The Joy of Photographing People

(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.

© Jack Reznicki

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.

Next: Babies

3 Responses to “The Joy of Photographing People”

  1. Photographying people is the thing I love to do most and the hardest thing for me to do. But I continue to practice with my SLR and from time to time my point and shoot. What do I practice with my point and shoot, composition for one. The other is just communication with my subject. They teach you a lot at seminars and school about photography, but not how to interact/communicate with the subject.

    This was a great article and thanks for the insight.

  2. Thanks for the comment John and you're absolutely right: communicating with your subject is probably the most important part of getting a great portrait. It's really a trust experience for both parties since you each depend on the other for a successful experience.

    My problem is that I like to talk so much I have to be careful to remember that I'm there to take a picture!


  3. I have just started photographing people and really enjoyed this article. Thanks for providing such a great series of articles.

    Here is a link to my first "People" shoot. I'd love to receive some feedback from others with more experience.

    Thanks for any comments you can provide.

    Kyle Bailey

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