How To Photograph People In Their Environment?

Photographing people in their environment is something we do quite often. Especially these days when everyone has a phone camera with them. Some phone cameras are as good as a point and shoot camera. 

We want to capture people and the atmosphere of a place to tell a story. The thing is how do we capture it right? Everyone has their own style. I am sharing several examples of the way I do it. 

I photograph people in their environment to show the uniqueness of a place that creates its people, its culture and the way of life. 

In this photograph of Hong Kong, I showed a group of locals enjoying their evening out at a “dai bai dong” which is an open-air food stall. This kind of stalls is the trademark of Hong Kong. They are known to be the best places for local food frequented by local people. The background is the menu with images of different dishes. 

The aperture was set to f/8 narrow depth of field to ensure that all parts of this photo are in focus.   My exposure mode was set to shutter priority at 1/125 and ISO was set to auto.

I photograph with Fujifilm. I often use either one of these cameras, Fujifilm X-E2 with an 18-55mm f/2.8 - f/4 or a Fujifilm X100F with a fixed lens of 24 mm when photographing people. These cameras are small and less intrusive. 

As much as possible, I like to walk into the scene or the environment to photograph them going about with their activities or tasks.  

I made an impromptu stop at a farm in central Bhutan. I saw this farmer tending to his livestock. The light was amazing at that time. It draws out the natural colour of the whole scenery of that autumn morning. 

The farmer was standing among his livestock, scattering feed for the cows. There was a lot of movement and mooing from the cows. It is a typical morning for a farmer in this remote part of Bhutan. He stood up and look straight at me. I captured exactly that. 

I framed this shot to include the rustic barn behind him, to show where he was. Also, some vegetation can be seen in between the barn. It add in the colour of autumn and nature. 

In some places, people are camera shy. Therefore, asking permission before photographing anyone up close is advisable. Then again this is based on your discretion and the situation that you are in at that moment. 

In places like France, photographing people in the public without their consent may cause some legal issues. Therefore, always be informed of what can be photographed and what not. 

Sometimes a return smile from the person or people is like an unspoken agreement to go ahead to take that shot. Usually, I would show them what I have captured. Such a gesture would make them feel at ease.

Children are quite relaxed with cameras. They will play along while I am photographing them. As seen in the following photo, the older boy was making a funny gesture to catch my attention.  He surely did.

These people have been queuing for hours, waiting for their turn to touch the sacred Buddhism painting known as “thangka”. The little boy looked tired and was leaning on his brother. This photo showed some of the mood in the morning of Paro Tsechu, one of Bhutan’s most celebrated festivals in spring. 

A prime lens of 50mm or longer focal length would be great to photograph people from a distance.  I took this shot from inside my car as we were travelling through the Mongolian steppe in summer. I used a 70 - 200 mm lens. Also look at the composition. I have the woman on the left, just as it is in the rule of third. It is more pleasing to the eyes. It also shows that she is surrounded by a huge herd of livestock. They are are moving forward.

I enjoy going to local markets. It is one of the best places to capture the everyday life of local people in their environment. 

I shot this back in my hometown, Kota Kinabalu in the north of Borneo. It was the durian season. This man has been calling out to every passer-by to check out his durians. 

The charm of the old spice street in Kathmandu is well captured in this photo with Nepalis going about with their trading activities.

This photo captured the facial expression of this Myanmese woman - With that smile on her face while looking at the money on her hand, she seems to be happy with her take for the day.  

When I am wandering in a busy local market like this, I usually shoot with shutter priority. With that shooting mode, it enables me to capture fast moving motion and  ready for impromptu shots. The shutter speed is set to 1/125 and sometimes more. The higher shutter speed means adjustments have to be made to the ISO to compensate on lighting. For most of my street photography, I keep the ISO to auto. 

In the shutter priority mode, the camera controls the aperture. This will affect the depth of field you want to achieve. Therefore, it is important to know what settings to compensate the other and how to avoid under-exposed, over-exposed and blur.

I was having a meal with this crowd of Bhutanese after a religious ritual. I composed this picture in such a way that I am using people seated on my left to create a leading line to guide viewer all the way to the far right, where we can see a man bending down to serve food to each devotees.

My focus point was on the man who was looking right into my camera. With an aperture set to f/4.5, I managed to get a crisp shot of him and some of the people next to him while the rest was slightly blurred. I have also captured some hand movement of other devotees rolling some rice balls.

In the following picture, I have included the background to show the joss stick maker’s working environment. Mr Lee is from Penang, a Malaysian state up north. He is the only one that produces handmade joss sticks in Malaysia.  Again, I have set the aperture to a large depth of field of f/8 to ensure that all parts of this photo are in focus.  

When photographing people, focus on their eyes. As shown in most of my photos here, I try as much as possible to photograph them looking straight into my camera. That creates an interaction.  

A while back, I attended the Dawn Service of the Australian armies. This was a solemn ceremony to commemorate the World War Two Australian prisoners of war. It is a yearly event at the Sandakan War Memorial Park in Sabah, North of Borneo.

This event took place at dawn. It was photographing in low light. Any lights that I can get are from the podium and walkways. As much as possible, I do not intend to use any flashlight. It can be quite distracting to the people around me.  

Also, I do not want to be rude and be heard clicking my camera away. So I set my Fujifilm X-T1 to silent mode. I was moving around all the time and shooting on freehand with high ISO and wide aperture. I had a fast aperture lens of f/2.8. I shot with the electronic shutter to reduce any form of movement in the camera.

For this photo, I stood behind the invited guests. I used a 50mm lens to capture this shot.  The natural lighting gave that sombre mood at that time. The light from the podium helped to shine some light onto the face of the person who was delivering the speech. I used spot metering and focused on his face. Then composed the shot. My camera’s aperture was set at f/4.5 at ISO 800 to capture the scene without compromising the sharpness of the image and the morning blue hour tint.   With this setting, the background of the image was fairly sharp and the foreground slightly blur. My intention was to lead the viewer to the front stage and to feel the mood of that moment. 

There are many creative ways of photographing what is going on around you. This aspect of photography and techniques are taught in all my photo tours in Singapore and abroad

Feel free to leave your comments and question in the following discussion column or on my Facebook page.


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