Friday, November 21, 2008

Taking Great Candid People Shots

In old English folklore, they said that fairies were the most elusive of mythical creatures. Apparently you could only see them out of the corner of your eye and they would disappear like smoke if you actually looked at them full on.
Great candid people shots are like that. When you head out to the street with your camera in tow, you need to be looking in front of you, behind you and beside you. All your Spidey senses need to be wide awake.
The shot heading this blog is one of my all-time favorites. I took it on a warm summer afternoon at Coney Island in New York City. A minute after I took the shot, they got up and left. So, like the fairies, the shot presented itself for scant seconds.
It's called "A Little Off Center" because these two people seemed completely at odds with the hustle and bustle of the boardwalk. All around them there were guys working out, people swimming, rides twirling -- and yet in the midst of all of this, these two old people just sat together. The man has his arm draped around the shoulder of his bride, his ankles are crossed and there's this wonderful permanent feel that the two of them have. I like the negative space on the bench because it says to me that these two WANT to be sitting close.
Since I tend to consider stuff like this, I wonder if one day he went to war and they've been together ever since he got back. Or maybe they both had lost spouses...or he'd retired after many years in business and maybe they come to this bench every day to sit and watch the people together.
Great people shots are like that, for me anyway. They encourage speculation about the subjects. This image was turned into Black and White because it suited the theme well...and my couple is just a little off center because it worked better visually that way.

This shot happened just a few minutes later. The wind picked up and most of the sunbathers vanished. There was just this older man walking on the beach by himself. I like this shot as well because it has so very many things going on: the vast ocean, the single man, a deserted beach. I like that he uses a walking stick.
Mostly this image speaks to me about isolation and solitude. Here's a guy who is "no doubt about it" taking a walk. There's one bird on hand for company.
What is it about Black and White that creates such a powerful atmosphere? You won't have the same powerful sense about these people if the image is in full color. B&W carries a wonderful moody quality to it. In the case of the second image, I actually added grain. I wanted it to look gritty and liked the texture the extra grain brings to the overall feel of the image.
The other huge advantage of going with Black and White is, of course, the VASTLY improved Black and White adjustment layer in Photoshop CS3 and CS4. This gives you the adaptability to get the exact effect you're looking for.
There are three keys to taking good people shots:
1) Be Present: You need to be alert every instant for your shot. When it comes, don't hesitate. Shoot. If the shot doesn't work out, you can delete it. Relax. It's digital.
2) Consider a telephoto: It's the nature of these shots that some are far away. You won't have time, in many instances, to jog across the street. The telephoto gives you the ability to shoot as soon as you see your picture. It is, obviously, not so great if your subject is close. But they would have to be within just a few feet of you to mess up the focus. It's waaaay easier to step back a few feet than it is to race across a street.
3) These shots can easily be taken without faces. Both of these are stock images. I can and do sell them through agencies. Since the people cannot be recognized, I have no need for model releases or fees paid out. Beyond this, I actually prefer "faceless" images. They invite your audience to put their own spin on the image.
You'll find great people shots everywhere: shopping malls, beaches, parks -- any place people come together.
Give it a try. You never know what kind of gems you'll walk away with. And be attentive. You never know when or where the fairies will turn up.

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