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Finding People to Photograph

  1. Jan 12, 2010 #1
    I notice I seem to be the only person here who is specifically interested in photographing people. It has occurred to me that this might be due to shyness on some people's part; not knowing how to approach potential subjects. I thought I would lay out the way of acquiring subjects I've stumbled on in case anyone wants to start getting into photographing people.

    The long term, larger goal is to work up to having the reputation of being a good people photographer in some circle. That circle could be your college, the chapter of the Free and Accepted Masons you belong to, your workplace, or any and all word-of-mouth networks you happen to have access to. Once that starts to happen people will actually start approaching you. In exchange for modeling for your portfolio you give them a CD of the good shots for their personal use.

    However, it takes a lot of groundwork to get to that point.

    You begin by simply wrangling ANYONE you possibly can into sitting for you, as a favor to you. It's as simple as that. Anyone who’s comfortable hanging out with you is a good target for these early experiments. Also any relative you get along with moderately well. Lonely people are also good; anyone you usually try to get away from because they talk your ear off about their cat or plants can be redirected into sitting for you.

    You tell them you just want to experiment with how to take a portrait. You warn them you have no real idea what you’re doing and they shouldn’t expect much. (The other thing I always tell people, even after I started getting decent shots, is that these pictures will be an attempt at “art” photography and are primarily meant to be character studies, they’re not about trying to make them look beautiful or handsome, they’re about depicting mood and character. This is a good way of covering your butt if you can’t figure out a way to get a remotely attractive shot of them. )

    So the ground work consists of approaching acquaintances cold, asking if they’ll do you the favor of modeling for you, then shooting the hell out of them and meticulously studying the results on your computer after the shoot to see what you could have done better. You’re working toward understanding how to manipulate the interplay of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO to your taste, and forming an idea of the kind of mood and lighting you like, or what the best use is you can make of the kinds of lighting that are available where you shoot.

    There seems to be three general categories of amateur models: clowns, camera whores, and (the kiss of death) deers in the headlights. The first two are fun and easy to work with. The last will shrink from your camera as if it were a dental tool. The clowns and camera whores will usually react with eagerness at the suggestion of having their picture taken. If someone seems hesitant they are probably a deer, so don’t put too much effort into trying to persuade them. All you’ll get are pictures of a nervous, tense person.

    Clowns are easy to work with but they can be irritating if you are trying to get any kind of non-humorous shot. Camera whores are gold: they can’t get enough of pictures of themselves, and, they will freely present you with all kinds of cool poses you would never think to suggest. The good thing about clowns and camera whores is that they will pose for you repeatedly on many different occasions in different places which gives you the opportunity of sharpening up your understanding of their face, what light works best, how to pose them. I still often go back and reshoot the same people. With each successive session with the same subject I usually get better shots of them.

    Little by little your portraits should improve and then there will come a time when you see a shot you’ve taken and you’ll think “Hey, that’s a really good shot!” That is when you start giving copies of the pics to the models. They will show their friends and relatives, post it on their myspace and face book, and generally talk you up. Once you have enough people doing that you’ll be surprised to have people flagging you down to get together to have their picture taken: “Hey, I saw those pictures you took of so-and-so. When are you going to take my picture?”

    I hope this inspires some of you to wrangle someone into a photo session and see what happens.

    Some miscellaneous stuff:

    I rarely take fewer than 100 shots in a session, and I have taken as many as 250 shots in a session. Sometimes I milk one lighting set up for all it will give, at others I move people from outdoors to indoors and around to different parts of a room. Sometimes I do all face shots, others I also do full body shots. It’s a numbers game: the more shots you take the greater the chances of getting a “special” shot.

    My camera is always on a tripod and I use a remote shutter release to avoid camera shake. (I have a small tripod that telescopes down to a length small enough to fit in my camera bag. )

    Warning: if you’re a guy don’t ask any girl whom you don’t know well to go to any non-public place alone with you to take pictures: it could sound pervy. Always pick a public setting with plenty of other people around. Likewise I almost always shoot everyone at the location I normally run into them anyway. This means keeping my camera with me for guerrilla ambushes of unwary friends (“Hey! I have my camera right here! Let me try some shots of you.”). Requiring someone to relocate can often be a deal breaker. Make the shoot as convenient for them as you can.

    Warning: before taking any portrait photos kill your on-camera flash. Just take an ice pick or screwdriver and assassinate that abomination. At least turn it off. The built in flash is too close to the lens to cast natural shadows on the human face. The built in flash flattens the human face into a two dimensional event not found in nature. (It has it’s uses in glamour photography, but usually gives a portrait a cheap, point-and-shoot look. )
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 12, 2010 #2


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    I started doing pro photography in the dark ages when color film and decent processing were $$$, so I never got to just blaze away with tons of shots, especially when shooting medium-format - that way lies bankruptcy. I did a few weddings for friends (including wedding-party dinners and receptions) as my wedding gift to them, and I did a lot of senior portraits for nieces and nephew as gifts to them. I'd give them proofs (small prints of everything) with the frame numbers written on the back, so that they could order as many prints as they wanted in whatever sizes they wanted. I'd also give them each a few business cards. Pretty soon I had more paid portrait work, etc than my free time could accommodate. (It helps if you have very attractive nieces and nephews!) I offered to create a portfolio for one niece, but she wasn't interested in modeling. She ended up being featured in Chevy's "Real Cars for Real People" campaign, and her ad premiered during the Super Bowl - still she didn't want to model, and is now a dental hygienist. Her senior pix probably got me a lot of nice referrals, though.
  4. Jan 13, 2010 #3


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    Interesting read. Thanks for the insight. I'm currently in the asking any and every friend that might want pictures or is maybe just a bit bored stage.
  5. Jan 14, 2010 #4
    (Emphasis mine.)

    Thank you so much for pointing that out, Zooby. I've had a lot of professional photography done over the years and have always recognised myself in the images. Lately, I've been around a number of people who snap loads of pictures at every event we attend (which is fine), but when I see the pictures of me, I don't identify that person with the person I see in the mirror. I couldn't figure out what it that was distorting my features, and now that you point it out, it's almost like a V8 moment. I want to bonk myself in forehead. Right! That's why.

    As a quick experiment, I only used room lighting, turned off the flash on my camera, and took a couple of those arm's-length pictures of myself. While those cameras don't work that well without the flash, because the image blurs because the aperture stays open longer, my facial features were actually my own. I'll stop worrying, now, about the disconnect with friends' casual pictures.
  6. Jan 14, 2010 #5
    Putting the word out that you have a camera and are willing to experiment with anyone interested in having pictures ought to get some results. However there's a risk you'll find yourself having to labor under the model's requirements like wanting attractive shots to send a lover who's far away, or wanting shots of them and their dog wearing santa hats for their personalized Christmas cards. If you do that kind of shoot you should make a deal with them that you get to also spend some time photographing them according to your own aesthetics for the purposes of getting "artistic" photos.

    The bored friend is a better target; it will be clear from the get-go they're doing you a favor and won't have any requirements about how they're photographed.
  7. Jan 14, 2010 #6
    Glad I cleared up the mystery, and I'm impressed that you conducted experiments. A natural scientist.

    Switching subjects to the new blur problem: Not only does the aperture stay open longer in dimmer light, it also opens wider, which cuts down on your depth of field (range of things that are in focus).

    It might be possible to overcome the blur by using the camera's built in timer and setting it on a bookshelf, or tripod if you have one. I suspect the problem is less that you, the subject, are moving, than that your hand is moving while holding the camera. That hand movement will be leveraged up to maximum blur when you have a slow shutter speed and wide open aperture.
  8. Jan 18, 2010 #7
    Most modern cameras have build in anti shake features nowadays, detecting and correcting camera movement and allowing for substantially longer shutter speeds about 3 stops nominally than in the old days. But indeed like Zooby said, that still doesn't prevent motion blur of the subject moving.

    Also don't count on setting high ISO's to regain better shutter speeds as the same modern cameras have a lousy signal to noise rate then on the very small sensors and the images show a lot of noise. Just try and get decent lights on the subject.
  9. Jan 18, 2010 #8
    When I was painting commissioned portraits, I'd usually shoot a roll or two of 36 and ended up with one or two that had just the right lighting, composition, etc.

    I think like anything else: the more you do, the easier it is to make the right choices at the right times.

    And when thinking about a non-commission work, it seemed fairly easy to find 'volunteers' to sit, go somewhere, or just let me photo them...
  10. Jan 18, 2010 #9
    Yes, the subject was moving in the sense that my hand was moving, not my head, because the entire image was blurred without the flash on, background and all. And yes, a tripod or something to sit the camera on would do the trick. I'm not serious about trying to photograph myself, though; I just wanted to figure out what was going on with digital camera images distorting my face. :smile:
  11. Jan 18, 2010 #10
    One trick is not getting too close to the camera---it often distorts things (looking like it was taken with a fisheye lens).

    For faces, I used to get about 10-15 feet away and zoom in.
  12. Jan 18, 2010 #11


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    When I was doing portraits using 35mm film, I found that the "sweet spot" was about 135mm. Anything shorter, and you get facial distortions that can range from "ewww!" to "that really doesn't look like me, somehow". Luckily, at the time, most of the camera-makers regarded a fast 135mm as a "must-have" moderate telephoto and Olympus' Zuicko 135 was a really nice piece of glass. These focal length recommendations change with sensor-size when using digital cameras, but rewebster's advice to back off and use zoom will fit for most folks. An additional benefit is that you are not infringing on your subjects' personal space so they will be more laid-back.
  13. Jan 18, 2010 #12
    No, she already solved the mystery of the distortion that was bothering her, which is that the on-camera flash washes out natural looking shadows from above.
  14. Jan 18, 2010 #13
    The built in anti-shake alleged to be in operation on my SLR doesn't seem to do squat. Hand held shots, even in broad daylight, are always noticeably more blurred than tripod shots. I'm pretty disappointed with this feature. Perhaps it's better on other makes. I don't suspect the average point and shoot has this anyway, and I think that's what Georgina was experimenting with, not an SLR.
  15. Jan 18, 2010 #14


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    Image Stabilization is finding its way into more and more P&S cameras, like my Panasonic. In DSLR lines, it is preferable (IMO) to have IS integrated into the lenses and not the bodies because the IS will have to react quite differently depending on the focal length of the attached lens. Canon's EF lenses are excellent in this regard.
  16. Jan 18, 2010 #15
    I keep coming to the conclusion I should have bought a Canon.
  17. Jan 18, 2010 #16


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    I am VERY happy with mine. The 100-400 EF is a killer lens, and even though the 28-135 EF is lighter with a resin body, it never fails to surprise me with the quality, from macro all the way to telephoto. I'm sticking with EF lenses because eventually full-frame 35mm sensor bodies will be affordable, and the EFS lenses extend too far back into the light-box to be used with them. I have two 30D bodies, and am quite pleased with battery life, ease of use, etc. If you can segue into the Canon line and find a home for your current DSLR, it wouldn't be a bad move. BTW, even the kit lenses (18-55 EFS) now come with internal image stabilization, and they are very nice for the price.
  18. Jan 18, 2010 #17
    Yes, I am afraid I may have to switch to Canon altogether. That kit lens, 18-55, is squarely in the range I already stick to.

    Perhaps the main drawback with my Sony is that they took a 10MP sized sensor and cut it into 14MP, and did not include a kit lens of sufficiently superior optics to make up for that. There's a Zeiss lens available to replace the kit lens but it costs as much as the camera originally cost.
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