People Pictures

Think About the Feeling of a Photograph - and Follow Keith Richards' Advice

“I don’t think, I feel.” That’s what Keith Richards said about playing guitar onstage in Shine a Light, the Martin Scorsese film about the Rolling Stones’ performance at the Beacon Theatre in New York City. A "must-see" movie, in my book!

I like that philosophy and have thought about photography the same way for years. I feel that a photographer must know exactly what all the buttons, knobs, dials, and settings do on a camera so that when he or she sees a shot, the process becomes more about feeling than thinking about the technical side of photography (this must become second nature).

In this blog post, I’ll share a few of my favorite philosophies about feelings and photography that I’ve gathered over the years. So sit back and don’t think about RAW versus JPEG, white balance, ISO settings, etc. Instead, think about the feeling of a photograph.

The camera looks both ways

When it comes to photographing people, the most important photo tip I can share with you is this: “The camera looks both ways — in picturing the subject, we’re also picturing a part of ourselves.” “Every picture is a self-portrait” is another way of conveying that point. Let me explain:

When you’re looking through your camera’s viewfinder, viewing and framing a subject, if you realize that the feeling, emotion, attitude, and energy you project will be reflected in your subject’s face—and eyes—you’ll get a higher percentage of pictures that you like. That’s because, by your actions, you’re subconsciously directing the subject to mirror the way you feel.

I don’t have to tell you how I was feeling at the moment when I snapped the photo of the Buddhist monk that opens this post. Well, even though I don’t have to tell you, it was a feeling a great respect.

Make pictures, don’t just take pictures

Rather than simply taking pictures—pointing you camera, composing the scene, setting the exposure, and focusing—take your time and make pictures.

Making pictures is not only fun, it’s part of the creative photography process. When you take control, you become the director of the shoot, just as a movie director takes control of the scenes he or she shoots.

In this cowboy portrait, look closely and you’ll notice the reflection of a horse in the cowboy’s sunglasses. That, of course, was no accident. The horse and the cowboy were carefully placed in such a way as to capture the horse’s reflection. The relatively plain background was also no accident. I selected the side of the red barn so that the subject stood out prominently in the scene.

Be aware of body language

Sometimes we get so caught up in the technical aspects of photographing people and their facial expressions that we forget how body language affects how we feel about the subject. Compare these two photographs of a woman I photographed in Marrow Bone Springs, Texas.

In the dressed-down photograph, the woman is gripping the post with “man hands.”

In the other photograph she’s holding the pole in a feminine manner. By the way, the woman is a model, and is actually the person who taught me about man hands.

Portrait vs. environmental portrait

Basically, when you take pictures of a person, you have two choices: You can choose to take a portrait (head or head-and-shoulders shot) or an environmental portrait (a picture that shows the subject in his or her environment). Both types of portraits can be effective, and I often photograph a subject both ways.

The first picture of Taraino women, taken in Amazonas, Brazil, is my favorite environmental portrait from my brief photo session in the village, which lasted only about an hour. Looking at the photograph, you can see the surrounding rainforest, and you also get an idea of the women’s clothing and body painting. Those elements help tell the viewer something about them, where they live, and what it might feel like to live in the location.

Check out this shot. It’s a nice portrait of the woman on the right in the first photograph; however, because we can’t see the environment, we don’t feel as though we’re “on location,” so to speak, with the photographer.

Be there and be aware

Most of the photographers I know agree with this expression: The hardest place to take pictures is in your own backyard. That’s why we travel to different locations around the country and the globe: to get inspired—to feel an affinity with the subject.

I took this picture in Kingdom of Bhutan, which sits on the right shoulder of India. How can you not get inspired and be driven to taking the best possible pictures when experiencing a scene like this one?

So being there in a new, interesting, and inspiring location is important for many photographers. If you can’t get to places like Bhutan, go someplace that’s new to you where something interesting is happening—something that will motivate you to take pictures.

Being aware of everything that’s going on around you is important, too. You must have your radar activated, not only looking for interesting subjects but for interesting scenes. What’s more, you need to anticipate what might happen.

This photograph of the Buddhist monks was the result of my anticipating what might happen. Moments before I took this picture, all the monks were praying inside the temple. I was observing quietly. A bell rang and they all jumped up quite quickly and put on their sandals. I anticipated that they would be outside in a flash, so I dashed outside and grabbed this shot. Being there and being aware will help you get good pictures.

Be yourself—enjoy the moment

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “Stop and smell the roses.” When it comes to photography, we need to keep that expression in mind. We need to totally enjoy the moment; however, that usually comes when we have a total and complete understanding of our cameras, so we don’t have to think about the technical side of the creative process (as I mentioned and as Keith Richards suggests). 

This picture of school children in Lombok, Indonesia, helps convey that point, which is basically to have fun and to enjoy the moment.

Explore the light,

What's New?

My 36th book: Creative Visualization for Photographers. The story of my Girl with Pear Earring photograph is in the book, as well as tons of tips and processing ideas for shooting indoors and out.

My 2016 photo workshops, where I encourage my workshop participants to visualize the end result.


Trust Is Important In People Pictures

My main photography passion is photographing people – mostly strangers in strange lands, such as this young monk-in-training, posing in a light rain, by a dzong in the Royal Kingdom of Bhutan.

Why is this my passion? Because getting accepted into a stranger's life for a few minutes, and gaining their trust, is a totally cool feeling for me. Sure, it's a challenge, but a challenge that has a very nice reward: a photograph.

One way I try to gain acceptance and trust is to do magic tricks for the folks I encounter abroad. Here I am doing a simple coin trick for some Buddhist monks in Nepal. Take a close look at all their faces. I am trying hard to entertain them, which I did! (Eventually, I showed them how to do the trick. We all had fun before the photo session.)

So, traveling around the world and photographing people is a blast. Recently, however, I have been taking pictures of my neighbors - fun for me, important for them.

But here, too, gaining acceptance and trust as someone who is going to picture them is important. Before I start shooting, I joke around and learn more about the subject - what they want out of the photo session. I want the subject to feel important. At ease. Relaxed. This is an important step when it comes to photographing people.

Last night, I photographed my dentist, Dr. Mobilla - whose passion is making wine and sausage (and fishing, but that is another photo session). Before the sausage photo session, I learned a lot about making sausage and wine in one's basement. I did not start shooting immediately.

Last week I photographed my neighbor Peter Calo - whose passion is playing guitar. Before the session, I played a few chords for him. I wanted Peter to like me (in this case as a fellow musician), as I do all my subjects. If they like me, they trust me. Again, when it comes to photographing a person, trust is very important.

Above is a picture I took of a model on the shores of Lake Powell. Before I began shooting, I talked to the model about what it was like being a model, her family, etc. I ask here to choose a pose, rather than saying, "do this, do that."

Model Laurence G. Yang Photographed by Kade Lam
Speaking of models, their feelings and trust, one of my model friends, Laurence G. Yang, trusted photographer Kade Lam to take this beautiful portrait.

About the picture, Laurence says, "Every time I see this picture, "mesmerizing" whispers in my heart. "I'd have to say this it one of my favorites. It well defines elegance and also captivates a strong and sexy moment."

Laurence, by the way, is also the editor-in-chief of Runway Weekly.

Photo Info from Kade:
Two-light setup...300w self-contain units from Elinchrom.
7-foot black panel placed on the model's right side.
Softbox on the right side of the model for high-lighting.
Unit on the model's left side was bounced of a wall.
Camera exposure:125@F8.

• • •

When you are photographing a person, sure, think about technique, but first think about gaining the person's trust and respect.

Explore the light,

For more tips on photographing people, see my book, Face to Face:

Bounce Lighting + Basic Skin Softening = Cool Photo

Westcott kicked off its nationwide Top Pro Tour yesterday in NJ with yours truly. As usual, I handed over my tethered Canon 5D Mark II camera and let several of the participants shoot!

Oh yeah! Before it was my turn to present, Dave Piazza illustrated the beautiful lighting effects that can be achieved with constant lights (Spyder Lights). So, it was Dave on constant lights and me on flash. :-)

The lighting for the above image was simple: We bounced my camera-mounted Canon Speedlite 580 EX flash into a Westcott large reflector, which softened and spread the light.

Here is one of my favorite images, shot by one of the participants. It started out as a color file, which I converted to black-and-white using Nik Software's Silver Efex Pro. I added the drop shadow and thin black line in Photoshop.

To soften the model's skin, I used this skin-softening technique in Photoshop:
- Duplicate the layer.
- Change the blending mode of the top layer to Overlay.
- Go to Filters > Others > High Pass.
- Press Command/I.
At this point, the entire top layer should be softly blurred.
- Use the eraser tool over the eyes and mouth to sharpen those areas.

Thanks to all the photographers who participated in this fun event! And thanks to our model, Laurence Yang, for helping to make the photographs look great. Tip: never underestimate the importance of a good subject.

I hope you can join some of my photographer friends in the other stops on the Top Pro Tour! You can save $20 by using this code when you register: TPT7231.

To learn more about lighting, check out my latest app, Light It!

Explore the light,

P.S. You can get a 15% discount on Silver Efex Pro, and all Nik plug-ins, here.

What Would You Have Done Differently?

On my workshops, I am asked to offer suggestions on how to make a photograph better.

Well, I thought I'd turn the tables, so to speak. Here is one of my favorite photographs (long-skirt Miao women) from a workshop I organized to remote China last year. Scroll down on this page to see more images.

So the question is: How would you have posed the subject in this situation? What would you have done differently? Let me know. I really would be interested. (As you will see in the addition to this post below, I actually thought of some of your good ideas!)

If you post your comments here, all can see.

Explore the light,

P.S. An after-post addition.

Thank you for you comments. Here are a few pictures that address some of the good suggestions - applied to other photographs. Three from China, one from Kenya.

Above: Subject off-center.

Above: Subjects in context.

Above: Head and shoulder shot.

Above: Black background.

Again, thanks to all for playing along.

Fun Facts About People Pictures

We prefer pictures of people in which their pupils are open wide more so than pictures of people in which their pupils are closed down. That’s one reason why we like pictures of people taken in subdued lighting conditions, in the shade and on cloudy days - situations where the pupils are open wider than they are in bright light and on sunny days.

Black-and-white portraiture is attention getting, but contrast is actually more important than removing the color from an image. So think contrast - which you can add with a reflector or flash - when taking people pictures.

The majority of famous painters “illuminated” their subjects from above and to the left. For whatever reason, we seem to like that kind of lighting. Here are three of my pictures that illustrate that lighting technique. Hey, if it works for famous painters and if it works for me, it will work for you!

In very low light and at night, your eyes have an ISO of about 800. Mid-range digital SLRs have a high ISO setting of 1600, and high-end SLRs have high ISO settings of 1600, 3200 and even higher! So in effect, a camera can see better at night that you can - so don’t stop taking pictures when the light gets low and when the sun goes down.

We see colors differently at different times of the day - depending on our mood and emotional sate. Before you make a print, look at it on your monitor at different times of the day to see if you still like your original version. You may want to tweak the color to get the color you like best.Also keep in mind that difference cultures “see” colors differently. For example, in Mexico, blue not black, can signify mourning. Knowing that can help you tell a story - and a different story to a different audience.

You can learn more fact about people pictures, and why we like them in one of my favorite books: Perception and Imaging by Dr. Richard Zakia.

You’ll find more info on seeing at iLab.

Explore the Light,