(The following is excerpted from The New Joy of Digital Photography, a new book by Black Star Rising contributor Jeff Wignall.)
The great photographer Edward Steichen once said that photography’s job was, “to explain man to man and each man to himself.” And each time we photograph another person, whether we are aware of it or not, we are fulfilling Steichen’s credo.
By the simple act of photographing another person, we begin to examine not only the people with whom we share our homes, our town, and our planet, but who we are as well.
It’s not surprising, then, that the one subject we photograph more than any other is people. Whether it’s at special events like birthdays and weddings, the family vacation, or just the kids racing along on their bicycles, we record almost every aspect of our personal relationships.
In fact, for many of us, our very first interaction with a newborn baby is to photograph it.
The Challenges of People Photography
Photographing people can be more challenging than other types of photography because it requires trust between photographer and subject. The instant you raise a camera to your eye to photograph another person, you leave the safe-distant world of the camera as mere observer and become part of a dialog between you and your subject.
And if you’ve ever tried to photograph a shy child, you know how fragile the threads of that bond can be. The success of people pictures depends not so much on a mastery of f/stops and shutter speeds as on the grace and wit with which you handle this intimate interaction with your subject.
Not surprisingly, photographing other people intimidates us most. After all, people are the only subjects we photograph that can talk back to us — or, like wildlife, can run away from the camera.
But confidence comes with practice and, at least with the people we know well, photography eventually becomes a seamless and invisible aspect of our relationships. And once you and your subjects reach that level of comfort, your portraits will move past superficial likenesses and begin, as Steichen believed, to reveal more about your world and yourself.