that you find interesting, and it’s likely your viewers will find them interesting, too. I met the young woman below on the plaza in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Don’t forget the background. Placing a person in a setting helps tremendously. It gives us extra information about who they are, and it adds overall depth to the image, making it more interesting. Portraits with cluttered backgrounds distract from your subject — the person. When I was making photographs of the nomads on Ladakh’s Changtang plateau, I walked around looking for the proper background first. I first noticed the snow-covered mountains and the clouds, and then found the person to add to that scene:
Or find a simple background. Sometimes you just can’t find the right background, so simplify and make the subject the only thing in the photograph. Now, all attention is on them. Another option is to use a longer lens. By using a zoom lens, you can increase the depth of field and make the person stand out against even a busy background. When I met the young girl below at the camel fair in Pushkar, India, it was dusk and I couldn’t quite find a way to make her stand out — until I noticed a small pond. When I asked her to stand in front of it and some of the last light of day hit her eyes, I knew I’d found the right place to make her portrait.
Isolate people in crowds. When you’re photographing in cities, especially in cities such as Varanasi, in India, there are going to be crowds. Isolate interesting people within the crowds. When I spotted an old lady from a moving boat on the Ganges River, I had only a moment to make the photograph, and seeing that she momentarily stood out from others, I had to attempt the shot. It’s not technically perfect, but it’s become one of the most viewed images on my website, nomadruss.com.
Focus on hands and feet and other details. Similar to how you might isolate a person from a crowd, you can also focus on certain parts of the body. Hands and feet tend to make interesting detail shots, and we also learn about people through things like the jewelry they wear. In the shot below, a woman’s double rings — as worn in a slum area of Delhi — indicate marriage.
Make environmental portraits. We all like to see people in their environment. It adds a dimension of understanding to their lives. It might be work, such as someone doing construction, or the daily work of cooking for the family. Again, you’ll place the person in an environment where we come to understand more about them. I like to look for common scenes that convey what people do as part of their normal existence. This man in Jodhpur, India, sits on his door stoop in the morning reading the Times of India:
Shoot at eye level. The most neutral place to be when photographing people is at eye level. Shooting from below can make someone appear grand, and shooting from above can also change the storyline. Most of the time I like to shoot portraits around eye level. This impromptu portrait was made on a freezing cold morning while trekking the frozen Zanskar River in Ladakh, India:
Be unobtrusive. You don’t always have to ask directly for permission; I often don’t, at least not verbally. If you just spend some time on the scene and allow people to notice you with your camera, and then slowly blend into the background, you’ll find that you can make images of people as they’re being natural. You can show them the photos afterwards and interact a bit and thank them. I made this photo of a young monk watching a masked dance festival, while awaiting his turn to dance, before he noticed me:
Pay attention to light. Yes, this can be said about every single photograph, and it’s just as important in photographing people. Pay attention to the light, and particularly how it adds detail and directs the viewer’s eye. Catch light in a person’s eyes is vital — it makes a photograph feel alive.
Share your photographs! Do you want to make people really happy? Do you want to get invited back to photograph them again? Well, you can do a lot of good by giving people a copy of the photograph you made, especially in areas where it’s difficult for people to get copies themselves. You’ll be remembered. In some areas of the Himalaya, people proudly show off photos that a tourist gave them years before. They still remember those people, and they’ll gladly welcome them back.