Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Seconds Just Before and After

People of Surf - 1016, 2012

As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve been concentrating lately on photographs of people. I took a workshop earlier in the summer that loosened me up a lot so far as approaching strangers is concerned. Once you start looking at each person as a potential portrait subject vast new fields of photographic content are open for harvest.
I thought I’d conquered the worst of my fears when I became more comfortable approaching people. It’s really not that hard, and the more and more regularly you do it the more fluid you become at doing it. But it turns out that was only the beginning, because after you’ve engaged with a stranger you have to decide just what you’re going to do with them.
Most of us take pictures of people because they were doing something that interested us or because they had an interesting look or expression or body language. There’s nothing wrong with that. The workshop I took, though, concentrated on the difference between photographing people in the act of being themselves and photographing them through the photographer’s eyes.
If you’re not accustomed to telling people how to stand, where to look and what to do with their hands and chins and eyes, photographing them “through the photographer’s eyes” is a lot harder than it sounds. We’re not talking about dull headshots here, the ones you see in newspapers and corporate photos.
The compromise I’ve struck with myself is that whenever it makes sense I want my subjects to be at least looking into the camera. Portrait painters know that when you have someone looking directly out from the canvas you just can’t ignore looking at their eyes. It works the same way in photography. It’s hard to look away from a photograph of someone who’s looking right into the lens and, by extension, at you.
In the process of learning to be not only ready, but also more intuitive in knowing what to do with strangers once I’ve engaged with them, I’ve learned that one of the downsides of asking people if you can photograph them is that they want to pose. This isn’t unusual. After all, the experience most of us have of being photographed is being asked to pose for a picture. Even though I tell people I don’t want them to pose or, especially, put on their best smile, unless they’re professional models that’s their first inclination. Smile for Daddy!
To get around this, I’m learning to mine the seconds before and after that pose takes place. (This means having your camera settings already fixed so that you don’t have to spend time metering or focusing.) When I asked the young man shown above, for example, if I could photograph him he started to straighten his posture and put on a smile. He has nice teeth and a beautiful smile. But how interesting is that?
I took a couple of pictures of the young man smiling. But the pictures I liked more and that told me more about his story are the ones I took on either side of the smile, just before he put on the smile and just after he got tired and stopped smiling.


  1. Good point--and great sidelong glance you caught here!

  2. We do all want to be "pretty" don't we...