How to Photograph People

An action photo of a worker watering a plant outside a railway station in Kolkata, India.

Photography can be split into a range of genres, one of which is people photography. But there are so many ways to photograph people that it's sometimes necessary to break up that genre into a series of sub genres which I’II outline below.

The Candid Photo | A Definition

I’d describe a candid photo as an image where the subject appears unaware that they are being photographed.

But, as is so often the case in artistic pursuits, it’s perception rather than fact that matters most.

The photo of the worker watering some plants outside a railway station in Kolkata, India was made without his knowledge.

I almost never make photos of people without permission but, in this case, I saw what was about to happen, raised my camera and made the photo.

Whenever I’m doing any kind of street photography I’m constantly adjusting my camera according to the light (i.e., exposure), look (i.e., Depth Of Field) and feel (i.e., controlling movement) required.

I have made plenty of so-called candid images where the subject is aware that they’re being photographed. Therefore the notion of candid is somewhat fluid.

Photos have a truth unto themselves.
— Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru

It’s because of this that I’m able to say that what matters most is the final image, not the facts that determine how it was made.

Excitement is evident on the faces of passengers as they jet boat around the harbour in Geelong, Australia.

How to Photograph People By Freezing Action

To freeze action in a photo you need to combine subject movement with an appropriate shutter speed to achieve the desired result.

In the case of the photo of the fast moving jet boat I used a shutter speed of 1/5000 second to freeze the action.

The crowd moves silently through the spectacular Red Square in Moscow, Russia on a balmy summer evening flanked by the magnificence of St. Basil's Cathedral and the Kremlin.

How to Photograph People via Creative Blur

But suspending subjects in time is only one way to explore motion. Sometimes the most evocative movement based images make use of a very slow shutter speed to explore movement in unexpected and visually dynamic ways.

The image of the crowd moving silently through the spectacular Red Square in Moscow, Russia was the ideal solution for me to cope with a large bunch of people getting between me and what I wanted to photograph.

The 20 second exposure time meant that, while still registering in the image, the people became fluid and, almost, ghost like as they moved through Red Square during the long exposure.

The duality between stationary and moving subjects is central to the success of this image.

I have no doubt that the final result is far more evocative than would have been the case if everything in the image was recorded sharp and clearly defined.


A young Balinese woman standing against a wall in rural Bali, Indonesia.


How To Photograph A Classic Formal Portrait

Formal portraits require particular attention to detail. Generally the subject is illuminated with pleasing light and most often photographed looking directly into the lens.

Lens focal lengths in the telephoto range are often favored for formal portraits for the following reasons:

  • Tele lenses thin the face.

  • Tele lenses foreshorten the nose.

  • Tele lenses make it easier to separate the subject from their surroundings.

There are many examples of formal portraits including the following:

  • Head and shoulder as well as half and full length compositions.

  • Photographs consisting of an individual, a couple or group.

  • Photos that are made under direction or by working in collaboration with the photographer.

  • Photos that utilize either natural or artificial light and, on occasions, a combination of the two.

Portrait of a shopkeeper in his tiny, colorful shop in Kolkata, India.

The Environmental Portrait

The environment portrait is made in such a way where the subject appears in an environment to which they seem to belong.

There’s quite a specific recipe for making great Environmental Portraits.

Like anything that’s worthwhile it takes practice to master this recipe but, by doing so, you will have a way by which your photos stand out from the rest of the pack.

Photography Genres | What's in a Name?

While on one hand tagging a photo as an environmental portrait might be considered irrelevant by some, the term is part of photography's vocabulary and, as such, can help to describe the differences between one kind of photo and the next.

By being able to deconstruct a photo you'll have a better understanding of how it was made. As a result you're that much closer to producing a similar image yourself.

A young man looks out towards Half Moon Bay from the cliffs above the beach.

Learning By Deconstructing A Photo

This photo was made at the beautiful Half Moon Bay in suburban Melbourne. It's a lovely location, particularly around sunset when the sandstone cliff face is bathed in warm light.

A word of caution to enthusiastic photographers. The terrain is fragile, so please avoid climbing on or walking too close to the cliff face.

Let's all stay safe and help preserve this lovely location for generations to come.

The question is, by using the criteria I’ve outlined in this post, how would you classify the above photo?

Is it a Candid Portrait?

It may well look that way.

However, not only is the young guy aware that he’s being photographed, I also suggested where I’d like him to sit and asked him to turn his head away from the camera.

Is it an Action Photo?

Clearly not.

Is it a Formal Portrait?

Because it’s such a highly directed image some might call it a Formal Portrait.

But our subject’s face is so small in the frame that I’d say the photo is at least as much about the environment as it is about him.

Is it an Environmental Portrait?

I suppose you could classify the above photo as an Environmental Portrait. He’s carrying his camera and he does seem quite content in that environment.

But his face is so small in the frame that it’s not all that easy to recognize his identity.

The balance between the subject and the environment in which they’re depicted has to be right and I just don’t believe you can call it a portrait when the face appears so small in the frame.

So where does it fit in people based photography?

Call it whatever you like. The fact is it appears to have elements of an Environmental Portrait and a Candid.

This is common, which is why some photos are a little hard to classify.

Personally I’d refer to it as a general people photo. I know I haven’t listed that as a sub category of people photography, but I think it should be defined as such.

Portrait, Young Lady, Melbourne

About To Travel?

Just in case you’re confused take a look at this black and white image of a young woman in the city of Melbourne. It’s a good example of an environmental portrait, which just happened to be made at night.

The subject is easily identifiable, because her face is relatively large in the frame.

What’s more I’ve moved her off centre so that she doesn’t obscure the environment in which she’s been depicted.

Subject Placement Within The Photographic Frame

Under normal circumstances, when asking a subject to turn their head away from the camera, I'd ensure there was more space on the side of the frame into which they're facing.

You can achieve this simply by taking a step to one side which will have the effect of moving your subject away from the centre of the frame.

Incidentally, if you were to place your subject much closer to the edge of the frame to which they are facing, you'd create an image with much more visual tension.

Think about a photo that talks to the lack of hope a prisoner in a detention centre might feel.

In the case of the color image of the young guy on the sandstone cliff I was happy to place him quite central, at least on the left/right axis, as it adds a slight tension to what is otherwise a straightforward portrait.

I have my own reasons for doing this which, on this rare occasion, I’m not able to discuss here.

What I can say is that portraits are landscapes of a kind and photographs can explore the landscape of the mind, whether it be that of the photographer or of the subject.

Speak to Me of Color and More

Of course composition doesn't end with subject placement. You'll notice a range of contrasts within the scene.

There's the warm orange of the cliff face against the cool blue of the sky and the contrast between inanimate rock and the human form.

You might also notice other differences and similarities between the cliff and sky.

One is textured and the other smooth. But it's interesting that the texture in the rock is referred to, albeit subtly, in the clouds.

As Above So Below

Landscape and human, sky and rock, air and earth, above and below. Talk about similarities and differences.

The notion of duality exists in many of my photos. It’s a fascinating theme and one you might want to explore in your own photography.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru