How To Photograph People In Their Environment?

Photographing people in their environment is something we do quite often. Especially so these days when everyone has a phone 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. 

My camera was on manual mode. I set the aperture to f/8 narrow depth of field to ensure that all parts of this photo are in focus.   The shutter was at 1/125 to make sure I capture all movement in low light. ISO was at 1600 so the camera is more sensitive to light. 

Tips:

  • When photographing crowd or group, make sure they are in well proportion. 
  • A wide angle lens with narrow aperture setting is preferred to give a good depth of field. 
  • A narrow depth of field means high aperture or f-number to ensure that the foreground and background are in focus.

I photograph with Fujifilm most of the time. 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 people or individual going about with their activities or tasks.  

I made an impromptu stop at this farm in central Bhutan. I saw this farmer tending to his livestock. The morning light was right. 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. 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. Vegetation can be seen in between the barn. This was to add in the colour of autumn. 

Tips:

  • Be aware of the direction of lights. You don't want a strong casting of shadows or see people squinting their eyes from bright lights.
  • Look out for good backgrounds. 
  • Capture expressions

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 this photo, the older boy was making a funny gesture to catch my attention.  He surely did.

I managed to capture the moment in this photo. It shows the mood in the morning of Paro Tsechu, one of Bhutan's most celebrated festivals in spring. People has been queuing for hours, waiting for their turn to touch the sacred Buddhism painting known as "thangka". The little boy is obviously tired and was leaning on his brother. 

A prime lens of 50mm or longer focal length would be great to photograph people from a distance.  

I took the above shot from inside my car as we were travelling through the Mongolian steppe in summer. Nomads are shy people. I was not going to just jump out from my car to point a camera on them. Instead, I used a 70 - 200 mm lens to capture this moment.  

Also look at the composition. I have the woman on the left, just as it is in the rule of third. It shows that she is surrounded by a huge herd of livestock, and they are moving ahead. I feel that this composition is also more pleasing to the eyes. 

If I were to have the woman in the centre of the frame. It may look like she is surrounded by a massive herd of livestock and stuck in the middle. 

Tips

  • Composition is arranging all the elements to make it pleasing to the eyes. Those elements are the tones, colours, shapes and forms. First, pin point on your main subject of interest. Then you will be able to ascertain how the photograph should be shot incorporating all the elements in it.

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

When I am wandering in a busy local market like this, I usually shoot with shutter priority to be able to capture motion and be ready for impromptu shots. The shutter speed is set to 1/125 and sometimes more. 

Tips

  • The higher shutter speed means adjustments have to be made to the ISO to compensate on lighting. In most cases, I keep the ISO to a custom auto set to minimum 200 and maximum 800. 
  • 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 am always on a look out for a good candid portrait shots. Facial expression and body language are the essence to the make that perfect image. 

At the market in Bagan, I spotted this Myanmese woman counting her proceeds. I managed to capture her smile, looking pleased with her take for the day.  

When I composed this shot, I was looking at viewpoint. She was sitting on an elevated platform right above my knee. Therefore, I crouched down slightly to get to her eye level so I can take a full body portrait. My depth of field was set to f/5.6 focussing on her without totally blurring out the background or the foreground.

Tips:

  • Look out for spontaneous and candid shots. 

I shot this back in my hometown, Kota Kinabalu in the north of Borneo. The typical scene when durian (the King of Fruits) was in season. This man has been calling out to every passer-by to check out and buy his durians. 

The charm of the old spice street in Kathmandu showing Nepalis going about with their trading activities is well captured in this wide angle image. It is also the combination of muted colours that draws out the rusticity of the location. 

Tips:

  • 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. 

This is a simple creative shot using depth of field. Photo was taken in central Bhutan where we gathered for a meal with the locals after a religious ritual. 

My focus point was on the man in the centre, who was looking right into my camera. With an aperture set to f/5.6, he is in focus, drawing viewer's eyes towards him. Everything else around him are slightly blurred but viewer can still make out what was going on in the whole scene. Clearly, this image shows that everyone are seated and waiting for food to be served. 

There are hand gestures of other devotees. By including that, I am arousing viewer's curiosity as to what are these  people doing. They are actually rolling rice balls. 

Tips:

  • A shallow depth of field is a wide open aperture with low f-number in Aperture Priority. With this setting, it makes the subject stands out while the background is out of focus. This technique is applied mostly to portraits and macro images.

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 (background and foreground) are in focus.  

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 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. I did not use any flashlight.  

I set my Fujifilm X-T1 to silent mode. I was moving around all the time, shooting freehand with high ISO on wide aperture using a fast aperture lens of f/2.8. My camera was on electronic shutter to reduce movement. My body was my tripod. I stood very still and held my breath with elbow tucked in tightly whenever I am taking a shot.

The above photo was shot with a 50mm lens.  The morning blue hour created a sombre mood of that moment. 

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. I used spot metering to focus on the person who was delivering the speech. Then composed the shot.  

With these settings, the background of the image was fairly sharp and the foreground slightly blur. My intention was to lead the viewer to the front stage. 

There are many creative ways of photographing what is going on around you. By adding people to the frame, it creates life to the place. This aspect of photography and techniques are taught in all my photo tours in Singapore and abroad

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