August 30, 2007

Shooting People
Part Five: Hitting the Streets

Now, we are ready to head out and start shooting pretty much anywhere.

A Face on the Street
Xindian, Taiwan

Now, I feel a little nervous in writing this, as I don't consider myself a great photographer, so I don't believe it is within me to help others take great photos. What I do think though is that I am a decent enough photographer and I also know enough that it is likely that you can take the information I am offering and make photos better than I do. This section is designed to pass on some of the things I have learned, as well as some of the things in photography which always seem to work.

My first and foremost suggestion when shooting strangers is not to rush. Nothing puts people off more than when you walk into a situation and immediately start snapping. That very act is enough to ensure that you get lots of nasty looks as well as lots of photos where people look stiff and uncomfortable. If you are in such a hurry to get your shot, maybe people shooting isn't to be your thing.

Watching Some Tube
Taipei, Taiwan

What I suggest doing is to walk into an area and just hang around for a while. This has so many advantages. First off, it allows people to get used to you. You will be surprised at how quickly people even forget that you are there if you simply stand around and observe for a while first. The more at ease people are, the better they usually look in photos. Secondly, by hanging around for a bit first, you can get a real feel for the flow of that area; you will know in short order who are the most interesting folks around, in what direction and at what pace things move and just know in general how things work in that little ecosystem. Another plus to spending a little time first before shooting is that you can spend some time thinking about what spots will give you the best angles, what nasty things might end up in the photo if you work too quickly, if there is light in some way which is interesting, such as an odd reflection, or a shaft of light that you might not have noticed, or any number of other little details which are most easily seen once you give yourself the advantage of time.

Taipei, Taiwan

The above photo is a good example of noticing something simply because I was not rushing around. I was out shooting with a photographer friend when we came across this guy. As his head was down towards his newspaper, his eye ware set up wasn't really obvious to the passerby. My friend moved right on by, but since I was wandering more slowly and looking at details, I noticed and was able to get an interesting shot.

Now, it does not have to be ages that you spend waiting before you shoot. Once you have practiced this and your body language is such that you seem nonthreatening and natural in that element, you can sometimes be ready to make some great photos in less than a minute. In other cases, it might take ten minutes; every circumstance is different, as is every photographer. The bottom line though is that if you rush, you will most often damage any chance you had at taking good photos at that scene at that time.

Ansel Adams once said, ""A good photograph is knowing where to stand. While Ansel was most likely speaking of landscape photography when he said that, it is no less true when it comes to shooting people. Like all things in life, we are best when we start off at a somewhat elementary level and progress into the more challenging (albeit more rewarding) zones. With this in mind, it is much more difficult and daunting to stand close to someone and shoot than it is to shoot from a distance.

The Conductor
Xindian, Taiwan

Shooting from a distance seems easier then. Let's start there. Standing back from a distance and shooting with a telephoto lens, or with your lens zoomed out, can make for some really attractive photos and is a very worthwhile starting point. The advantages to doing so is that you give both you and your subject some breathing room. I still like to see some of the photos that are done this way, and I would take more of them myself if I wasn't just too damned lazy to carry my heavy telephoto lens around more often.

Man With a Smoke
Saigon, Viet Nam

With the comfortable working distance and a tendency for a long lens to blur the background (not exactly true, but close enough for what we are discussing here), there is a lot of fun to be had working this way. I will talk about the disadvantages to this method later, but those should not dissuade you from giving things a go.

Now, it is really important to me that I make this point. Shooting with a longer lens from a bit further away does NOT mean hiding behind trees and shooting when people are totally unaware. I consider that guerrilla photography and I believe it verges on immoral. Such practices give all photographers a bad name and there is no way in the world I would ever give you a pat on the back for doing so. If you want to join the paparazzi, move to Hollywood and chase Paris Hilton; just don't think you are adding anything positive to anything. Some things are right, some are wrong and hiding behind things to get your photos is the latter in my not so humble opinion.

So, there you have a starting point. Keep a respectful distance, don't hide, zoom out and snap away. There are lots of reasons why this works and as we want to build on success, this all makes sense.

Into the Light
Damnoen Saduak Floating Market
Nakhon Pathom, Thailand

So, get out there, shoot from a distance and have some fun!

August 29, 2007

Shooting People
Part Four: People in Their Elements

Would You Buy Your Meat From This Man?
Taipei, Taiwan

Now we move to the last scenario; shooting people as they are in everyday life. Guards, festivals, parades, rallies and all sorts of other events are great but they occur too infrequently to be counted upon as a regular stock of photographs. Plus, there is an artificiality to them. They may look great and interesting, but both the photographer and the viewer knows that what they are seeing isn't quite "real life".

My friend, and one of my biggest photographic influences, is very fond of saying that photos should be of someone doing something. This is where we will start.

Brewing Chai
Mumbai, India

Doing something can mean a lot of things.

Doing something might mean people doing their jobs. This is quite typically a fairly non threatening subject as well, as people at work are most likely to be on their most pleasant behavior and they also might be more interested in what they are actually doing than in the person with the camera pointed their way. Also, if you are like me, you will find people at work to be both noble and interesting.

Pigs' Knuckles
Taipei, Taiwan

I am quite fortunate in that I live in a part of the world in which many small businesses are run out on the street, rather than being tucked away out of site. I am also lucky in that However, I am very sure that no matter where you live, there are good photo opportunities to be had of people taking care of business.

Now, as we are moving up on the difficulty scale, this is a good time to start thinking about taking more complex, interesting photos. Getting pleasant photos of interesting or good looking people, but which only show the people themselves, is fun and rewarding but it is also a little bit easy. If your photo is of nothing more than the person, ultimately, the question becomes what makes the photo? The photographer or the subject? In shooting someone in their environment, it is both important and beneficial to show not just the person, but the environment too.
Showing more than just the person adds the all important context and just importantly, it allows you to make the photo you own. In the long run, it also leads to much more interesting photos.

Master of His Craft
Yangoon, Myanmar

Once again, when you are out shooting people in their element, thinking outside of the box is to your great advantage.

Night Market Treats
Xindian, Taiwan

Small details which might otherwise go overlooked can make terrific subjects for a photo of a person at work.

Hands of a Betel Vendor
Yangoon, Myanmar

Conversely, showing someone to be a tiny part of a much bigger whole can often be something which is overlooked, but which can lead to great photos.

Nun Under Stupa
Bagan, Myanmar

Once you have been shooting a particular scene fairly regularly, it is a good option to mix things up a bit by using different angles,
Green Onion & Egg Pancakes
Xindian, Taiwan

choosing to focus on what is not the obvious subject,

Not Welcome Here
Taipei, Taiwan

or using extreme wide angles, from in close

Cotton Candy Man
Xindian, Taiwan

can all bring new life into older scenes. They can also keep you, as the photographer, feel as though you are taking more control over the photos, rather than simply catching what you see.

Getting specific moments, those which might be important to the people you are shooting, but easily overlooked by others
Moment of Purchase
Taipei, Taiwan

Came so Far for Beauty
Taipei, Taiwan

Applying Henna
Delhi, India

There are so many possibilities out in the real world; the quality and quantity of original photos you take is limited only by your imagination.

August 26, 2007

Shooting People
Part Three: Moving Into the Real World

Marching Band
Daja, Taiwan

Now, guards and the like are a good starting point and they can lead to some good and interesting photos. They can't be the only folks you shoot though. Unless you travel the world weekly, you just won't be able to find enough ceremonial guards to keep you, or those who look at your photos, interested.

Make Up For the Opera

Let's move on to stage two. I don't quite think the experience of getting some good shots of ceremonial guards quite makes someone ready to compete with the likes of David Alan Harvey, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Gary Winogrand or any of the others who have made their names and their salaries on the streets. It does make you ready though to make a pretty big step towards a different subject. As handsome as guards are, and not negating the fact that they are living, breathing people, they are still somewhat emotionally isolated from the rest of us. In some ways, a poorly done snap of an everyday person has more emotional attachment to many simply because we can imagine ourselves or someone close to use as the subjects.

A Face in the Crowd
WOW Philippines Festival
Intramurous, Manila

Unfortunately, it is a pretty big jump for most to go from shooting guards who can't react to shooting those who can. Maybe a good mid point is to find someone who is able to react, but unlikely to do so. Here, our prospects broaden.

Maybe a best intermediate step between the absolute safety of shooting guards and the free for all that street shooting can be would be to find a parade, public demonstration, religious procession or other such public performance. Here, the people won't be completely unable to react to your photographing them, but because of the atmosphere, they are probably either expecting to have their shots taken, or more concerned with other things.

Little General
Matsu Pilgrimage
Daja, Taiwan

Similar to shooting the guards, you can find people who are very dressed up and photogenic. Also, you won't be the first to take their photo that day which hopefully can lead to them being more comfortable in front of the camera, with less chance of a bad response towards you.

There are other good spots to consider practicing people photography. One even which has become a yearly happening in many larger cities throughout the world is that of a gay pride celebrations. It is hard to compete with many of the gay pride festivities when it comes to color, a festive atmosphere and people who are not only willing to be photographed, but who have put a lot of effort into looking their very best for just that one day. Not only all of that, but they are great fun as well.
Taipei Pride
Taipei, Taiwan

Political rallies can also provide a great backdrop, coupled with colorful signs a sometimes circuslike atmosphere.
Man At Anti-China Demonstration
Taipei, Taiwan

Rallies can be great, for many of the same reasons all the other events I have mentioned. They can be colorful, people can be at their most outrageous, there are lots of props (think signs, flags, banners, etc) to give the photos more context and color and there is typically a high energy level. All these things can be great for photography. However, I would say that they present a more advanced venue than the other locals. First off, emotions can run high, especially here in Taipei, and this could lead to not only nasty looks from people you want to photograph, but possibly even physical confrontations. I don't think this is a huge fear, but it does take a certain level of confidence and body language to reduce the risks; those attributes come with experience. The second reason that rallies pose a greater challenge is that they tend to be fluid and ever changing. Being quick enough to think about who you want to shoot, compose the shot, think about any adjustments which might need to be made and then firing off a shot before things change is something that takes time and practice. Still, rallies provide a relative wealth of photographic chances; if you miss on, there will be another one available in moments.

Churches and temples are favourite haunts of mine and are great places to take photos of people, especially in Asia. In some ways, they are not the easiest, as many feel uncomfortable taking shots of moments as private as that of religious worship.

Beautiful Candle Keeper
Schwedagon Pagoda
Yangoon, Myanmar

I fully respect those who feel this is an activity best left uncaptured, even if choose to capture this myself. My feeling about shooting in houses of worship is that I am capturing faith and beauty. Although I am not religious myself, I am very respectful of those who are and I do find the practice of religion to be visually beautiful more often than not.

Probably the next bit should go without saying, but I will mention it anyways. Please be respectful if you do choose to shoot in a temple, mosque, synagogue, church or equivalent. This respect should include keeping a respectful distance from your subjects, making sure you don't interfere with the prayers those who are there to worship, keeping quiet and non disruptive and generally being aware so you don't stumble over others. Obviously, if the location or members discourage photography, you should obey that without question.
Hand of Devotion
HsingTien Temple
Taipei, Taiwan

I will cover this more in a later post, but I believe that generally, places of worship are good places to use longer lenses. I believe that as a general rule, the shorter the lens, the more personal and impactful a photo is, but this doesn't hold as true in a church, temple, mosque or the like. For the time being, I will try not to be too technical, but generally people are pretty sensitive to perceptual cues. They know when the photo was taken from in close and they also know when it was taken from a distance. Almost universally, prayer and worship are regarded as personal, solitary things. Because it is considered a solitary thing, seeing a photo taken from in too close can make for an uneasy experience for the viewer, not to mention the worshipper. For this, I do recommend keeping a respectful distance.

Calm and Good Light
Lungshan Temple
Taipei, Taiwan

This is not to say that you can't take effective photos in a temple from up close. It just means that you had better be aware of the prevailing emotions and you had better have the body language to show your confidence and keep those you are shooting at ease. I would consider it an advanced level attempt in the genre of shooting people.

ChihNan Temple
Taipei, Taiwan

Of course, if nothing else is working for you, it won't hurt if you have a truly beautiful model.

Don't Hate Me Because I Am Beautiful
Taipei, Taiwan

Next, we will move on to more stuff in the real world. Small steps, but we are definitely moving forward.

August 19, 2007

Shooting People
Part Two: Starting Points

First things first. I realize that for most people, taking photos of strangers is a very daunting task. It is an oft repeated "fact" that fear of public speaking is a greater fear than the fear of death. Taking photos of people might be the photographic equivalent. There is something about pointing our cameras at others which gives us pause. Many who would be flattered to have a stranger believe that we are interesting enough to capture on film/silicon wafer are somehow totally insecure about turning the scene 180 degrees. I know these feelings well and I fought hard to overcome them. Quite honestly, even to this day there are times when I get nervous and have to remind myself that I have done this thousands of times in the past. I believe that what worked for me can work for you.

Guards Below Dr. Sun Yat-Sen
Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall, Taipei

This little article is all about shooting strangers. Deciding on which stranger exactly to shoot is step one I guess. Just like when someone is learning to ski, he or she doesn't head straight up to the longest double black diamond run first thing, one should start shooting subjects who provide relatively little danger or antagonism as subjects. Early success leads to greater confidence and greater confidence is the key to shooting people.

I recommend as a starting point to find some ceremonial guards wherever you happen to be. Some of the more famous ceremonial guards would be those at Buckingham Palace in London, the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown in Arlington, Virginia, the Swiss Guards at the Vatican or any number of other places where pomp and ceremony are important. If your country has a King or Queen, head to their residence. Look towards the seat of government in your area, be it provincial, state or federal. Some might not be there for the shooting at all times, but perhaps they show up for Remembrance Day, Memorial Day, Veteran's Day, other national holidays or events. These might not be available to all, but if you can get to them, they make a great starting point.

Here in Taipei, the ceremonial guards guarding the huge statue of Chiang KaiShek at the Taiwan Democracy Monument (formerly CKS Memorial Hall), the ones guarding the equally huge statue of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen at the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall or the guards at the Martyr's Shrine serve the purpose very well.
Guard at Marty's Shrine, Taipei

Why are these guards such a good starting point? Well, first off, they are trained not to react. You won't be getting any menacing scowls or uncomfortable looks from them. Also, since they stand ramrod still, you have time to look for the right angle, find the right background and wait for the right light too. Additionally, they are striking subjects. Young, strong, good looking men with polished hardware and formal attire; they look good in photos. That is important, as a good photo of an ugly person is still a photo based around ugliness.

Guard at CKS Memorial Hall, Taipei

Now, these guards are almost akin to human statues; would shooting statues be a good place to start? Nope, not at all. Shooting statues can be a great exercise in learning light, but it won't help you in the ability to confidently photographing people. Even though they provide little to no resistance to being photographed, there is something in the fact that they are living, breathing folks which does wonders for our confidence. I don't know why this is exactly, but our ability to fool ourselves is interesting indeed.

When you are out shooting guards, it is probably worth considering what you can do to get photos that others aren't. It is a great opportunity to work in close and perhaps capture some details that would normally get overlooked.

Hand of Guard and Rifle
CKS Memorial Park, Taipei

Such details as the white glove, or the tassel from where the strap joins the rifle can make for interesting subjects in themselves. It is not often that one can get in so close to capture such details from someone they don't really know.

After this, I hope at least some of you will venture out with guards, or the equivalent, on your mind. This is as good a place as I know of to start your shooting. Good luck.

August 13, 2007

Shooting People
Part One: The Preamble

My name is Darren and I shoot people...

If there is a single area in my photography in which I have had the most success, it has to be with people as my subjects. Truthfully, one of the biggest reasons I have had some luck shooting people is simply that I dare to do so. Where many get very nervous and almost frightened when it comes to pointing the camera at a stranger, I have more or less trained myself to do it when I see fit.

With this in mind, I will try to pass along some of the things that work for me and which I believe can work for many.

First of all, let me start by saying that I fully understand about being nervous when it comes to photographing people you don't know. I have been there too. If it wasn't for the encouragement, and sometimes disparagement of two photographer friends, I would probably still be sitting back and shooting architecture, landscape and/or other similarly remote styles of shooting. The truth is, I find people infinitely more interesting than anything else and I am proud that I have overcome my insecurities to shoot subjects I truly find interesting.

In my opinion, virtually all the great photographers, those who have created images which will last beyond our lifetimes, shoot people. The shots burned into our minds are of people, not mountains, green peppers or old buildings somewhere.

"Wait!" you are screaming. "What about Ansel Adams? The most well known photographer of all time?" Well, I would counter that he is perhaps the exception that proves the rule. Also, did you know that he was an accomplished portrait photographer as well?

For all the photos below, please click on the image to be taken to the original. Blogspot does strange things to the images, they all look much better as originals.

Let's move beyond Adams. What are the photographs that really have made an impression? Almost all are shots of people I would say. Dorothy Lange's shot of the Immigrant Mother
would be one which first comes to mind. Something very powerful and haunting about that. Something very HUMAN.

Two photos from the Viet Nam war also come quickly to mind. One would be Eddie Adam's shot of the Execution of a Viet Cong Guerilla

The other shot from the Viet Nam war which would stick out for me would be Nick Ut's shot of the naked Kim Phuoc as she flees from a napalm strike.

Robert Capa would have a couple entries on my list. One being the "Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, September 5, 1936"

and the other being the landing photo from D-Day.

Now, not all memorable photos have to be captures of war or strife. The photo of Neil Armstrong by Buzz Aldrin

would be high on many lists, not just my own.

Other moments of triumph that have stuck with me would include Bob Beamon's record breaking long jump

at the Mexico City Olympics.

Cassius Clay (soon to be Muhammad Ali) standing over Sonny Liston

while urging him to "Get up and fight sucka!" shows both triumph and failure and endures as a lasting image to this day.

Alfred Eisenstaedt's capture of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square to celebrate the end of WWII

is another image which still impacts today.

Other examples would be Steve McCurry's image of the Afghan Girl

Sebastio Salgado's image of people climbing out of a Brazilian Gold mine (actually, there are a number from that series, but my choice is this one).

Yousef Karsh's portrait of Winston Churchill

Arnold Newman's portrait of Igor Stravinsky

Henri Cartier-Bresson's Boy on Le Rue Mouffetard

Kevin Carter's image of a vulture looking ominously at an emaciated boy in the Sudan

(OK, this one is not a happy photo at all, and it in fact led to the photographer taking his own life)

Now, before closing out this section, I would like to make a somewhat bold claim. Not only do photographs of people have great impact, but they can shape public opinion and they are capable of mythologizing or demonizing their subjects. Both the Nick Ut and the Eddie Adams photos I mentioned were instrumental in shaping the American perception of the war in Vietnam. This is well known and accepted by this point. I will give a somewhat less obvious example, albeit with another iconic photograph. I posit that things are quite different today because of this photo of Ché Guevara, taken by Alberto Kosta.

Superficial as it may seem, I believe this photo has lasting impact, both for reasons serious and superficial. Superficially, this image is still very commonly found on posters, t-shirts, tattoos, coffee mugs and god knows how much other memorabilia. Now, wearing the t-shirt or getting the tattoo could be viewed as advancing the views of Ché, yet how many of those with the memorabilia know or understand who exactly is captured in the photo? My guess is that it is relatively few, but because of the photo, the name lives on.

Less superficially, I think that it isn't impossible that the photo has been a piece in the puzzle in maintaining the communist Castro government in Cuba. Think about it this way, corporations hire models and pay a lot of money to have their product associated with people who their target market consider beautiful and sexxy. Is it outrageous to think that Ché looks appealing and sexxy (in a heterosexual way) to disgruntled anti-capitalist teens and young men not only in Cuba, but in Central and North America and beyond? I think it is not ridiculous to believe this at all: This image is a part of why Fidel has held power in Cuba for so long and why it appears that illness is what will remove him, not overthrow or military action. Likewise, I believe that this photo has bolstered the power of Venezuelan president Chavez, at least to a very small degree. I can't think of a landscape or abstract photo which could make this claim.

I am leaving out many, many photos, missing out on shots by some of my favourite photographers, but I believe I have given a pretty good overview.

Now, I am sure that not everyone will recognize every photo I have posted here, but I am sure that the majority of people will remember seeing the majority of the shots. Let's think about photos where people don't play into the image. Beyond maybe a few of Ansel Adam's photos and perhaps Edward Weston's Pepper, how many landscape, still life or architectural photos would have that kind of recognition or impact? Very few I think.

I shoot people, because it is people who interest me. In my follow ups to this, I will try to give some advice that will allow you to shoot people too.

I hope it can help.