Photographing People Outdoors

Left Image: Digital SLR, Tamron 70-210mm f-2.8 lens, 1/500 sec at f-8, multisegment metering. Handheld.

Photographing people outdoors is both challenging and very rewarding.  It is undoubtedly more challenging than working in the studio.  Outdoors is more challenging because you have no control whatsoever over the subject or lighting.  In the studio, you can set up your equipment and control shadows by positioning lights at different angles. In the studio you also have control over the subject. The model is willing to pose anyway the photographer wishes. However there is a problem in studio portraits. No matter what the photographer does, there is always something unnatural about the person or persons in the image. The reason is simple. Nobody to my knowledge can possibly be "themselves" and pose natural. No one can completely ignore the camera and be at ease, especially when they are asked to try to be themselves. This just makes it more difficult. People become self-conscious in front of the camera. Even professional models cannot look all natural when posing.

The best people pictures are taken outdoors. People go about their daily lives not worrying about impressing anyone (well, most people at least feel this way).  Photographers can take advantage of this wonderful opportunity to provide excellent, all natural, images of ordinary people. Images otherwise impossible in the studio. The real challenge is finding the most interesting individuals and then approaching them without them knowing.  First of all, never walk up to a person and point your camera at them and shoot. Most people don’t appreciate this approach for the same reason you wouldn’t.

The first step is to find an individual that really strikes you. It might be the way they are dressed. It could be the expression on their faces. It could be their eyes, the way they walk, or how they react to the activities around them. Once you find that individual, slowly get as close to him or her as possible without them noticing you, or at least suspecting that you’re approaching them. If your equipment looks professional, most likely you will be noticed. People are fascinated by cameras that are attached to motor drives or battery grips! Add a white lens to this combo, and you’ll stand out in any crowd.

Pretend you are looking at something else. Do this by looking through the camera at a different direction. Once your subject becomes unaware, slowly turn and take the picture. This approach however, is uncomfortable and not so easy. The best way is to shoot from a distance with a telephoto lens. Kind of like wildlife photography. The best wildlife pictures are taken when the animal is unaware of your presence. This is usually done from a distance with a telephoto lens.

Right Image: Digital SLR, Tamron 70-210mm f-2.8 lens, 1/60 sec at f-4, multisegment metering.

A 70-210mm or newer 100-400mm zooms are best.
I prefer a 70-210mm f-2.8 for this type of photography. The fast f-2.8 aperture gives me
a fast shutter speed for handheld shots under most conditions. 100-400mm zooms have a maximum aperture of f-5.6. This can be a problem for handheld shots unless the zoom is equipped with anti-shake technology such a Cannon’s 100-400mm IS or Nikon’s 80-400mm VR. Tripods are not practical for this type
of photography. You’ll constantly be moving and looking through the camera. Tripods make it very difficult to keep up with the subject.

Now, what’s there to look for besides clothing, eyes, or how somebody walks? Every picture tells a story. This is truer with human subjects. The viewers of your final image must get a sense of the person’s life in the picture. Viewers should be able to guess something about the subject’s character and mood. A combination of eyes and body movement tell a lot about a person and what they are like. For instance, if eyes are focused in one direction and the individual is walking slowly, this indicates some sort of discomfort or deep thoughts. A person that looks more aware of his or her surroundings and walks at a steady pace tells another story. He or she is at ease. People’s self confidence or insecurities are also visible by the way they look, walk, or how they are dressed. What makes a good photograph is how you recognize expressions and mood of a person and then capture it on film.

You can and should ask individuals that you find interesting to pose for you if that is the only way for you to get the shot. If this is the case, ask nicely and take your shots quickly. Don’s ask them to pose or smile. Take their shots as they are and then move on. The viewer must be able to recognize the same qualities in the picture, or at least part of it without you explaining it to them. That is what people photographing is really about. Expressions, character, and what makes each person so unique. 

As for equipment, a 35mm camera or digital SLR are best. They are easier to carry and hide if necessary. I recommend either 70-210mm f-2.8 lenses or 100-400mm image stabilizer lenses. This is not to say that only these types of lenses are capable of producing good results. Successful photos can be made with any lens if used properly. Under good conditions, any 70-210mm f-4.5–5.6 or regular 100-400mm f-5.6 zooms can produce equal results. Your approach and technique is far more important than the equipment you use.

Portrait Photographer's Handbook

Rather than focusing on one particular aspect of portrait photography, this book provides complete instructions for every step of producing portraits with a professional look. From setting up the lighting, posing the subject, and composing the finished shot to retouching methods and developing techniques for the darkroom, each process is fully explored. These proven techniques for producing flattering portraits in a variety of settings will improve professionals' portraits and move amateurs' hobby photographs to the next level. Examples clearly illustrate every concept presented in the book.