People Photography: capturing the life around us

Nigel’s June 2021 online photography talk

My June 2021 talk, called People Photography: capturing the life around us, has just been held, and now you can see the recording here. Although it’s true that I’m generally not recognised as a people photographer, in actual fact my travel and tourism work has entailed quite extensive work with people in a host of situations.

Little of my photography covers the classic posed studio portraiture so often associated with the term ‘people photography’. Instead, my photography covers people in their environment, often photographed doing what they do in their daily life. As such, this photography fits more into the genres of environmental portrait photography, street photography or documentary/journalistic photography.

So this talk covers many of the techniques I use in carrying out such people photography, and to watch it here just click on the image below to launch the You Tube file.

Thinking ahead: deciding on the kind of approach

Even before starting a shoot, it is important to have a plan for kind of photography you’re intending to do:

  • Will it be staged, posed photography, or rather more fluid, spontaneous shots of someone in action?
  • Do you intend to shoot portraiture concentrating on the subject’s face, with them looking at the camera? Or should the subject more or less ignore you, carrying on with work, for example, while you photograph what they do?
  • What kind of lenses should you use? Your decisions about the previous point will probably affect the type(s) of lens you choose to use: telephoto to concentrate on someone’s face, soften features and blur out the background. Or a wide-angle lens to increase depth of field and to make it possible to show a subject’s environment and their activity as well as their face.
  • What kind of light to use? More often than not, this kind of people photography uses only natural light, but its angle and intensity can have a big influence on the results of the photography. Flash is very rarely used as the main light source, its role (when used at all) mainly for fill-in, removing shadows created by awkward ambient light, for example. The use of fill-in flash can also make it possible to use a much slower shutter speed than would otherwise be possible, an important consideration when having to shoot with the camera hand-held.
People Photography: Capturing the life around us

Getting the light right

As already mentioned, the angle and intensity of the light can have a big impact on the resulting photos. Bright sunlight straight into or side-on to the face can give strong, saturated colours, but it will also put deep shadows and harsh highlights across the face. For example, deep-set eyes may be lost in shadow, a prominent nose will put a shadow across the face, a strong jaw will leave the entire neck in shadow, and may also result in bright highlights above the jaw. Such lighting is often acceptable if you’re trying to emphasise the ‘strength of character’ in a face, but it is rarely flattering.

A much more attractive result can be achieved by having soft, even light across the face. This will result in no dark shadows or harsh highlights, a softening of features and improvements to the appearance of skin. To achieve this, photography on a bright cloudy day is often a good solution, or if shooting on a sunny day have your subject in the shade or indoors.

An alternative approach is to shoot into the sunlight, with the sun shining from behind the subject. You generally need to use a telephoto lens for this to work, and to make sure the sun is not in the image frame. This approach ensures that the face is lit by flat even light, while the sunlight coming from behind lights up the hair beautiful. This is particularly effective on someone with blond hair. However, because the face is effectively in shadow it may come out in the photos a little dark. To overcome this, either use a reflector to bounce light back into their face, or a little fill-in flash, or simply over-expose the image a little.

People Photography: Capturing the life around us

Looking down, looking up

One of the biggest problems I often encounter when photographing people as they go about some activity is that they will almost inevitably be looking down a lot of the time, as they concentrate on their work.

In all people photography it is important to focus on the subject’s eyes, since that is what we, as humans, are hard-wired to look at when we see a face. Focussing on a subject’s eyes can be difficult when they are looking down. They certainly won’t be looking towards the camera, and sometimes it may even appear as though their eyes are closed, only the eyelids visible.

To overcome this you can try a number of potential solutions. If you’re photographing face-on to the subject, try moving so that you’re shooting side-on. Alternatively, try putting the camera lower, so you’re looking up into their face. If these don’t work, then often the only solution is to ask the subject to stop what they’re doing, hold a pose and look up into the camera for a few seconds.

With a cooperative subject this can work wonders, and create images where there is plenty of eye contact between the subject and the viewer. However, with a nervous subject it can cause them to freeze in a very tense posture, something that will be very visible in the photos.

People photography: capturing the life around us

Specialised people photos

Most of the time I photograph people in a way that shows them off quite clearly; well composed and lit to show up both the person and their activity. There are occasions, however, when I deliberately photograph in a slightly more abstract way: a silhouette is perhaps the most obvious example, but another that I commonly use is blurred motion. In this latter type of image part of, or sometimes even the whole person is blurred as they move about. The intention is to put over the sense of movement and energy, rather than to freeze an otherwise dynamic situation into something quite static. The subject of blurred motion photography is the topic for the July 2021 talk, to be held live online on 28th July at 8pm.

And finally…..

I hope you enjoy watching the video of my talk People Photography: capturing the life around us, and reading its summary here. If you have any queries or comments just get in touch. And if you’d like to join a future talk live, just click on the link below to register to be sent the talk’s link. All talks are held once a month, on a Wednesday evening at 8pm (BST).

People photography: capturing the life around us

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Author: Nigel Hicks

Nigel Hicks is a highly experienced professional photographer and writer, based in Devon, southwest England, but frequently working around the world. He shoots for a range of clients and is a member of the National Geographic Image Collection. He has written over 20 books, covering travel, wildlife and photography subjects.