Portraits of pretty girls are about as interesting as a cloudless blue sky. Sure they are easy on the eye, but carry no interest. There’s no sense of who the person is and why they have been photographed. So some advice: if you are thinking of asking the pretty girl down the road to do a photoshoot, just ask her out instead and then photograph her father, or mother, or grandmother, the images will be far more interesting.
Vacant looking waifs in not many clothes belong in the past. Real people, doing real things is were modern people photography should be headed. Forget the pout, forget the tonnes of trowelled on make-up. Real people photographed in an interesting way is what photography should look like in 2020.
And you want to know a secret? It’s far easier to photography a normal person than a waifish young woman. Why? Because attractive women have to deal with so many idiots that another person claiming to be a photographer and wanting to take their picture is just another distraction to their day. So leave the model types alone and concentrate on the far more interesting people.
There are though hurdles to overcome. To start with find someone with an interesting job or hobby. That way the picture is more about what they are doing more than who they are. Take sea angling as an example. I decided to do a project on sea anglers. I didn’t know any, so I did the next obvious thing. I went to the sea to find some.
Rule one when approaching people is to engage them in conversation. If they are doing their job or hobby most will be happy to strike up a conversation. Anglers are easy as they never shut up (it’s why I love talking to them). Do not just get your camera out and ask to take a photo. Show them you’re not a lunatic. Even when I am photographing people commercially I strike up a conversation and put my subject at ease.
Like many photographic genres, more than half the skill involved in taking a people picture is when you are not taking a picture. Being pleasant, interested and affable are all skills needed to take amazing images. Just like being patient, quiet and comfortable with yourself are needed in wildlife photography.
Now comes the easy part – the picture taking. You could go the lazy route and simply snap a grinning subject, or you could put some thought into it. It’s your choice, but I tend to lean towards the latter. You have choices. A photojournalist would capture the subject doing something: their job, a hobby etc. Or a portraitist would get the subject to pose. Either is good as long as you capture an essence of who they are and or what they are doing.
To do that is a case of understanding the person and their presence on the earth. Sounds a bit hairy fairy, but don’t light joss sticks just yet. You have to work out their personality and portray that in a captured still image. Are they cheeky, serious, intelligent, playful, thoughtful? Working this out is the difference between taking a snap and taking a portrait.
So the image of the man at the bottling machine (above) is a photojournalistic approach. I was taking pictures during bottling day at a local vineyard. People were busy, concentrating on the process and they knew I was there, but ignored me and I was able to shoot lots of people at work. This is a favourite as the man is so engrossed you can see the concentration in his face. It’s a fairly repetitious and somewhat mundane job, but he is serious about it and that tells the viewer a part of who this man is. If he was looking at the camera it would loose impact.
Even when I ask my subject to make eye contact with the viewer as in the pilot image (below) there’s a story going on around them. There’s elements that show the viewer who the man is or what he’s doing.
I don’t, you may gather, take a huge number of standard eyes on the camera portraits. I prefer my subjects, even the staged shots, to be looking off camera. I feel you get a much more impactful image as the person is focused on what they’re doing and you get a more natural shot. And that is the key to a successful people image.
Gavin Parsons studied photography at Huntingdonshire college one of the most eminent stepping-stones into commercial photography in the 1990s. His career skewed into journalism when he accepted the role of technical writer on Practical Photography magazine and then slid into the water and he became one of the UK’s top underwater photographers and was the editor of Sport Diver magazine.
Gavin is an award winning wildlife photographer, accomplished environmental portrait photographer and now a Youtuber with a growing channel dedicated to all things photographic.