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The Traveling Photographer: Photographing People: Guidelines

As traveling photographers, we all wear many hats—landscape photographer, bird photographer, portrait photographer, food photographer, etc. We may feel comfortable in some of the hats we wear, and some hats just don’t seem to fit well at all.

I had my roots in landscape and nature photography then moved on to cityscapes. Photographing people on the streets in the places I visited always seemed a tough fit. So I pushed hard–taking a class, watching videos, reading some books, and making lots of pictures–to figure out how to get good shots of people.

After making lots of mistakes and determining what worked for me and what didn’t, I put together some guidelines for myself to use when I am out photographing people. The guidelines keep me focused on what is important and hopefully help me create better images.

These guidelines are pretty simple because I like to keep things that way. There are only six. (A sophisticated shooter who likes to carry lots of gear and accessories, or who has more requirements, such as a commercial photographer, may have a longer or different list.) I will cover the guidelines in this first post, dealing with setting up your photograph. The second and third posts will specifically cover lighting.

1. Set the Stage

Background, background, background. I cannot say it enough. It is where I see the biggest failing in many good images. Keep the background uncluttered. If extraneous people are not part of the story you are telling in your image, then they should not be drifting into the background. Look at the colors, shapes, forms, and shadows that appear in the scene.  Are they necessary or do they interfere with the subject? Check the edges of the frame for wayward objects you prefer not creep into the image.  Keep asking yourself if you have set the stage you are trying to set for your subject? Is your subject well-placed on that stage?

If the background for your subject has issues, but you still want to take the photograph, crop the image tight, shooting in close. If that doesn’t work for your composition or is not possible, shoot wide open with a very shallow depth of field. Depending on the lens you are using and your distance from your subject you may be able to blur out the background.

2. Be Mindful of Camera Settings

Aperture and Shutter

I typically shoot aperture priority, unless my subject’s motion is important to the image. In determining the f/stop setting for my camera, I first decide how shallow I would like the depth of field. In other words, how blurry do I want my background? The larger my aperture (smaller f/stop number), the more shallow the depth of field. I also consider the number of people I am photographing. If my subject includes more than one person I will need a greater depth of field if I want everyone sharp. I typically set my aperture between f/1.4 and f/5.6 if my subject is one person and f/8 and f/11 if my subject includes two or more people.

I shoot shutter priority when I want to freeze a subject’s movement, am concerned about camera shake, or am panning with a subject as it moves across my viewfinder. To freeze a subject’s movement I set my shutter speed between 1/500 sec and 1/2000 sec, depending on the speed of my subject. For panning, I set the shutter speed between 1/8 sec and 1/30 sec. (For further information on creative blur, see my previous post on using shutter speed creatively to blur your image.) If I am concerned about camera shake, I set my shutter speed at a minimum speed of 1 over the effective focal length of my lens (taking into account a cropped sensor), but never less than 1/125 sec. For example, if I am shooting with a 200 mm lens and my camera has a full-frame sensor, I would set my shutter speed at no slower than 1/200th of a second. If my camera has a cropped sensor of 1.5, I would shoot at no slower than 1/300 sec.

When a scene has tricky light, such as light with deep shadows and very bright highlights or light that is constantly changing, I will set my camera to manual mode for determining the shutter and aperture settings. I decide upon the proper exposure by using the spot meter in my camera to meter off of something in my scene that is also lit by the light hitting my subject. I try to meter off of something that has the tone of a grey card such as a wall or the surface of a street. As an alternative, since I am Caucasian, I meter off of the palm of my hand which is pretty close to a grey card calculation. I adjust my aperture and shutter settings until the light meter reading in my viewfinder shows a proper exposure. (Refer to your camera manual for information on using your in-camera light meter.) I also check the histogram and the LCD screen to be sure I am not clipping any highlights and that there are no blinkies. If highlights are clipped, I reduce the exposure until they are not.  

ISO

If the light is pretty strong and steady, I usually set my ISO at ISO 200 or 400.  If there is low light or if the light keeps changing, I set my camera to AUTO ISO. My camera allows me to preprogram settings for Auto ISO. For Auto ISO, I set the default ISO at 200, with a maximum ISO of 6400 and a minimum shutter speed of 1/160 sec. If the light is very low, I increase the maximum ISO to 12,800 and the minimum shutter speed to 1/125 sec. My cameras, a Fuji XT2 and a Fuji X100F, do very well in low light, so I am comfortable with the ISO 12,800 setting if there is no other choice to get the image. A caveat to the Auto ISO settings–if I am using a lens with an effective focal length in excess of 120 mm, I will increase the minimum shutter speed to 1/focal length of the lens.

Focus

I always set my focus on the eyes of my subject, if I am taking a portrait. If I am taking a candid shot, I will usually set a zone of focus, not knowing exactly where my subject may be when I click the shutter release. I usually set the focus manually. Then the camera doesn’t have to keep searching for the focus point with each of my images. My camera has focus peaking which I set to red. What that means is that when I manually focus, everything in red is in my plane of focus. It makes it very easy for me to determine my depth of field and zone of focus.

If I have no time to think because I have just arrived at a scene that is quickly changing, I use the aperture priority setting and set my aperture to f/5.6 or f/8, my camera to autofocus, my ISO to the Auto ISO default, and I start shooting.

3. Tell A Story

Travel photography tells the stories of the places we visit. The people we encounter are part of that story. Try to give a sense of place to the people photos you take. Show streets and buildings in the background, examples of how people dress, earn a living, interact with friends, or have fun.

As part of the story being told, it is also important to capture the look in the person’s eye, a gesture of the hand or head, the position of the body, or a facial expression. Wait for the special moments until you click the shutter release. If you are afraid you will miss a moment, shoot in burst mode. If you are shooting a street portrait, and feel the subject looks too posed, take several shots. The subject usually loosens up at the end of the series, and looks more natural, particularly if they think you are finished shooting.

4. Remember Composition

Even though your subject is a person, pay attention to composition and elements of design such as the rule of thirds, leading lines, repeating patterns, and triangles. Change your perspective-shoot low or shoot high.

5. Keep Track of Body Parts

If I was paid $100 for every foot I have cut off in a photograph, I would be a very wealthy person.  Before you click the shutter always check for heads, hands, feet and other body parts that might mistakenly be cropped out of your picture.

6. Make The Light Work For You

Lighting ultimately makes the photograph. Sometimes we get lucky and the quality of the light and how it hits our subject is perfect. Sometimes we have to work hard to make the lighting work for our image. In the second and third parts of this series I will discuss lighting, both natural and flash.

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