Choose Your Gear
The right equipment can make a difference. Almost any DSLR can be used for people pictures, but the best will excel in low light, and those with live view—especially with a tilting screen—will help with high or low camera angles.
The right lens is even more important. “I like fast primes for candid photography because of the depth-of-field possibilities they offer,” says Joshua Drake. “I shoot wide open—or close to it—so the people in my photos are sharp, while fore- and background elements are defocused to subtly suggest mood or color.”
Prime lenses, because they’re usually smaller than high-speed zooms, are less intimidating (especially to young kids). They also allow you to shoot discreetly. Primes are usually fast, too, which can often rule out the need for a flash and tripod. You may think you can’t afford fast glass, but a 50mm f/1.8 lens can be as effective as it is inexpensive.
As for focal lengths, think wide. “My favorite lens for people candids is 35mm or wider,” says Jonathan Hanson. “For my subjects to dominate the frame, I have to get physically close with a wide-angle lens, and this communicates as intimacy, which I like.” Wide-angles also let you layer fore-, middle-, and background elements in interesting ways, and, with ultrawides, you don’t have to obsess about framing and composition, but can shoot from the hip and crop later. If you’re lucky, people won’t know you’re shooting.
Composing? “I like to show the space around my subjects,” says Dan Chung, who shoots for Washingtonian magazine and operates a photo gallery in the metro DC area. “It reveals something of their character and what they value.”
Don’t lose your uncle or aunt in visual clutter, though. To prevent that, Chung is constantly in motion. “I compose with my feet and my back—tiptoeing, stooping, bending, and reaching,” he says. “I ask what’s important in a scene and what’s not, and then start walking, bobbing, and weaving to showcase my subject, and hide everything that distracts from it.”
As shooting starts, Chung likes to gain his subjects’ confidence. “I show them a good shot on the camera’s LCD,” he explains. “People are self-conscious when being photographed. If you can prove that you can take a flattering picture, they’ll loosen up.”
As for lighting, most pros prefer available over flash. Flash not only introduces a potentially unnatural color temperature, but it can flatten a scene, while reminding everyone within eyeshot that you’re taking pictures.
“I really love the variety of colors and moods that available light can offer,” says Joshua Drake. “Late afternoon sun, incandescent lights in a home, or fluorescents in a bar, all translate beautifully in photographs.”
Such expressive lighting can really set the mood for great pictures of the people that mean the most to you.