How To Photograph People In Their Environment?
Updated: Nov 26, 2020
Photographing people in their environment is something we do often, especially these days, when everyone has a phone camera with them. Some phone cameras are as good as a point and shoot cameras.
We want to capture people and the atmosphere of a place to tell a story. These are candid photos. 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.
The following photo captured the night time ambience of an open-air food stall in Hong Kong. This kind of stalls are called "dai bai dong", a trademark of Hong Kong outdoor dining, known to be the best place for local food and frequented by locals and tourists. The background has a large pictorial menu of a variety of dishes.
My camera aperture was set to f/8 for a narrow depth of field to ensure that all parts of this photo are in focus. Shutter speed is at 1/125. The ISO was set to auto to let the camera work on its own for light sensitivity while I looked out for spontaneous action and compositions.
For most of my street photography, I used either a Fujifilm X-E2 with a 18-55mm f/2.8 - f/4 or a Fujifilm X100F with a fixed lens of 24 mm. These cameras are small and less intrusive.
As much as possible, I like to walk into the scene or the environment to photograph people going about with their activities or tasks.
In all my road trips, I tend to make a lot of impromptu stops when I notice something interesting.
In central Bhutan, I saw this farmer busy tending to his livestock. The light was amazing at that time. It draws out the beautiful natural colour of that autumn morning.
The farmer was standing among his livestock, scattering feed for the cows. There were a lot of movements 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 to draw out some colours of 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 gesture would make them feel at ease.
The photo below shows the mood in the morning of Paro Tsechu, one of Bhutan's most celebrated festivals in spring. Devotees have been queuing up before sunrise, waiting for their turn to touch the sacred Buddhism painting known as "thangka". These two children caught my attention. Children are quite relaxed with camera even though they tend to move a lot and they are quite funny at times. The younger one is tired and leaning on his brother while the older one was playing along. The adults were looking on with smiles. This was a nice candid moment captured on still.
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. As for the composition. I positioned the woman to the left, just as it is in the rule of third. Besides being more pleasing to the eyes, it also shows that she is herding a large livestock through the green pasture.
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 buy 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. Rustic rundown wooden building with stores in small compartments. Packets of different spices are sticked onto the wooden walls of the stores for buyer’s easy reference.
This photo captured the facial expression of this Myanmese woman. It shows in her smile that she is happy with her take for the day.
When I am wandering in a busy local market like this, I will 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 all the way to the far right. We can see a man bending down to serve food to each devotees. But, 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 were slightly blurred. I have also captured some hand movement of other devotees rolling rice balls, simply to create some curiosity to the viewers.
In the following photo, 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 including his business signage and his factory in the background.
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. Eyes make the portraiture look soulful.
A while back, I attended the Dawn Service of the Australian armies. This was a solemn ceremony to commemorate World War Two Australian prisoners of war. It is a yearly event held 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 do not intend to use any flashlight. It can be quite distracting to the people around me.
Also, I do not want to be heard clicking my shutter away. So I set my Fujifilm X-T1 shutter 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 enhanced the 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. Holding on to the AEL button, I re-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.