The following is a guest post by Paul Bogan. You can read more about him at the end of the post.
Photographers have a reputation for being a pretty extroverted lot. It makes sense, on the surface, since many photographers are drawn to people, weddings, fashion and other subjects that involve lots of interpersonal contact. But if you look deeper — and it doesn’t take all that much digging — there are also a lot of introverts behind the lens. What might surprise you, however, is that they’re not all whiling away their time doing product photography or snapshots of flowers. There are a lot of photographers — some better known than others — who’ve made a life and a living making photos of people.
So if you’re camera shy behind the camera, or if the thought of taking out the camera in front of people leaves you feeling exhausted, what’s the benefit in taking on people photography, whether it’s street, candids or portraiture? For one thing, being comfortable making photos of people greatly expands your options, both in terms of subject matter (that’s seven billion potential subjects, after all) and in terms of finding your artistic voice. From a technical standpoint, the things you’ll learn about thinking on your feet, composing quickly, and making the best of unpredictable situations are also invaluable. On that note, I’ve compiled a list of ten tips for introverts to get their best people photos.
1. Know your gear. It’s not the type of camera that matters. I know that I’ll probably be taken vigorously to task for saying that, but if you’re bound and determined to make any kind of photography work, you’ll find a way to do it regardless of what’s in your kit. However, it’s in your best interest to know how to use what you’ve got. This means reading the instruction manual (I find it helpful to keep a PDF copy of it on your smartphone), familiarizing yourself with the camera’s features and functions, and, above all, shooting as often as possible. I can’t emphasize the importance of shooting frequently nearly enough; really, everything else stems from that. Using your gear becomes second nature at that point, and getting used to the quirks of your camera body and lenses is so much easier with frequent use. Besides, if you’re going to be shooting people, it helps if you look like you know what you’re doing.
2. Always Have Your Camera. When it comes to family, it can feel a bit awkward at first always having a camera around (both for you and for them). It can be no less awkward — at first, anyway — to be out in a crowd with a camera around your neck. In both cases, however, a little familiarity goes a long way. In the former instance, your friends and family won’t give the camera a second thought before too long. In both instances, you won’t give it a second thought after a while either. It’ll feel more natural because it’s always there. As an added bonus, if a photo opportunity comes up, you’ll be ready for it, instead of looking at something funny or breathtaking and saying, “Wow, I wish I had my camera!”
3. Look like you belong. Be obvious. This probably sounds counterintuitive, since there might be a part of you that would like to keep your shooting on the sly. While there are times that it’s helpful to shoot that way, stop to consider something. Let’s say you’re in a public place and you happen to see someone sneaking shots. What will you think of, and how would you feel about, that person? If you’re trying to hide your photography, you start looking like you’ve got something to hide, and you’ll start getting suspicious looks from people who otherwise wouldn’t have even noticed you.
On a related note, if someone asks what you’re doing, or what you’re shooting, be honest. It’s very rare that I’ve been approached about what I was shooting, but I’ve had some great conversations with people who wanted to know what I was doing. Some have asked for photos (take their email and oblige), while some wanted to make sure I wasn’t shooting commercially (I wasn’t). Only once have I been asked to stop. No worries; if you stay polite and reasonable, the person to whom you’re speaking will generally do the same.
4. Vanish. Yes, I know I just said to be obvious. I’m just a mess of contradicitions today. Here’s what I mean. Let yourself be seen, then let yourself be forgotten. You’re in your own nether world between being and not-being. Whether you’re shooting in a crowd, or it’s just you and one other person, that means not using flash, which makes your subject(s) instantly conscious of the fact that there’s a camera trained on them. It also means finding a comfortable vantage point that’s close to being in the middle of everything without being so in the middle that you’re saying “excuse me” to (or helping up) the countless people who’ve bumped into, or tripped over, you.
5. Find a crowd. Okay, you’ve brushed up on your ninja skills. Now what? The conventional wisdom is that introverts find people draining. My experience has been that it’s pretty easy to be alone in a crowd. Yes, there are places that people go to be seen, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll actually want to speak to you (as anyone living in New York or Los Angeles will readily attest). If you’re shooting in a high-traffic area (or shooting at an event where a lot of people are gathered), you’ll have all the solitude you want, albeit in the middle of a few hundred other people.
And it’s not just about finding crowds of subjects. A crowd of photographers works just as well, since at that point you’re just one more person with a camera; in all likelihood, nobody’s going to give you a second thought.
6. Meet your subject on their ground, and their terms. Find people in their natural environment, whether they’re hard at work or seriously at play. Think about an activity that you do where you can completely lose yourself. Maybe it’s writing, reading, woodworking, tennis… once you’ve settled into your particular groove, the activity is all that matters. There might be a world beyond what you’re doing, but it’s the last thing on your mind. If you can find someone doing the same, they’ll be relaxed because as far as they’re concerned, you’re not there.
It can also be fun to find people in costume. Renfaires, conventions, re-enactments, your local chapter of the SCA, Tea Party rallies… anywhere you find people trying on a different persona for size can be good, especially since some people aren’t just trying on different clothes for size, they’re trying out another persona altogether. That stockbroker might not like having his photo taken, but as Batman, a Confederate soldier or a Klingon, he might have different thoughts on the matter.
7. Find a buddy. Shooting in tandem with another person is a great idea for a number of reasons, not least of which the fact that you’ve got a friend along to keep things interesting, and if they’re the extroverted type, they’re generally more than happy to chat up the people you encounter, whether they’re subjects or not. You get to see not only the photos that result from a different approach to subject matter, but also some ideas for approaching the subjects themselves.
8. Ask! The “rules” around street photography have practically been set in stone, or maybe they’ve just ossified. In any event, people will tell you that it’s not “real” street photography if you’re not taking shots that are 100% spontaneous, catching your subject unaware and without their permission. That’d probably be a surprise to Robert Doisneau, who was in the habit of recreating moments or asking photogenic people to pose for him on the fly.
We might hesitate to photograph people out of fear that they might say no, or might not want their photo taken even if they haven’t said anything; I know the thought’s crossed my mind, and I doubt if I’m the only one. The advantage to asking is that you’ll know for sure at that point whether someone minds having their picture made. If they say yes, take your time, get the shot, and thank them. If they say no, thank them, and let it go.
9. No smiles! I’m kidding, maybe. There’s nothing wrong with catching someone in the middle of a heartfelt grin, or a good belly laugh. But don’t expect your subject to force it. I’m going to step away from the persona of “objective photography writer guy” for a moment and interject a little something here: the portraits that work, to my mind (or mind’s eye) have usually been the ones that weren’t trying to say something about someone. They let the subject speak for themselves. Yousuf Karsh’s photo of Winston Churchill is a great example of this; it wouldn’t have had the same effect or power if Karsh, instead of nicking Winston’s famed cigar, had cheerily yelled out, “Smile!” right before pressing the shutter (which isn’t to say that you couldn’t get a good smiling photo of ol’ Winnie, as this photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt will attest). If you’re that hell-bent on a smile, then you smile. Your subject may respond in kind; if they don’t (they could be having one of those days), don’t force it.
But I digress. Let your subjects be themselves, and the photos will be that much better for it. Lots of people — some of them otherwise very extroverted, by the way — can be camera shy, and taking the camera out of the picture can be a big help in getting better photos of them. Shooting candid photos is another great way to deal with the camera shy; as it happens, I’ve written a short tutorial on that, and if you’d like you can check it out here.
10. A Conclusion (of sorts). In conclusion, a word of caution (or perhaps of comfort, depending on your disposition): You may try all of these things only to decide that you’re by no means a “people photographer.” Maybe you prefer photographing flowers, landscapes, architecture, or model trains to photographing people, especially in uncontrolled circumstances. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, I would suggest that you throw something else into the mix from time to time, not only because you just might find that you like it, but also because the skills you pick up doing one form of photography often inform your approach and technique when you’re doing another.
That’s just my $.02 worth. I’d love to hear what you think, and what your experiences behind the camera have taught you! And if you’re new to this photography thing (or you’d like a different angle on the same old thing), feel free to visit www.thefirst10000.com for more tips, techniques and… well, stuff.
Postscript: Just so you know I’m not making up this thing about introverted photographers, here are some great posts by Mark Sands, Alex JD Smith, indiejane photography, Gilly Walker, and Elizabeth Halford. Their writing, and photography, are worth the visit… and a great reminder that you’re in good company.
Paul Bogan is a full-time freelance writer and photography junkie. You can read more of his photography writing at www.thefirst10000.com