Main Understanding Portrait Photography: How to Shoot Great Pictures of People Anywhere

Understanding Portrait Photography: How to Shoot Great Pictures of People Anywhere

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		 			Text copyright © 2006, 2020 by Bryan Peterson

			Photographs copyright © 2020 by Bryan Peterson

			All rights reserved.

			Published in the United States by Watson-Guptill Publications, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

			WATSON-GUPTILL and the HORSE HEAD colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

			Originally published in different form in the United States as Beyond Portraiture by Amphoto Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC in 2006.

			Library of Congress Control Number: 2020932210

			Trade Paperback ISBN 9780770433130

			Ebook ISBN 9780770433147





			Understanding People

			Psychology 101

			Approaching People

			Observing People

			People and Their Environment

			People and Their Clothing

			The Face as a Canvas


			Working with People

			Choosing the Right People

			Breaking Through the Shyness Barrier

			Posed Versus Candid

			People as Themes

			People at Work

			People at Play




			The Importance of Light




			Diffused Light

			Dappled Light

			Difficult Exposures


			Composing Powerful Portraits

			What Is Composition?

			Fill the Frame

			The Vertical Format

			The Rule of Thirds

			Point of View

			People as Abstracts

			Working Your Subject



			Shutter Speed

			Choosing the Right Aperture

			Lens Choice

			Artificial Light

			In-Camera Double Exposures

About the Author



In the background, in another room, I can hear a familiar television commercial. My daughter Sophie is watching “old” television commercials on YouTube and just as I sit down to write this introduction to yet another book on photography—a book about photographing people, a subject I’ve grown to love more than any other—I hear the clas; sic commercial for Timex watches and their tagline, “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.” No doubt this tagline also describes me and my continued passion for image-making. Yes, my passion has taken a licking, but it’s still here and it does keep on ticking!

			My first book on photographing people, People in Focus, was a scary proposition for me—not “scary” in the sense that I was afraid to photograph people (although there was some of that), but in the sense that I was being asked to write an entire book about a single subject, and I, of course, felt that photography could not and should not be limited to a single subject, especially people. Was there really that much to say, that much to show, that much to share, that much to shoot on the subject of people?

			Needless to say, my own maturation process has changed this way of thinking. Now when I’m asked whether I’ll ever run out of ideas or subjects, I always respond with the same emphatic “Not in this life!” In fact, despite being told by my publisher, repeatedly, that I have more than enough material for this new book (along with nine more books on the subject), I still wish I had more time to gather additional examples of why people are such an inexhaustible photographic subject.

			Obviously, you, too, share my interest in photographing people—otherwise, why are you holding this book in your hand? Whether your interest is in photographing family, friends, yourself, strangers, young or old subjects, people at play, people at work, people under strife, people celebrating, people in foreign lands, or people in your own neighborhood, I get it! Pictures of people tug at our hearts; they are, in many ways, pictures of ourselves. A photograph of a sad and teary-eyed six-year-old with a melting ice cream cone at her feet will touch most of us. We can feel her pain. Similarly, an image of three elderly people sitting on a front porch laughing hysterically may generate a number of interpretations, but one thing is certain: everyone can understand and appreciate the meaning of laughter. In addition, most of us have someone to thank—a mother, father, relative, or friend who had a camera in hand—for forever preserving small yet revealing vignettes of our personal histories.

			Without realizing it, we are adding to one another’s histories with each press of the shutter. Even if you have been photographing family and friends for only a few years, those memories are capable of triggering a host of emotions that will only get deeper as the years go by. Many people are reminded of their youth as they look back on images of yesterday; that a photo reminds people of an “easier” time is the most often-heard response from viewers. Your children, just as you were with your parents, are amused by pictures of you with your old-fashioned hairstyle and “vintage” outfit, or your shoulder-length hair and beard, in sharp contrast to that shiny dome the grandkids love to rub. You tell your children that “you had to be there” when explaining your appearance back then and are quick to remind them that they, too, will look back with nostalgia and perhaps even embarrassment at the pictures you took of them just last week. “Whatever possessed me to wear baggy jeans around my knees and have orange hair?” your son or daughter might say.

			At other times, photographs of people taken last year—or even today—give pause for reflection. You sigh and wonder where the time goes as you look at ten-year-old photographs of yourself and those you love. You are moved to tears and laughter as you stare at photos of your toddler daughter, who’s now eighteen and about to leave for college halfway across the country.

			How you photograph your loved ones, friends, and even strangers can reveal something about you. Surprised to learn this? I’m not a psychiatrist, but I’ve done enough reading—and, more important, student critiques—over the past forty years to conclude that how we compose photographs of friends and strangers reveals some of our inner selves. Do your favorite pictures show people in a vast landscape, causing them to appear small and diminished? Perhaps compositions of this type reflect your own feelings of being overwhelmed at times, or of just how lonely life can be, or even, still, of how “small” you feel. On the other hand, do you find that you most often fill the frame with just the face of your subjects? Such compositions might reflect the great compassion you feel toward people, as well as your ability to feel free enough to interact with most anyone. The reasons why you do what you do are numerous, and in part, they define who you are; but photography—unlike any other medium—can say volumes about you (by how you shoot your subjects) in a single stroke.

			My photography career didn’t begin with people as my main interest. Waterfalls and forests, flowers and bees, lighthouses and barns, and sunrises and sunsets drew 99 percent of my attention. This continued for more than ten years until one day I found myself composing yet another snowcapped peak reflected in a still foreground lake. That day proved to be a turning point as I began to reflect on the absence of people not only in my private life but equally so in my pictures. Spending countless days and weeks in nature was making me lonely.

			For the next five years, I found myself making a slow but deliberate transition: I spent less and less time shooting compositions without people. I felt a new passion as I realized that the most vast and varied photographic subject was people. I felt lucky! As the song goes, “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” And, I was quick to discover that my camera could be a bridge in introducing myself to people—but I still had one hurdle to overcome.

			Since I’m normally an outgoing person, I was amazed to discover just how shy I really was. On more than one occasion, I resolved to abandon my interest in photographing people. After all, my landscape and close-up photography was already well received by magazine, greeting card, and calendar publishers. And, of course, there was one big distinction between nature subjects and people: mountains didn’t move, flowers didn’t stiffen up (or throw nectar in your face!), and butterflies never once asked for payment.

			But try as I might, I couldn’t silence the steady voice inside me that kept pushing me to return to people as subjects. The voice would grow louder when I saw particularly striking subjects, such as a lone ice cream vendor in a city square surrounded by hundreds of pigeons, a woman dressed in red walking parallel to a blue wall with her white poodle leading the way, or a white-bearded man of eighty-plus years sitting on a park bench and chuckling as he read an Archie comic book. But even during those obviously great picture-taking opportunities, I seldom was courageous enough to raise my camera to my eye and take the picture. A wave of photographic shyness would come over me. Any thought of approaching strangers, especially, would find me panicking, overreacting, convinced that, with each closing step, anything I was going to say or do would be an unwelcome waste of their time, no matter how brief my request.

			Unlike the landscapes with which I was so familiar, people can, and oftentimes do, talk back, and they do have something to say. People require interaction: I had to get involved with my subjects if I had any hope for spontaneity as well as cooperation. Otherwise, if I just simply raised the camera to my eye and took the picture, my subjects would immediately become self-conscious. It was as if I were a doctor with a huge hypodermic needle, about to administer the shot of their life.

			As the weeks turned into months and I experimented more and more with my feeble attempts at photographing people, it slowly became evident what was behind this new “love” developing inside of me, this love of photographing people. Surprisingly, it had little to do with the settings in which I viewed them. It wasn’t the surroundings, the colors of their wardrobe, or the amazing light that caused my emotions to stir, but rather the person in that scene. Remove the main subject and the “sentence” would lose its impact; the person was the exclamation point! Funny how only a few months prior, I’d been cursing people for getting in my shot and now I was afraid they would leave—unless, of course, I approached them and explained their importance to the overall composition, and with any luck they agreed to stick around for “1/60 of a second.”

			I was soon approaching both friends and total strangers with the “truth.” I would often say, “I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but right now you are at the heart of a truly wonderful picture!” or, “I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but there are some really wonderful things going on just over there, and all that’s missing is a person in the scene—and you are the person who can make that scene a truly compelling composition!” Today, this simple approach often continues to get me the permission I seek, though some situations require more diplomacy than others. Above all, the most important thing is to show a genuine interest in the people you are photographing. You will achieve a greater degree of cooperation and spontaneity when your tone and intent are sincere.

			Having said that, I must stress that being a master at public relations is only half the battle. I’ve witnessed countless instances when a photographer has been given permission to photograph but then begins to fumble with the camera and lens, uncertain about the settings and/or the overall composition—and of course, it isn’t long before the person they wish to photograph begins to fidget and, sure enough, the light is now gone or the subject’s time was limited and they have to go, and so on.

			No one will argue that every successful landscape shot or close-up relies in large measure on its ability to evoke both mood and emotion, and that quite often a bit of luck and opportune timing played major roles. But I’ve learned that luck is seldom a factor when you try to shoot good images of people. Every successful photographer possesses a combination of creative and technical skills, as well as the ability to anticipate the often-decisive moment. If your knowledge of f-stops, shutter speeds, great light, the right lens, the right environment, and the right subject are limited, you will find, in this book, page after page of valuable material that will close the gap between what you do not know and what you do know, so much so that you will be enthusiastically sharing your results with the person or people you photograph immediately after taking their picture using one of the greatest public relations tools ever developed in the world of photography: the LCD screen on the back of your digital camera, a screen that says, “Wow, look at you and how amazing you look!” My subjects and I both enjoy the instant gratification of seeing an image within seconds of taking it. This adds to people’s willingness and enjoyment of posing. (To be sure, there is some small resurgence of photographers shooting film; film-users might consider shooting a quick smartphone snap to show the person what you just did and serve as a substitute photo until you can scan and send them a copy of the film print via email.)

			Whether you’re shooting digital or film, sometimes you’ll need to be able to pose, direct, and ask your subjects to dress or look a certain way. These tasks may seem relatively easy to accomplish with family and friends, but they can prove quite challenging when you need the cooperation of someone you met only ten minutes ago. Throughout this book, I address many different situations, locations, and cultures with people (of course) as the central theme. I also start off by discussing the psychology of people—not just your subjects but yourself, as well—in great depth. For example, when I photograph people, it is never my intention to embarrass them or call attention to a particular flaw in their physical appearance. Unfortunately, the temptation to exploit or embarrass a subject is, at times, so great that some photographers succumb to it, and rather than gaining a subject’s trust, they turn the camera into an enemy. I’m also not a big fan of shooting from the hip or using a wide-angle lens to distort faces. Perhaps these are necessary photographs, but they’re not the theme of this book.

			As you’ll discover, Understanding Portrait Photography goes far beyond simple portraits to discuss street photography, posed versus candid images, tips for shooting selfies, using artificial light, and an extensive section dedicated to the art of composition and the role the elements of design play in the overall success of a photograph.

			I firmly believe that taking photographs of people is the most challenging and rewarding of all the photographic opportunities available today. No other subject is as vast and varied. “People” can range from babies to great-grandparents. Youthful skin or weathered skin, dark skin and deep brown eyes or blue-eyed and blond, short or tall, fat or thin, big hair or no hair, clothed or nude, male or female—when you combine these physical characteristics with the seemingly infinite choices for surroundings (urban or rural, forest or desert, international locale or your own backyard), the possibilities are truly enormous. And because people are the subjects, it is paramount that you embrace what is, perhaps, the greatest rule governing the human condition: You rarely, if ever, get a second chance to make a first impression.

Psychology 101

			As you think about some of your best images of people—whether posed or candid, family, friends, or strangers—what do you feel was the single most important factor in the images’ success? Was it your subject’s clothing, their smile, their activity, their hair, their environment, the light that surrounded them, your lens choice, your composition, your point of view? The answer could be all of the above, but I’ll go so far as to say that at the root of most successful people photographs is a spoken or unspoken “cooperation” between the subject and the photographer.

			Lucky is the photographer who has a sound understanding of human psychology and the patterns of human behavior. If you’re going to be able to motivate anybody to be a subject (family members included), you had better be prepared to answer the biggest and most immediate question that’s either spoken or thought by your subject(s): What’s in it for me? It is a fundamental “law” of human psychology that self-interest governs most of what people do.

			To date I have flown more than three million air miles and photographed in just over one hundred countries, and without fail, I have repeated this same ice-breaker over and over: “Hello, my name is Bryan and I’m a photographer who loves to photograph people. You may not be aware of it, but right now at this time and this very place, you are part of an incredible photo that in fact would not be incredible at all if you were not here. Seriously! Can I take a quick snap of you and show you what I mean? I am sure you will agree! And of course, I would be happy to email you, almost instantly, a copy of this moment that you were such a huge part of. And to be really clear, this will cost you nothing.”

			Almost without fail, this “truth” produces the desired result—and truth it should be! When you analyze the reason(s) why you feel compelled to take someone’s photograph, you will find it is often because at that moment the person or people really are part of something compelling.

			Likewise, if you are of the ilk to “choreograph” images, you will, again, be enlisting the aid of family members, friends, even strangers. How can you motivate them? More often than not, the answer in today’s world is to suggest that they will probably receive a high number of “likes” on Facebook or Instagram, assuming the ideas you have in mind are executed perfectly. Again, cooperation between the photographer and subject is key. And in today’s fast-paced, instant-gratification world of digital photography, both of you can be immediately immersed in the joy of this cooperation as the images are quickly viewed and hopefully celebrated.

			This simple law—“What’s in it for me?”—is at the root of most, if not all, of your motivation to do anything. Most of us form relationships and make both small and life-changing decisions based on the what’s-in-it-for-me question. In today’s world, this might mean more likes on social media, more clients because of a stronger portfolio, or simply the desire to bring an idea to fruition. And like it or not, your subjects share the same thought process in response to your request. When your subjects don’t feel that there is anything in it for them, they’ll say no, more often than not, to being photographed. And yes, as many of you already know, this even applies to family members.

			To be clear, I very rarely pay my subjects, because quite simply, it’s not necessary, unless of course you’re working with hired models, or you’re photographing people with the intention of placing the images with a stock photo agency. In those cases, you’ll need a signed model release, in which one of the provisions clearly states “for valuable consideration.” More often than not, that valuable consideration is money, though it can also mean “x number of photos from the photo shoot” or “a ten-speed bicycle” or anything else deemed a fair trade of “valuable consideration.”

			But again, most subjects are not holding out for some enormous fee. There are only fourteen pictures in this book for which the subjects were actually paid money; in three of them, the subjects were professional models who I gladly paid a fee, and the other eleven expected payment as part of the “tourism culture” for the native tribes of Ethiopia’s Omo Valley (and I can’t stress enough that if you struggle with paying them their standard fee of 20 cents for ten minutes of their time, then please consider digging them a much-needed freshwater well instead!).

			What I’ve found throughout the 111 countries to which I’ve traveled is that most people are willing subjects if your tone and intent are sincere. Lately I’ve been traveling with a portable HP printer called the Sprocket. Using an app on my iPhone, I’m able to print out a 2 x 3-inch color print—either a photo taken by my phone or a photo processed in Photoshop and then sent to my phone via email. Alternatively, I’ll send a photo via email if the subject has an email account. Though at times there are language barriers, today’s language translation apps have made this gap increasingly narrow.

			Assuming you are presenting yourself as an aspiring photographer, and even if your experience is truly limited, people are more apt to hear the enthusiasm and passion in your voice and respond to that than they will to a somewhat reserved, shy, insecure voice. It’s just another side of our human nature: most of us feel “safe” when the tone of the person speaking to us is self-assured rather than indecisive and unsure. Your subjects are more inclined to feel motivated not by what you say but by how you say it; once again, it comes down to the sincerity of your request.

			And, no matter where or who you choose to shoot, you should be, first and foremost, motivated to make images that feed the fires of your creative endeavors. Here is my approach to choosing who to photograph: First, I seldom ask anyone who I don’t find interesting, which of course is very subjective, since what I find interesting may strike another as completely boring. And second, I’ve discovered that a few minutes spent simply observing a potential subject (sometimes discreetly) goes a long way toward determining how I want to photograph that subject. It is during these several minutes that I make mental notes about specific mannerisms or expressions I may wish to capture. Also, it helps, when I do approach a person, that I explain the reason I am interested in making the photograph.

			Whether an image advances your career, wins a photo contest, or receives ten or ten thousand likes on Instagram is truly secondary to the greater reward. People photographers often work inside the fiercely protected psychological boundaries that many subjects possess, but whether it be immediate or several hours later, I often feel enriched by the shared experience and am grateful for that best “high” of all: connecting with others on what is surely a deeper level than the norm, whether they be family, friends, or strangers.

					Three cheers for travel without expectations! I was traveling with Nattakun, a model and makeup artist I’ve known for several years. We were in Jodhpur, India, and Natt wanted to get her hands painted with henna. Neither of us knew where the henna shops were, yet we were both too stubborn to ask for help. So, with a healthy dose of wanderlust, we hit the streets of Jodhpur and, twenty minutes later, saw a big red sign advertising henna along with sample photos of beautifully painted hands.

					As we entered the establishment, we were greeted by a long, colorful hallway of green and blue. I made a note to myself: shoot this hallway with a wide-angle lens and a lone person standing in the one area of brightness, looking up to the heavens with folded hands. Once we arrived in the actual shop, I knew I had found my model. Dressed in green pants and an orange dress (orange, fortuitously, being the color complement of blue!), she was the owner of the shop. After she and her sister finished painting Natt’s hands, she agreed to be my model for the shot you see here. I believe my exact words were, “You may not be aware of this, but your long and colorful hallway is a photographer’s dream and, considering the bright orange clothing you are wearing, you would be the perfect addition to make that hallway truly come alive. Of course, I will happily share a copy of the result with you, and heck, you might want to even consider putting it on your website promoting yourself as the henna artist that you are!”

					NIKON D500, NIKKOR 18–300MM LENS, F/16 FOR 1/100 SEC., ISO 1600, DAYLIGHT/SUNNY WB

					How many photographs of people have you taken in which the subject was expressing anger or sadness? It is not common for most of us to raise the camera to our eye and begin photographing at the first sound of rage or falling tears, yet it is our human nature to be drawn to other’s misfortune, whether it be that couple arguing in Starbucks or the child screaming in pain as he rubs his skinned-up knees following an unfortunate bike spill.

					Despite being witness to these times of discomfort, seldom do we consider making a photograph out of respect for the subject’s privacy. I get it, yet the few times I have gone against the norm, I’ve been rewarded with an emotionally charged image that evoked far deeper responses than your standard “warm and meaningful” portrait. Thoreau was right: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” This quiet—and sometimes not so quiet—desperation continues from birth until death, so why not consider capturing the occasional sad time, along with all those other good times?

					This little girl had just been given a flu shot from an outdoor medical clinic on the streets of Jaipur, India. Her mother was honestly elated when I showed her the photo and was quick to offer me her email address; that evening, I sent her a copy.

					NIKON D500, NIKKOR 18–300MM LENS, F/6.3 FOR 1/200 SEC., ISO 100, DAYLIGHT/SUNNY WB

					Following your very brief introduction (“Hi, my name is…I’m a photographer…”), what compelling reason do you offer a complete stranger you’ve asked to photograph? More often than not, my reasoning (beyond the fact that I find him or her “attractive”) is that at that moment, in that light, in that location, and with their attire, I believe that I will be able to create a photograph they will find flattering. If I didn’t believe that, then it would make very little sense to stop a stranger and take up their time for what is essentially a practice session. If you need practice, choose a friend or family member.

					This woman was walking toward me on a very colorful street of painted houses in Old Harar, Ethiopia. She spoke just enough English to understand my desire to photograph her. The whole thing took, max, 15 seconds, including the 1/125 sec. it took to press the shutter release for the exposure you see here—of a great face, wrapped in colorful cloth, against a backdrop of complementary color.

					NIKON D810, NIKKOR 24–120MM LENS, F/11 FOR 1/125 SEC., ISO 400, DAYLIGHT/SUNNY WB

Approaching People

			So you love photographing people, yet you don’t like to approach strangers and your family is comprised of just so many members. Where are you going to find subjects to practice your craft? Short of being the most liked person in the world, most of us are lucky enough to make a few new friends each year, and how we make these new friends is, more often than not, through “referrals”—friend of friends—since rarely does the person we sit next to on the plane or share an elevator ride with become our best friend, let alone a photographic subject.

			With that in mind, I still know of no better way (and yes, I’m aware of the countless “making friends” apps) to meet new people, people who can help expand your pool of subjects, than through referrals. In the workplace, this is called networking, and if you’re a serious people photographer, the practice of networking should be high on your list of weekly tasks. The old saying “It’s not what you know but who you know that counts” certainly applies to photographing people. You’d be surprised at the number of willing subjects your physician, minister, hairstylist, server, gas station attendant, and day-care center staffer can provide. And again, it does bear repeating that your sincerity and tone have a big impact on exactly how valuable these potential contacts will be for you.

			Keep in mind that everybody you meet has a certain look that is unique to them, and the greater your circle of “looks,” the greater your opportunities to photograph anyone from children to seniors with different styles of dress and under a host of environmental settings. And of course, “what’s in it for your subjects” is a chance to have fun as well as record some great memories.

			When I ask students why they don’t take more pictures of people—in particular, of strangers—the answer I hear most often is “fear of rejection.” They assume their request will be rejected, and rejection can sometimes sting. Truth be told, fear of rejection is justifiable. Throughout the world, the people you wish to photograph—friends as well as strangers—have something to say about you taking their picture, whether they express their opinion verbally or with a rude gesture. Even the strongest photographers feel a pang of rejection when a great subject makes it clear they are in no mood to be photographed. On more than one occasion, I have been turned down at what I felt to be the most inopportune time, as the location, the light, or the time of day was “perfect”—perfect for me, of course, but at that moment not perfect for a friend, family member, lover, or stranger.

			The reasons people don’t want to be photographed are, perhaps, many, but I’ve concluded that there are two main ones. First, most people say “no” simply because they feel that you couldn’t possibly take a good picture of them at that time, at that place, wearing those clothes, and without them being able to “freshen up” first. Ironically, these reasons for refusing are the very reasons that draw you in in the first place: the time (the light is perfect), the place (the environment complements their personality or character), their clothes (their attire fits or contrasts sharply with the environment), and their appearance (dirty face, messy hair, sweaty brow, or the joy or sexiness they’re exuding at that moment).

			Second, people say no because they don’t believe your intent. Again, nothing plays a more pivotal role in winning people’s trust than the level of sincerity you convey. This is true even when photographing family members. Trust, like nourishment, is a universal need. Tell them why you want to take their picture. There’s a reason, isn’t there? Of course I’ve been turned down, many times, but I’m also quick to remind myself that every “No, thank you” means I am one person closer to an “Okay, why not?”

			Rarely, if ever, am I a fan of shooting surreptitiously. I don’t feel I’m being fair to the subject, and getting them to sign a model release will be difficult, at best, if getting model releases is your thing. Strictly speaking, there is not a stock photography agency in the world that would use a photograph of a person for commercial use (such as an advertisement promoting a product) without a model release. So to be clear, that great shot of the stranger who, to this day, has no idea you took their picture is useless in the commercial arena. (For more about model releases, see this page.)

			Although some photographers argue that being sneaky is the only way to get “real” people shots, I strongly disagree. I’ve shot some of my best “candids” because I made my presence known to the subject. The real joy in photographing people comes when subjects are free to pose willingly and when all parties involved agree that the final image is an accurate portrayal of the subject. And again, for those shooting digitally, you can share that accurate portrayal immediately via the monitor.

			Finally, I want to stress just how important it is to listen to your subjects. As mentioned earlier, people do talk back, and oftentimes, what they have to say is worth its weight in gold. You may have everything all figured out in your mind, but don’t be surprised if, after winning your subject’s trust, they also have ideas about how they see themselves. One of the most important questions I’ve asked strangers as well as family members is this: “If you could look any way you want while being photographed, and in the environment of your choosing, what would I see and where would you be?” The answers may surprise you, but more than that, you may discover that they have is a favorite dress or a favorite hairstyle, or a favorite trick they can do with their eyes, or that they’ve always wanted to be photographed inside that barn down the road (a barn you’ve always wanted to get access to but didn’t know who to ask). Or you may discover that they have a beach house and an infinity pool that meets up with the distant blue waters of the ocean, and now you have access to a location that would normally cost a fortune to rent.

			Listening to your subjects, taking an interest in them, is absolutely vital. The many interactions I have had over the years have led to a number of the ongoing relationships I still have today, relationships that lead to invitations to return to these subjects’ homes around the world, where awaiting me upon my arrival are several new subjects that my friends have found for me, thinking that of course I would like to photograph them as well.

					It can be frustrating when, at times, you can’t communicate with someone who does speak your language and of course even more so when neither of you speaks the other person’s language. It creates a level of frustration akin to sitting in a dental chair and being asked to answer important questions while your mouth is jacked open and full of dental instruments!

					Despite several attempts to communicate with this street merchant in Jodhpur, India, I don’t know how long he had been cleaning these very worn and battered pots and pans, nor whom his customers might be. But in a matter of minutes, his roaring fire and a mysterious white granular powder turned the insides of these pots into gleaming mirrors with better-than-new finishes. The speed at which he spun the very hot pots was really impressive; while one hand gripped each pot with a pair of pliers, his other hand wiped his “magic powder” on the inside of the pot and kept it spinning simultaneously.

					It was the roaring flames and the spinning of the pot that triggered me to shoot at the relatively slow shutter speed of 1/20 sec., producing the motion effect. A note about postprocessing here: my primary exposure was for the dramatic, bright fire, which in turn created a lot of darkness in the shadows. To open up the shadows and recover detail, I later moved the Shadow slider to almost 90 percent, which accounts for the image’s somewhat odd look—almost an HDR look, though it is only a single exposure.

					NIKON D500, NIKKOR 18–300MM LENS, F/11 FOR 1/20 SEC., ISO 1600, DAYLIGHT/SUNNY WB

			 				Honesty Is the Best Policy

				Whether you know a subject or are approaching a complete stranger, tell them why you want to photograph them and what it is you have in mind. Be honest about your intentions. I can’t overstate the importance of this. Don’t walk up to the farmer at the roadside produce stand and tell him you’re doing a story for National Geographic magazine when that’s not true. Don’t approach that woman on the beach and tell her you’re doing a story for some travel magazine when you aren’t. Tell the truth, and chances are good that your truth is my truth: “Truthfully, I am attracted to your look (or activity) and I know in my heart of hearts that I can make a compelling image of you that you will love!”

				If you are serious about wanting to one day be hired by a magazine such as National Geographic, explain your aspirations to the farmer and that he could be instrumental in you reaching this goal, or confess to the woman at the beach that you aspire to freelance for a fashion magazine such as Vogue, and you need examples to showcase your creativity in photographing people involved in leisure activities. Most subjects, when told they can help you, are eager to do so, and of course the prospect of getting something in return—such as the jpegs or high-quality prints you promise to send them or, if necessary, financial compensation—is a bonus.

					When you feel you’ve come upon a good portrait subject and, assuming the logistics are worked out (such as lens choice, aperture choice, background, and point of view), you will, in all likelihood, just before you shoot, feel compelled to say something along the lines of, “Smile please.” Before you make that request, ask yourself what it was about the person that made you stop and consider shooting their portrait in the first place. Was it their smile, a gesture of their hand, or the intensity of their eyes? Maybe it was the light falling on them, or the color that surrounded them?

					We are conditioned to always ask our subjects to smile, just as we have all been asked by family members or other photographers to smile since we were in preschool, yet there are countless portraits taken by photographers worldwide that would have been far more compelling without the subject smiling. Let there be no doubt that a genuine smile generates a warm response from the viewer, but don’t forget to shoot “serious” portraits, too, especially when that is the biggest reason you were drawn to the subject in the first place.

					This was certainly what attracted me to this “serious” shopkeeper in Chandni Chowk market in Delhi, India. At no point did I ask him to smile, simply because it was his forceful, intense gaze that caused me stop and take his portrait, along with the blue surrounding him that seemed to magnify the seriousness of his gaze. Maybe not having your subject smile is a better idea—something to consider on your next portrait outing.

					NIKON D500, NIKKOR 18–300MM LENS AT 284MM, F/6.3 FOR 1/60 SEC., ISO 1600, DAYLIGHT/SUNNY WB

					When it comes to photographing people all over the world, I first and foremost think about and look for potential backgrounds. In the studio, photographers shooting portraits and/or products are all too familiar with the importance of a “make or break” background. The background should be powerful enough to call attention to the person or product in front of it, but quiet enough that you don’t notice it.

					Compared to a studio, the world as we know it offers a far greater array of backgrounds in any number of colors, textures, and patterns, able to be rendered either in focus or out of focus, and with varying degrees of contrast, clarity, and tone—all effects that can usually be controlled in-camera by a combination of aperture, shutter speed, and lens.

					Once I’ve decided on a background, I’ll begin conversing in earnest with potential subjects. Following several minutes of conversation, which for me are intended to build trust as well as reveal a certain look I may wish to capture, I “move” the subject(s) into position and fire away, often while the conversation continues. These are usually meant to be simple portraits—eye-to-eye encounters between subject and viewer—and a clean background is, more often than not, key to their success. It’s not dissimilar to doing background checks when interviewing people for a job: A potential employee with a clean background will be an employee without distraction.

					As you can see in the photo (top), the background of the portrait (bottom) is nothing more than the green foliage of a distant tree.


			 				Getting People to Sign a Model Release Form

				My students and readers of my books often ask me how I get complete strangers to sign model release forms. Of course, walking up to a complete stranger has its share of risk, but that risk is often minimized when you have a specific reason in mind when asking permission to take a picture. This isn’t the time to simply say, “I don’t have anything in mind, other than wanting to take some pictures of you.” Rare is the individual who jumps on a waiting bus without first knowing where the bus is headed. You must at least offer up some reason for wanting to take someone’s picture, and of all the “lines” I’ve used over the years, nothing has worked better for me than the truth. As already discussed, for me this truth is that I’m always looking to add more people images to my portfolio. I usually conclude by saying something like, “…and I’m hoping you can help me in accomplishing that goal by allowing me to take your picture.” Nothing plays a more pivotal role in winning people’s trust than the level of sincerity you convey.

				When asking my subjects to sign a model release, I simply explain that someday I might get lucky enough to have the image published, and if I should get so lucky, I would do my best to see that they were made aware of it, but that, more important, I could never get the pictures I made of them published without their permission. “Can I get your okay on this release, which could allow both of us to have our fifteen minutes of fame?”

				I still have paper model releases, but more often than not, my subjects now sign on my phone using a model release app. There are several of these on the market, but the one I have been using is called Easy Release.

				As a general rule, I don’t bring up the subject of model releases until the end of the photo shoot; there is no better time to ask someone to sign a release than when the excitement and enthusiasm for the photos you created is at its height. The only exception to this rule is when I’m dealing with hired models. I will ask them to sign the model release before I take the first photograph—something I learned the hard way years ago. At some point over the course of a two-hour (or two-day) photo shoot, a model may express reservations about photographs that they feel do not cast them in the most flattering light, figuratively or literally—while you feel just the opposite. Before you know it, the model might be refusing to sign the release unless the photos in question are not made available for commercial use. So when dealing with models, make sure that you get them to sign the release before any photos are taken. Sorry, but not all photographs of hired models are required to meet their approval.

				Okay, so to recap: Some strangers will say no, especially if the interest you expressed in them was minimal at best, but more often than not, strangers are inclined to help you out and sign the release.

					You see it: a wonderful arrow-like shaft of light creating a kind of superhero design that frames the subject, who stands atop a stairway, gazing out into an outdoor mall below. Quick, set the camera to “Sunny 16” and shoot before he turns away! Why use Sunny 16 here, instead of spot metering? Sunny 16 isn’t influenced by white or black subjects, or any other color in a scene. It is a 100 percent manual exposure for sunny days that is older than the camera’s built-in light meter: simply set your camera to f/16 with a shutter speed that is the same “number” as your ISO—i.e., if your ISO is 400, shoot at 1/400 sec. (For more about Sunny 16, see this page.)

					Did this subject sign a release? Sure. He was one of the attendees at the photo conference I was part of. Like I said, networking is another great source of “models.”

					NIKON D810, NIKKOR 24–120MM LENS, F/16 FOR 1/200 SEC., ISO 200, DAYLIGHT/SUNNY WB

Observing People

			People-watching—everyone does it. It’s not enough to just go up to anyone; you must watch to find the interesting subjects. And, whether you do it consciously or subconsciously, you make sweeping generalizations about the people you watch. “He looks like a football player,” you remark about the 250-pound teenager with the thick neck at the mall. “She looks homeless,” you think about the woman on the street with stringy unwashed hair, dirty jeans, and no shoes.

			The broad generalizations and descriptions you make about people are greatly influenced by a number of factors, not the least of which are how you were brought up and Madison Avenue—i.e., print and television advertising. Beyond these, the three most important criteria that determine your reactions to the people around you are: (1) physical appearance, be it overweight, underweight, potbellied, athletic, blue-eyed, brown-eyed, natural, heavily made up, clean-shaven, bearded, weathered, youthful, long-haired, short-haired, blond, redheaded, and so on; (2) clothes, be they designer fashions, hand-me-downs, summer dresses, winter coats, business attire, formal wear, bathing suits, and so on; and (3) environment, whether it be work, play, city, country, school, church, mountains, desert, beach, a pool, in the United States, or in a foreign land.

			As you observe people (whether they are relatives, friends, or strangers), listen to your feelings. Notice what you’re drawn to: her walk, his mischievous grin, her long and bouncing hair, his blue eyes, her silly hat, his torn jeans, his wrinkled skin, her sports car, his automotive garage, her florist shop. Are you interested in the dirty faces and unkempt hair of the children from a broken home, or would you focus solely on the seven-year-old boy’s worn-out sneaker and the dirty toe sticking out of it? Would you photograph the elderly man at the local diner with his coffee cup raised to his mouth as his tired eyes peer directly into the camera, or would you choose to photograph him looking off to the left or right? Perhaps a composition showing only his large, weathered hands grasping the cup showcased against his bright red flannel shirt would be more representative of what you’re feeling.

			The way you deal with your feelings determines which people you photograph and how you will eventually choose to photograph them. You might be less likely to photograph a subject who makes you feel nervous or frightened (“He looks mean, and he’s big, too”) than a subject who makes you feel warm and welcome (“He looks like my funny uncle, plus he smiled when I looked at him”). Another photographer, however, might find the “mean” subject appealing (“I can see the teddy bear beyond that mean attitude”) and the smiling subject suspicious (“I don’t trust that grin”). Understanding what you’re drawn to visually is part of the art of understanding and photographing people. Everyone is unique, and it is these differences that makes capturing people so varied, challenging, and rewarding.

					Street photography offers a host of challenges, but perhaps the greatest challenge of all is to stay put and believe the shot you are seeking will come to you!

					In Paris, I came upon this storefront where wigs in all shapes, lengths, and colors were on display. At first I thought it might be fun to ask a bald man on the street if he would simply stop, turn toward the window, and look at the wigs—clearly an attempt on my part to stage the shot. But after only a few tries, the resulting images just didn’t feel right. Surely someone might happen along and make this showroom window a good background. Some minutes passed when in from my left came this woman with red hair. High speed motor drive…done!

					NIKON D500, NIKKOR 18–300MM LENS, F/8 FOR 1/320 SEC., ISO 1000, DAYLIGHT/SUNNY WB

					Shortly after you’ve shot the sunrise and the early-morning bathers in Varanasi, India, you and your boat captain would be wise to take a slow ride, hugging the shoreline of the Ganges as it snakes its way north through this most spiritual of Indian cities. Pay particular attention to the various steep and wide cement staircases that cascade down toward the river like expanding accordions, painted in shades of red, orange, pink, and blue that offer a welcome dose of contrasting color when the right person comes along. Wait for it, wait for it, wait for it. People come, people go…where are the colorful people this morning? Finally, here she comes, and yes, dressed in yellow: perfect!


					With the aid of a translator, I learned that this man was a peanut farmer living in a small village outside of Bagan, Myanmar. He was a married man, proud of his three children and two grandchildren. At fifty-seven years old, he had never traveled farther than forty-three miles, and that had been only twice, both times to the Buddhist temple atop Mount Popa. When I asked what one thing made him happier than anything else, I realized that I’d already been photographing his “happiest pleasure” for the last few minutes: “After a long day in the field,” he said, “I love looking out my window and smoking a cigar!”

					NIKON D810, NIKKOR 24–120MM LENS AT 120MM, F/6.3 FOR 1/400 SEC., ISO 200, DAYLIGHT/SUNNY WB

People and Their Environment

			Nothing can affect a subject’s appearance more quickly than the surrounding environment. A portrait of a young man wearing a blue denim shirt sitting on a log at the beach can suggest that he is a solitary, introspective individual; however, a shot of that same man in the same clothing sitting on a bed in a jail cell might suggest that he’s a hardened criminal or a sympathetic figure whose life took a wrong turn.

			A tightly composed shot of a six-year-old girl’s smiling face tells you only that she is happy; however, if you include the environment around her, you would convey a deeper understanding of her ear-to-ear grin because you’d show the blue ribbon in her hand as well as the Olympic-sized pool where she beat her competition in the background.

			When you photograph people, whether at work or at play, the importance of the right environment can’t be overstated. For example, if your seven-year-old has a gift for playing the piano, it makes sense to photograph him with the piano. If your boyfriend is a skin diver, then make sure to include the beach and palm trees in your portrait of him. And, if your mother or grandmother does, in fact, make the best homemade apple pie, then the kitchen (or an apple orchard) is the perfect backdrop for a picture of her holding her apple pie. Generally speaking, if the environment is going to be part of the composition, it should call attention to—or, at the least, relate to—the subject’s character, profession, or hobby.

					“I sell candy,” said this truly “sweet” man in the Blue City: Jodhpur, India. “Been selling candy in this neighborhood for fifty-seven years, me and my wife.”

					Shooting on this narrow street of bright open shade made for an easy exposure. Since everything was a mid-tone “gray,” I put the camera in Aperture Priority Mode at f/11 and fired away. (For more about “Who cares?” exposures, see this page.)

					NIKON D500, NIKKOR 18–300MM LENS, F/11 FOR 1/200 SEC., ISO 320, DAYLIGHT/SUNNY WB

					It was not a good year for the Pacific Northwest in terms of forest fires. Near the Mt. Adams wilderness area, including the pristine wildflower area of Bird Creek Meadows, a devastating fire wiped out hundreds of thousands of acres of Douglas fir trees, leaving in its wake a ghost town–like forest. There was, if nothing else, a clear opportunity to create images of contrast, which is exactly what I did by dressing Maja in a sparkling formal dress. Even more compelling, to my mind, is a nude photograph I shot of Maja standing on that same stump—naked, just like the trees all around her.


					How shy are you as a photographer? Unless you possess an inordinate amount of “extroverted” DNA, chances are good you will initially approach most strangers you wish to photograph with some degree of light-footedness and a gentle voice. I have often approached without my camera even visible, appearing to be intent on simply having a conversation—and sometimes, that really is all I want to do, at least for the first few minutes. It’s a way to “take the temperature” of the possible subject (or should I say “take the temperament”?). Without a camera, I am, in effect, unarmed and harmless.

					From the road, I could see that this rice harvest was well under way. I left my camera in the car, and my driver and I walked into the field. I began to take a genuine interest in the physical labor being performed by these women. After at least twenty minutes of careful observation, I had my driver explain that I was a photographer and would love to make some photographs, which they welcomed me to do.

					I know of no better storytelling lens than the wide angle, the choice of most National Geographic photographers of days gone by. The reason for this is simple: it can shoot a close-up portrait while at the same time gather the all-encompassing landscape. With my ISO set to 1600, I was able to use a shutter speed (1/1000 sec.) that froze the action of this woman as she thrashed the rice, along with the all-important storytelling aperture of f/22 to record a massive depth of field, from the extreme foreground to the distant sky. This was a day to remember, if only because I learned that my skin itches terribly when exposed to the “chaff” that comes flying off of the rice bundles.

					NIKON D810, NIKON 24–120MM LENS AT 24MM, F/22 FOR 1/1000 SEC., ISO 1600, DAYLIGHT/SUNNY WB


			Besides obviously complementary environments, you can also photograph people in environments that contrast sharply with them. This is perhaps most evident in the work of some fashion photographers. Photographing models in coal mines, junkyards, or even huge bank vaults, for example, stands in stark contrast to the typical choice to shoot them frolicking on the beach, dining alfresco at a café in Paris, or buying flowers at an outdoor market—and is meant to surprise viewers. The contrasting environment calls attention to the clothing, and the viewer is quick to wonder, “Why would she be wearing that beautiful summer dress in a coal mine?”

			Imagine for a moment the stark contrast of a nude figure lounging on the steps of the New York Stock Exchange, a well-known CEO sitting in an old, torn-up recliner inside a burned-out building, or someone dressed in winter ski clothing walking on a sun-drenched Hawaiian beach. Let your imagination run wild as you think up odd environmental juxtapositions for your photographs and you’ll soon find yourself with a “shoot list” that will keep you busy making images for months, if not years, to come.

					Around the world, spices are a normal part of everyday cooking, and in many parts of the world, Ethiopia included, a very hot and spicy red chili powder is as common as the salt found on kitchen tables throughout America. When I walked into one spice-grinding operation, the unmistakable scent of red chilies led me into a small, dark room where the air was filled with so much chili dust that not only did my eyes begin to tear up and burn but the interior of my now sniffling, burning nose felt like the perfect place for a fire drill!

					Despite a working environment that would claim many victims, a lone young man was feeding hundreds of red chilies into the grinding machines and appeared as if the resulting chili powder was no more lethal than baby powder. I, on the other hand, continued with my near-death experience, only just managing to ask the young man to pose for a photo covered in all of his red chili glory. The room was extremely dark, I might add, and I found myself using an ISO of 6400, thus the somewhat grainy image.

					Once outside in the fresh, hot air, I found a bottle of water and soon my throat was clear, my nose was no longer running, and my eyes no longer tearing. How does he do it—and still manage a smile?! My translator said that the man grinds for eight to ten hours each day! Needless to say, he is another person met on my world travels whose daily existence is beyond admirable. He’ll keep grinding, and I’ll keep shooting.

					NIKON D500, NIKKOR 18–300MM LENS, F/7.1 FOR 1/40 SEC., ISO 6400, DAYLIGHT/SUNNY WB

			 				EXERCISE Play with Environment

				Here is an exercise that I have my students do when I teach my online course about photographing people. It always proves to be quite revealing. The good news is you don’t have to do this exercise with a total stranger—a friend, family member or coworker will be just fine. You will need at most several hours. With the emphasis on the environment, photograph that same person in no less than six different environments and notice how the environment has a direct influence on your perception of the person in that specific environment. Consider placing/posing your subject in the following environments: an alleyway, in front of a school, at a table in a coffee shop, near the edge of a stream or against a backdrop of ocean surf, in the forest, sitting behind the wheel of the car, standing in a doorway, sitting on a large set of stairs, lying on the ground while you shoot from above, in a pool hall, in a grocery aisle, etc. You’ll quickly discover how the environment impacts your perception of the person being photographed.

People and Their Clothing

			When you walk into a hospital and a person in a white uniform greets you, there’s little or no question that that individual is a nurse. If, however, the same person were wearing faded jeans and a gray sweatshirt, you might question that nurse’s abilities as a medical professional. Many people consider clothing to be an important barometer, indicating whether someone is rich or poor, liberal or conservative, playful or serious, meek or powerful. Simply put, clothing (or the absence of it) can define and redefine your character and personality. How many police officers look authoritative out of uniform? How many priests or ministers are identifiable as members of the clergy when they take off their collars? Defense lawyers are all too familiar with the power of attire, advising once shaggy-haired, raggedly dressed defendants to arrive in court with a haircut, suit, and tie to enter a plea of not guilty.

			For most people, clothing is a primary form of identification and provides an immediate answer, albeit based in large part on assumption, to the question, “What do you do?” A portrait of a firefighter in uniform or a coal miner with an illuminated helmet leaves no doubt, as to how these people spend part of their time.

			In many cases, clothing immediately identifies people’s nationality or culture, as well. For example, if a young boy in lederhosen were to walk down a New York City street, many people might remark, “He must be from Germany or Switzerland.” Similarly, a bald thirty-five-year-old man wearing sandals and a bright orange robe would immediately be thought to be a Buddhist monk. Granted, people stand out more when they are “out of place” (i.e., out of their normal environment), but what they also do is spark a vision of “another world”—or a larger world.

			Finally, how many of us have toiled side by side with coworkers for months and not paid much attention to them until the company picnic? When you finally take notice of the people you work with on a daily basis, you discover that the usually conservative business attire of the white-collar world and uniforms of the blue-collar world give way to, perhaps, more revealing and flamboyant clothing. Keep this in mind when you’re shooting, since clothing can add or detract from the essence of what you are trying to say about the person you’re photographing.

					In this photograph of two young girls who have arrived at the market near the town of Turmi, in southeast Ethiopia, it is their vibrant, colorful dress that identifies them as African, easily differentiated from the standard attire of the United States, Asia, or Europe.

					NIKON D500, NIKKOR 18–300MM LENS AT 100MM, F/11 FOR 1/125 SEC., ISO 400, DAYLIGHT/SUNNY WB

					You would never guess that just an hour earlier, all of these young monks in Bhutan were engaged in a spirited game of soccer. Even when playing, they were still dressed in their familiar wine-red robes.

					I felt it was important to shoot the boys from above, rather than making the standard eye-level group portrait with which we are so used to. I climbed up a small nearby rock wall and asked them to come in close and look up at me; being easily distracted young boys, some did and some didn’t.

					NIKON D500, NIKKOR 18–300MM LENS AT 35MM, F/16 FOR 1/200 SEC., ISO 640, DAYLIGHT/SUNNY WB

					Despite being set in an environment that speaks volumes about what we imagine or know to be true about the Mediterranean coast, this is a portrait whose success depends in large measure on the wardrobe. Yes, it is a red dress, but more than that is that it is a formal red dress, a party dress—not a dress for a funeral, not a dress for a job interview, and surely not a dress to wear in court when defending your client’s burglary charge. It is the dress that defines the image and the celebratory mood; the environment serves only to call attention to where the “fun” is taking place. And speaking of the woman in the dress, she is Susana Heide Schellenberg, my coauthor on Understanding Color. She joined me in a recent workshop in Santorini, Greece, with the understanding that I would photograph her wearing one of her favorite red dresses as long as I, in turn, could use a photo or two for this book. Looks like we struck a deal!

					NIKON D500, NIKKOR 18–300MM LENS AT 18MM, F/16 FOR 1/200 SEC., ISO 200, DAYLIGHT/SUNNY WB

					In New York City, near the 9/11 Memorial, is the Oculus, understandably one of the most photographed architectural interiors in Lower Manhattan. Although this image does not call attention to the Oculus’s modern design, it does call attention to its almost-empty ground floor on this weekday morning, as well as the maintenance worker mopping up a spill. Study this image for a moment. Notice anything unusual about the maintenance worker? It’s his wardrobe! Simply because of the clothing he is wearing, his position feels elevated beyond the ordinary. I mean, look at his black slacks, shimmering vest, and the grand finale: a bow tie! I love it! All because of clothing, this guy is a “royal” maintenance worker.

					NIKON D500, NIKKOR 18–300MM LENS, F/11 FOR 1/100 SEC., ISO 1250, DAYLIGHT/SUNNY WB

The Face as a Canvas

			If the eyes are the window to the soul, the face is the wall that surrounds this window. And on that wall are a host of “knickknacks” on display that reveal character. The face suggests struggles as well as triumphs, compassion as well as anger. And that wrinkled brow? Does it speak of wisdom or depression?

			Furthermore, the face not only conveys a multitude of expressions, but for many, it is also something to be adorned. In Western cultures, women and men decorate their faces in numerous ways, using anything from simple self-tanning lotions to blush, lipstick, eyeliner, piercings, moustaches, and beards. In India, women mark their foreheads with different-colored dots to indicate their marital status (single, married, or widowed). Tribes in New Guinea place large disks in the lower lip, and tribes in Africa scar the faces of twelve-year-old boys with a hot stick as a rite of passage into manhood. Whether the face is adorned with a simple frown or smile—or with makeup, facial hair, or scars—how it is decorated says a great deal about the person, as well as the prevailing customs and culture.

				On the Face of It

				How much information can you gather from the following scenario: You see two people facing each other at some distance from you but their faces are blocked from view. It’s apparent, based on the sometimes subtle and sometimes rapid movements of arms and hands, that a conversation is taking place, but what kind of conversation is it? Jovial? Enthusiastic? Happy? Somber? Frustrating? Romantic? Sad? Any attempt at answering that question would be based, in large measure, on guesswork. Due to your distance, it isn’t possible to make an assumption about a conversation that you can’t hear without seeing the faces. If, however, you were able to clearly see both of their faces, you would be quick to note that the conversation was at times volatile, at times somber.

				Experienced landscape photographers know that if the light or weather isn’t quite right at a given moment, they must wait until it is (or come back when it is). Sometimes, the wait will only be minutes, but sometimes it may be hours or even days. In effect, landscape photographers must wait for the right “expression” to fall on the landscape, an expression that conveys the mood and emotion they wish to capture. And like the landscape (with its varying light and weather), the human face is ever changing. Expressions of anger, sadness, frustration, disappointment, doubt, indifference, and joy all might cross the faces of both people engaged in conversation.

				Shooting close-up portraits of people’s faces makes many photographers (and their subjects) uncomfortable. This type of “close encounter” confronts the boundaries of intimacy. Still, there are some photographers who thrive in this intimate environment; and they usually know the value of good conversation. Making your subject’s face come alive for your photographs can be a challenge, to be sure. Startling questions, piercing statements, funny stories, and the simple comment “You look great!” can all combine to make your portrait work come alive.

				To my mind, there is no better composition for a portrait than when you move in so close that you have, in fact, cut into the head. Sometimes this means cropping out the top of the head and some hair, and sometimes coming in even closer to cut off part of the subject’s forehead. Even when the subject is a complete stranger to you, this deliberate crop creates a composition with an unusually intimate connection. Try it yourself and I think you will quickly discover the value in it.

					The wearing of these large clay lip plates is steeped in a tradition hundreds of years old. Women of the Mursi tribe in southeastern Ethiopia’s Omo Valley begin cutting their lips around the age of twelve, initially inserting small discs and then, over time, these larger clay discs. It is a form of “makeup,” a way to make oneself more attractive to single men of the tribe. Body scarification, the cutting of designs into the skin, is another tribal tradition, this one practiced by both men and women. Of late, some of the younger girls are saying “no” to the cutting of their lips, and in time this tradition may cease.

					NIKON D800, NIKKOR 18–300MM LENS AT 300MM, F/7.1 FOR 1/500 SEC., ISO 200, DAYLIGHT/SUNNY WB

					I was initially drawn to this eighty-nine-year-old Myanmar woman because of her unusual “blue” eyes, only to be quickly informed by my guide that the “blue” was cataracts. Yes, she could see, but her vision was always cloudy. As a photographer, I was reminded just how lucky I am to see the world so clearly. And should the day ever come that I, too, wake up with the onset of cataracts, I am doubly fortunate to have access to an eye specialist, unlike this woman.

					The red/yellow background was a folded blanket initially sitting atop a nearby basket. With permission, my guide, with the aid of this woman’s daughter, hung the blanket behind her as she sat on a bench in an area of open shade just beyond the sun’s reach. Directly on the ground in front of her, bright golden sand lit up by the sun overhead acted much like a golden reflector, casting its wonderfully soft glow across her face.

					From a distance of about three meters, and with the Nikon D500 and 18–300mm lens, I zoomed to around 220mm and shot the frame-filling composition you see here.

					NIKON D500, NIKKOR 18–300MM LENS AT 220MM, F/6.3 FOR 1/250 SEC., ISO 200, DAYLIGHT/SUNNY WB

			 				EXERCISE Creating Multiple Personalities with One Person

				How many hats can you find in your closet, storage room, or attic? I have offered up this exercise to my students and oh my does it ever call attention to the power of the wardrobe! Five hats minimum, all different; they might include a simple ball cap, ski cap, fedora, cowboy hat, hard hat, beret, scarf, bandana, and a skull cap. Choose a friend, family member, or coworker and shoot up-close portraits against a plain background. Make sure to do this exercise on an overcast day so you can avoid having to overcome the potential shadows that some hats will cast. You will be amazed at how quickly the “personality” of the subject is altered by a simple change in hats!

					While conversing with a young shopkeeper on the streets of Jodhpur, India, I felt a light tap on my shoulder. Thinking it might be one of my students, I turned around and was immediately greeted by a big smile from the gentleman you see here. “I just got new glasses,” he said with the sort of excited voice normally associated with winning the lottery. “Will you take my picture please?” Moments after taking his picture, I learned that he had been without glasses for some time due to financial hardship, thus explaining his excitement about being able to see clearly once again. When photographing on the streets of India, it’s not uncommon to be approached by the locals and asked to take their pictures, but this was the first time I was asked to help celebrate another man’s vision!

					NIKON D500, NIKKOR 18–300MM LENS AT 70MM, F/7.1 FOR 1/200 SEC., ISO 640, DAYLIGHT/SUNNY WB

					Perhaps no one understands the “face as a canvas” more than a makeup artist, since the face is, after all, their primary canvas. And I have met no one who is more passionate about the “art of the face” than Nattakun Plangedee, a makeup artist and model whom you’ll see a few more times in this book, and for good reason. When Natt told me she wanted to dress up as a female King Tut, I knew the day would be both memorable and special, and we did create a number of great images that day, though none more elegant and “Queen Tut” like than the one you see here. Yes, Natt got away from the King Tut script, but I certainly was not complaining! This image was shot indoors with nothing more than the tungsten light that filled the large foyer of the second floor mansion that we had rented for several days of shooting in Delhi, India.

					NIKON D810, NIKKOR 24–120MM LENS, F/11 FOR 1/200 SEC., ISO 800, DAYLIGHT/ SUNNY WB

Choosing the Right People

			A chief advantage that location photographers have over studio portrait photographers is the opportunity to photograph people in a seemingly infinite variety of environments all over the world. This freedom to choose not only which environment but also which people you photograph translates into far more opportunities to be truly creative. After all, there are only so many backgrounds one can use in a studio.

			Perhaps more important, though, is that location photographers encounter subjects on their own turf, where, understandably, people are more likely to feel at ease, at least when they are first approached. But all of this freedom doesn’t guarantee success. In truth, some of my most compelling subjects were at first the most resistant, but because they fit the part I imagined so perfectly, I simply had to be more patient than at other times. Eventually, short of someone being a fugitive or in a witness protection program, most if not all subjects will give in—if you are willing to invest the time.

			The result of the increased subject variety that you get as a location people photographer is the increased importance of choosing the right people. One of the primary considerations of photographing anybody is making believable results. Whether you’re on vacation or on a quest to someday be a commercial photographer, your goal should be to return with some hard evidence that you really did photograph a doctor or a homemaker or a lawyer or that fisherman from Scotland or that computer science major from Singapore.

			Would you portray a person who is clearly overweight as a tennis pro? Would you portray a man dressed in dirty and worn-out clothes as CEO? Would you portray a very conservative looking twenty-five-year-old woman as the owner of a tattoo shop? Of course not, and it’s not because you’re prejudiced. It’s because you want your subjects to be believable.

					We planned an afternoon shoot in front of the Masjid (mosque) next to the Taj Mahal in Agra. The requirements for this shoot were easy: other than the need to wear Indian attire, Natt simply had to throw a portion of her dress in the air. Before it had a chance to settle, I would fire off a number of frames, intent on creating the illusion of a sudden gust of wind (a gust that you now know was named Natt). Over the course of twenty minutes we got more than enough material, thanks in part to the very high shooting rate (11 frames per second) of the Nikon D500.

					NIKON D500, NIKKOR 18–300MM LENS, F/8 FOR 1/1000 SEC., ISO 400, DAYLIGHT/SUNNY WB

					Perhaps I’ve watched one too many episodes of Lockup on MSNBC—then again, if I hadn’t watched that show, I might have walked right past this red door on a small street in New York City’s Little Italy. The door was open, I might add, and fortunately one of my students was willing to play along. Even without knowing the backstory of this harmless photo, it might make you feel uneasy. My purpose in creating images is to (hopefully) make you feel, even if that means making you feel squeamish, uneasy, or even horrified.

					NIKON D810, NIKKOR 24–120MM LENS AT 120MM, F/16 FOR 1/100 SEC., ISO 400, DAYLIGHT/SUNNY WB

			 				PRACTICE “Casting”

				All of us have seen movies and, at one time or another, commented that an actor was miscast and not believable in a role. Perhaps you’ve even gone so far as to say that the actor didn’t look the part. The same can apply to photography. Whether you’re consciously or subconsciously thinking about someone’s appearance, you’ll find that there’s always that one person you see who you feel is perfect for your planned composition. Whether your goal in selecting a subject is to win a photo contest or simply to add a compelling image to your photo gallery, think of yourself as a “casting director” and see how it influences your choices.

Breaking Through the Shyness Barrier

			One of the greatest challenges photographers face is learning to break through the shyness barrier; for some, that means not only the subject ’s shyness but the photographer’s shyness, as well. Assuming you’ve gotten past the internal obstacle that keeps you from asking others to pose for you, how do you convey your intentions with sincerity, certainty, and confidence?

			After talking with subjects for several minutes and getting a sense of them, I often ask a provocative question: “How do you define or see yourself?” Obviously, this question can’t be answered with only a simple yes or no. It invites more conversation, and it’s here where the experienced photographer has the edge—and now you will, too. At some point, you follow this question with another that I mentioned previously: “If you could look any way you want, wearing what you want, and do anything you want while being photographed, what would I see in the final image?” The purpose of this question is, of course, to draw the person into the photographic decision-making process, thereby opening them up to the idea of being photographed.

			In addition, my success rate of taking pictures of reluctant people over the past fifteen years has exploded, and I owe a great deal of this “explosive” success to the use of a digital camera. I used to carry a Polaroid SX-70 with me, an instant camera similar to today’s Fujifilm Instax. I would take snapshots of hesitant subjects, and quite often, the most resistant people were quickest to proceed after they saw the Polaroid of what I had in mind. I no longer need the SX-70, thanks to the immediacy of the digital camera’s monitor. Putting people’s minds at ease has never been easier now that they can clearly see, before I really proceed, just how great they’ll look!

			A final note about breaking through the shyness barrier: Some photographers insist on working alone when photographing people, without the aid of an assistant. I, along with scores of other shooters, feel the exact opposite. An assistant can engage the subject in conversation, keep an eye out for unbuttoned shirts or open zippers, flyaway hair, spinach in teeth, and any other potential problems that you might not notice. An assistant enables the photographer to concentrate on one thing and one thing only: creating great images.

			I’ve shot on a few occasions without an assistant, and given a choice, I’ll take an assistant every time. And just because you aren’t a working professional certainly doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy the freedom that comes from having someone else do the talking (as well as the “looking after”) for you. If you know someone who enjoys engaging conversation and likes meeting new people, then you not only have a great assistant but a great “people gatherer.” Put this person to work! You’ll soon see a noticeable increase in the number of your people pictures—whether they be photographs of strangers in a foreign land, coworkers, or even just your family members.

			A word of caution as well as another valid argument for employing an assistant: If you are engaged in photographing models, male or female, in any kind of intimate or sexual manner, whether semi-nude or fully nude, the assistant can also increase trust between you and the model, bearing witness that nothing unprofessional took place during the shoot. The last thing you need is to be accused of acting inappropriately, and having an assistant with you pretty much eliminates that concern for both you and your model.

					One of the shyest people I’ve ever photographed is Sita, a young Bhutanese woman. Sita was one of the employees at the eco-lodge where my students and I stayed over the course of four days. It was evident in my first encounter with Sita that neither I nor my students should even remotely consider photographing her because, by her own admission, she didn’t like to have her picture taken, and she was quite adamant about it. Suffice it to say that following three days of friendly chatter, Sita agreed to meet me out back near the woodshed, away from everyone, in what quickly became a makeshift studio.

					As you can see, we were shooting against a rock wall, but when Sita raised her arms and positioned them close to her head, her black denim sleeves created a black “frame,” making for a very clean composition. Using Manual Mode, I moved in so close that my light meter only saw her face and none of the black—otherwise, the meter would have been influenced by the black and offered up an overexposed setting in its attempt to make the subject gray. Also of note is that during the shoot it began to get a bit windy; although Sita was tempted to pull the hair back from her face, I asked her not to as I felt it added a welcome element of mystery. Sita was very happy with the images and, in fact, has already expressed an interest in “modeling” again when I return to Bhutan on my next visit.

					Notice the blue cast in the background of the image above? I was on the north side of a building in open shade on a clear day—conditions in which many subjects and colors become “contaminated” by blue light. Yet this was one time I did nothing to get rid of it. In fact, I chose to enhance the blue light by adding about +30 percent of the Dehaze slider in Adobe Camera Raw during my brief postprocessing.

					NIKON D500, NIKKOR 18–300MM LENS, F/7.1 FOR 1/125 SEC., ISO 320, DAYLIGHT/SUNNY WB

			A Note about “Flaws”

			If you’ve established a degree of trust with your subject (whether it’s a family member, an acquaintance, or a stranger), most people will share some fairly intimate—and sometimes even startling—details about their lives and preferences. At some point in the conversation, you’ll probably learn about a physical “flaw” your subject has and hates, and which makes the idea of being photographed unappealing. Ironically, it might be that very thing that drew you to this person in the first place. So how do you overcome that? In some cases you don’t, but more often than not you might want to point out the positive aspects that you saw in the “flaw,” whatever it was.

			For example, if a person is self-conscious about wrinkles, feeling that all they do is serve as a reminder of lost youth and vitality, you might explain to your subject that you were drawn to this face of great wisdom, a face on which so many stories have clearly been etched. It’s a triumphant face, a face of joy and sadness, a face of love won and love lost. It’s a beautiful face that makes you feel safe. You know that you are in the presence of someone much wiser than yourself.

					On the streets of the Mediterranean town of Cassis, France, the early-morning sidelight was casting its warm glow across the well-worn wall of what had once been a bakery. A portion of the strong sunlight was blocked by a large building across the street, causing a wonderful framework of shadow to wrap around both ends of the wall. As any experienced street photographer will attest, once you find a “treasured” location, be patient and the much-hoped-for “jewels” will appear. Over the course of the next twenty minutes, my students and I captured a number of locals walking through this scene, but everyone agreed that it was one of our own workshop participants, Mike McCoy, who volunteered to walk through the scene as a “local,” who proved the most believable. Because this scene is flooded with the full sun of early-morning, all it required was the simple and reliable exposure formula of Sunny 16. (For more about Sunny 16, see this page.)


Posed Versus Candid

			Photographers all over the world frequently debate whether posed or candid portraits are more pleasing. I think that both types of portraits can be appealing when the photographer’s primary goal is to depict the subject as accurately as possible. Everyone has been asked to pose for the camera at one time or another, even if it was just for a school portrait. For most people, those shooting sessions were very impersonal (and date back to kindergarten, I might add), and they were directed by the photographer to move, stand, or sit a certain way; to tilt their head “this way” or “that way”; and then, hardest of all, to “look right into the lens and smile.”

			Candids, on the other hand, are usually pictures of people who were unaware that their picture was being taken, or—and this is where the debate gets really interesting—they are pictures in which the subjects appear to be unaware that their picture was being taken. In “true” candids, the subjects are not directed or told what expression to convey; they are just being themselves at that moment in time. Unlike with posed portraits, with candids at no time is the presence of the photographer actually felt.

			But what if the photographer is able to convey the idea of a candid moment while the subject is fully aware of the photographer’s presence? For years we were led to believe that the famed French photographer Robert Doisneau had really captured a great candid of a couple sharing a kiss as they passed in front of an outdoor café and his waiting camera. The image, Le Baiser de l’Hotel de Ville, was and—as far as I am concerned—still is one of many Doisneau greats. But now we’ve learned that Doisneau staged the scene, instructing his models to cross in front of the café, sharing their kiss and warm embrace repeatedly, until he felt he had the one shot he needed.

			In Doisneau’s defense, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had, in fact, seen another couple in a warm embrace, sharing a kiss as they walked in a somewhat hurried pace past a café he was seated at. I could believe that he might not have gotten that shot, but might have made a mental note of it and was soon engaging the help of some friends to re-create that moment. And what’s so wrong with that? Back in 1950 when he made this image, the streets of Paris were often festive—the German occupation had ended only a few years before and love was once again in the air. It was time to be French again, and this, of course, meant open displays of affection. So what if he staged a moment?! The fact is, he should be commended for staging it so well. No one ever questioned that it was an authentic candid for all those years. Staged or not, does it really take away from the “truth” that the image expresses? It was an exciting and liberating time to be in Paris, a time to celebrate, and the image captured the spirit of that moment for all the world to feel and share.

			As I’ve said in some of my other books, every photograph is a “lie,” and if it succeeds, that lie will be full of truth. The lie I refer to here is, of course, the lie of composition. By the very act of selecting a certain composition, the photographer presents only a small portion of the scene—thus, the start of the lie. The tight crop of a full-frame shot of a child who smiles for the photographer says nothing about the real world of poverty that surrounds her; missing from the photographed scene is her house made of corrugated metal, the four starving dogs sleeping on her porch, and the raw sewage running past her house in the nearby ditch.

			Ultimately, my feeling on the debate of real candid photos versus staged candid photos, or candid portraits versus posed portraits is simply this: If it makes me angry, if it makes me sad, if it makes me laugh, if it makes me feel, then it’s the truth. If the subject conveys the message that you are trying to get across—regardless of whether you’ve staged, created, or even re-created the scene—and it does not look staged, then as far as I’m concerned, it is the truth! Hollywood has been staging, creating, and re-creating the “truth” for years, so why not photographers? Why not you?

					The Yamuna river runs right through Agra, India, a city most notable for being home to one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Taj Mahal. Unlike the famous Ganges river, which runs through the holiest of India’s cities, Varanasi, the Yamuna, in the minds of most, is “just a river,” yet for me the banks of the Yamuna are the most colorful ones I’ve ever seen. Some days, they become carpets of color as freshly washed curtains are laid out to dry, creating a colorful patchwork quilt large enough to cover three hundred king-size beds!

					On this particular morning, the laundry had already been washed and laid out to dry, but I needed someone to be near the laundry to lend a sense of scale and some human interest. Who could I find, especially while standing above it all, perched high atop a bridge? A few minutes went by and I spotted a couple of young boys bathing in the river, about fifty yards away. After some yelling on my part (which may have at first been interpreted as that of an angry old man), the boys figured out that I was asking them to play the lead role in my “movie” and soon they were running through the laundered fabrics, careful not to step on them. When all was said and done, I folded two 100-rupee notes into paper airplanes and let them fly into the excited hands of my young “actors.” The boy in motion, combined with the bright colors surrounding him, infuses the overall composition with a sense of unbridled enthusiasm for the colorful life in which we live.

					NIKON D500, NIKKOR 18–300MM LENS AT 247MM, F/11 FOR 1/320 SEC., ISO 200, DAYLIGHT/SUNNY WB

					This example may feel a bit too extreme for some, but one technique that has proven effective for me, over and over, is to suggest to the person I’m shooting that they have just run into a large spider web and are trying desperately to get both the spider and the web off their face. That was certainly the suggestion here, during one of my many photography adventures in Myanmar, and I think it’s fair to say that the idea produced a believable candid moment, allowing me to capture a gesture that suggests that we are witness to some truly happy news or the punchline of a great joke. As this woman’s arms started flailing, natural and spontaneous laughter erupted from others in the room—so who’s to say that the “moment” I captured isn’t real?

					NIKON D500, NIKKOR 18–300MM LENS AT 120MM, F/7.1 FOR 1/320 SEC., ISO 800, DAYLIGHT/SUNNY WB

					In this example, you, the viewer, are able to “run” freely throughout the entire composition, since the subject has clearly turned her back on you—but then again, not so fast. Perhaps you are feeling a bit cautious? Do you feel the need to tiptoe quietly around the photograph, since you are not sure who you might “wake up”? Who is it, exactly, under that bright red hooded scarf? Relax…it’s my daughter Chloë, who I directed to turn away from the camera to create a feeling of mystery, maybe even one of ghostly “horror” if we’re not careful.

					Although not that common, it’s certainly possible to evoke emotions from the viewer—emotions by which the viewer might feel threatened or deep connection to—in the absence of direct eye contact. But when the subject of a photo looks straight at the camera, and thus the viewer, the viewer will feel a clearer response.

					NIKON D500, NIKKOR 18–300MM LENS, F/11 FOR 1/200 SEC., ISO 400, DAYLIGHT/SUNNY WB

			Eye Contact

			Do the subjects of all your portraits need to look directly into the camera lens, making eye contact with the viewing audience, to be effective? In my opinion, the answer to this question is, more often than not, yes. But it’s not always possible to manage this when shooting true candids, since for most candid photography, the subject isn’t aware of the photographer’s presence and, therefore, rarely (if ever) makes direct eye contact with the photographer and camera.

			For the viewer, this lack of eye contact sometimes enables a greater study of the overall composition, since the viewer’s eye is not drawn into the direct gaze of the subject. Additionally, viewers can easily laugh at the subject’s plight or feel the subject’s pain without feeling that they are lacking in sensitivity. On the other hand, when the subject of a photograph looks straight at the camera, regardless of what that subject might be doing, the viewer has a tendency to feel more deeply in response. This direct eye contact is, of course, all about connecting with one of our own. We don’t feel the same connection when, for example, we make eye contact with a chicken or a cow. If we did, I doubt if many of us would be eating chickens and cows.

				EXERCISE Creating Welcomed Gestures

				Small, subtle gestures or suggestions from the subject can go a long way in exuding an “emotional” moment that could prove to be the decisive moment to photograph. Here are a few exercises to bring out that emotional moment: 1) As mentioned in the caption on this page, have the person act as if they just ran into a spider web, 2) Ask them to pretend to swat a fly, 3) You (the photographer) fake a yawn and be ready for the subject to move their hand across their face as they try to now cover their own yawn in reaction to yours, 4) Ask the subject to focus on the pretend butterfly that just landed on their nose, 5) Have the subject count out loud, while smiling, with one hand opened and the index finger on the other hand counting each finger, “one, two, three, four, and five,” and again “one, two…” all the while shooting, 6) Have them count again, but this time with a scowl, 7) Have the subject pretend there is large bowl of water in front of them and to take both hands and throw water on their face, 8) If the subject has long hair, have them turn away from the camera then quickly turn towards you with their hair flying and a large smile across their face.

					In looking at both of these photos, it’s obvious which one allows the viewer to wander about a bit without fear of being “caught”—and, of course, it is the photograph of the man clearly looking away, up toward the heavens. When he looks at you, you may feel inclined to look away (or not), but for sure, your emotional response will be in marked contrast to how you react when he is looking away. It is an important point if only to understand how your audience may or may not perceive the “story” about the people you photograph, particularly in portraits. Should they be looking at you or away at something else? Why not try both?


				PLANNING & PROPS The Advantages of the Staged Candid

				In many of the pictures in this book, my subjects were fully aware of my presence—yet I contend that many of these images qualify as candids. If only because photography is first and foremost a business for me, I rarely have the luxury of shooting true candids. I always try to have my subjects sign model release forms, and many times, I’ll get them to sign a release before I’ve even taken the first picture. If I don’t have the necessary release, I can’t lease or sell the rights to the picture for commercial use, and chances are good that in today’s litigious society I wouldn’t be protected either, even if my work was limited to gallery exhibitions. Thus, I have no choice but to announce my presence as well as my intent.

				The obvious advantage to working with subjects who are aware of your presence is that you are better able to plan your shots than you would be in a truly candid situation. And many photographers often want to include props in staged candid shots. The reason for this is that props call attention to the subject’s “identity” (interests, talents, or profession). Again, this prop may, in fact, have nothing to do with the subject, but if the casting is done well, it does indeed make the image that much more believable.

				A prop can be prominent (such as a pet boa constrictor hanging about the neck of a street magician), or it can be part of a background (the ’65 Mustang behind the car buff). Either way, props are useful. Let’s say you see a woman wearing jeans, a flannel shirt, a cowboy hat, and cowboy boots, against an out-of-focus background of green tones. Does she live in the country? More than likely. Does she own horses? More than likely. Does she listen to country music? More than likely. And you gather all this information not from the surroundings in this case but from the props (here, the clothing). Is she really a cowgirl? If you believe it, then she is!

				Additionally, some props (such as musical instruments, garden tools, artwork, books, fruits and vegetables, a glass of iced tea, a teddy bear, or a cell phone) can solve the problem of what to do with the subject’s hands. And subjects are more likely to feel relaxed when holding familiar objects. Obviously, choose props that are appropriate for the subject. For example, don’t put a shovel in the hands of a man whose fair skin and overall look screams that he spends all of his time indoors.

					Although I was not that surprised, I did discover while editing the many photos for this book that I had a ridiculously small collection of images in which the subjects are not looking directly at the camera. In the two photographs here, the children are engaged in the act of blowing up balloons. (I sometimes carry balloons with me when traveling, an idea I got from one of my students.) Clearly, the youngest girl seems to be having a hard time of it (“I think I can, I think I can…”). As you look at the photos, it’s easy to relax and smile, as the absence of intimate eye-to-eye contact puts you in the role of a passing stranger.



					There he was, on the corner of 47th Street and Sixth Avenue in New York City, with a large smile across his face, answering the call of anyone who wished for a large, flavor-filled dollop (or two) of ice cream on that warm July day. As I’ve learned over the years, most entrepreneurs are agreeable to having their photos taken, especially in today’s world of social media. “I would love to make a photo of you and your brightly colored ice cream truck and share it with my many followers on Instagram!” I said. In between his many customers, I managed to record this simple yet effective portrait conveying the child-like joy this man experiences with every ice cream cone he makes for his happy customers.

					NIKON D500, NIKKOR 18–300MM LENS, F/11 FOR 1/320 SEC., ISO 200, DAYLIGHT/SUNNY WB

People as Themes

			Most, if not all, photographers have experienced what I call photographic depression at some point in their lives. It may last for several days, weeks, or even months—no matter how hard we search our storehouse of creativity, we periodically find that the shelves are empty. For some photographers, this lull can be downright frightening, especially when it coincides with an important event or assignment. It’s an especially serious problem for professional photographers, who are expected to deliver the goods and who seldom have the luxury of taking off for an extended length of time to “restock” the “shelves of creativity.”

			When I think about my own dry spells, I find that they usually happen when I’m shooting without a purpose or theme. Although subjects for themes may come relatively easily to nature photographers, people photographers might find it harder to define themes for their work. For example, a nature photographer can easily choose from waterfalls, barns, trees, flowers, butterflies, forests, mountains, deserts, or animals for themes. But when I suggest to students whose primary interest is photographing people that they consider a theme, they often look confused. Some students respond with ambivalence; they think that a series of simple headshots would hardly be a compelling theme. I might agree that a series of simple headshots is hardly compelling, but what if those same headshots were limited to people who were bald?

			The first step, of course, is to select a theme. Suppose you decide to photograph only those individuals who have a deep love of gardening. You might begin by driving around your neighborhood, taking note of the yards that look as if they should be featured in Better Homes & Gardens. Stop your car in front of these houses, knock on the door, and introduce yourself to the owners. Compliment the people on their yard, and then briefly explain your current photo project (shooting portraits of gardeners). Since you’re proposing to photograph homeowners in an environment that calls attention to their favorite pastime, people will probably agree to pose for you. As you develop this theme over time, you’ll discover surprises in your pictures that you might not have even thought of when first planning these shots. For example, you might find that most of the gardeners have weathered complexions and rough hands, wear loose-fitting cotton clothes, and seem rather tranquil in nature.

			Obviously, these pictures would be vastly different from a series of shots for which coal miners are the theme. Their world is usually dark, their faces are seldom clean when they work, and their eyes often seem scarred with fear.

			Children provide an opportunity to shoot a theme that’s often overlooked because it’s so obvious. Beginning with your child’s first birthday, have the child sit on a kitchen chair and hold the birthday cake. Repeat this exact composition for the next seventeen years. The resulting images will be fun to look at and cherished for a long time.

			Other potential themes: people who wear hats, have blue eyes, have red hair, drive BMWs, wear uniforms, own horses, drink beer, make homemade jam, or work at the country store. Clearly, the list of potential themes is endless.

			Hands and Feet

			One of my favorite themes has been the study of hands (as seen on this page), and lately I’ve begun to look at feet with a discerning eye as well. I’ve been working on hands for more than twenty years, and I see no reason to think I’m close to the “end” of this exploration. And now that I’ve begun to look at feet, I can only hope that I’ll be reincarnated as a photographer, since I have several lifetimes of work ahead of me with just these two subjects alone!

					As I was walking down a narrow corridor in Jodhpur, India, I heard the sound of a television, and when I looked up, I saw a doorway about fifteen feet in front of me. It was slightly ajar and two feet were propped up—yeah, well, that was good enough for me, so I raised the Nikon D500 and the Nikkor 18–300mm lens to my eye, zoomed in a bit to the 120mm mark, and framed up the doorway and feet just as you see them here. There were some minor depth-of-field concerns since I was at an angle to the house and doorway, which meant that some of the image would have been out of focus. Since I wanted it all sharp, I shot the image at f/13 for added depth of field. Then I adjusted my shutter speed until 1/200 sec. indicated a -2/3 exposure (in the camera’s light meter) and fired away. (For more on why I selected a -2/3 exposure, see “A Note about Underexposing on Purpose,” this page.)


					Never before or since have I consumed as much tea in one day as I did on this day in the small village of Myotin, Myanmar. Over a three-hour time period, I drank nine cups of tea. Tea was obviously the drink o