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How To Photograph People In Their Environment?

Photographing people in their environment is something we do often, especially these days when everyone has a phone camera with them. 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 style. I am sharing several examples of the way I do it. These are my take of candid photos.

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

The following photo captured the night ambience of an open-air food stall in Hong Kong. This kind of stall is 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 is a large pictorial menu.


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.   The 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 to capture.

How to photograph people in their environment?
Diners at an open-air food stall in Hong Kong. This kind of stalls are called "dai bai dong".

My preferred camera and lens for most of my street photography are either a Fujifilm X-E2 with an 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.

I make a lot of impromptu stops when I noticed something interesting. I like to walk into the scene or the environment to photograph people going about with their activities or tasks.  

How to photograph people in their environment?
Farmer tending to his livestock in Central Bhutan.

One early autumn morning 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. 

How to photograph people in their environment?
Bhutanese women at Phobjikha Valley.

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. 

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.

In 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. 

How to photograph people in their environment?
Crowd at Paro Tsechu in Bhutan.

This was 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 the 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 shot at a close range with a Fujifilm X-100F capturing the mood of the people and the festivity of that moment.

A prime lens of 50mm or longer focal length would come in handy to photograph people from a distance.

How to photograph people in their environment?
Woman herding livestock in the steppe of Mongolia.

Travelling on road through the Mongolian steppe in summer, I chanced upon a nomad family herding their livestock into the green pastures. Most Mongolian nomads that we met along the way are camera shy. I do not want to spoil the moment when she might turn her face away. I used a 70 - 200 mm lens to get this shot without disembarking from my vehicle.

I positioned the woman to the left, just as it is in the rule of thirds, to show her being surrounded by the large herd of livestock.

How to photograph people in their environment?
Man selling durian in downtown Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia.

I shot this in 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. 

Local markets are one of the best places to capture the everyday life of local people in their environment. 

When I wander into a busy local market or street, I will shoot with shutter priority. With that shooting mode, it allows me to capture fast-moving motion and be 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 for 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, and over-exposed, image sharpness and avoid blurs.

How to photograph people in their environment?
Spice market in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Here is the charm of the old spice street in Kathmandu with rustic rundown wooden buildings with stores in small compartments. Packets of different spices are stuck onto the wooden walls of the stores for buyers’ easy reference. This image captured the Nepalis going about their trading activities.

How to photograph people in their environment?
Myamese woman at Bagan market in Myanmar.

At the busy market of Bagan in Myanmar, this shot captured the facial expression of this Myanmese woman vendor, smiling and happy with her first take of the day.  

How to photograph people in their environment?
Outdoor luncheon with Bhutanese crowd in Central Bhutan.

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 the far right. We can see a man bending down to serve food to each devotee. 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 movements of other devotees rolling rice balls, simply to create some curiosity for the viewers.

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. 

How to photograph people in their environment?
The famous Penang handmade joss stick maker.

Mr Lee is from Penang, a Malaysian state up north of the Peninsula. He is the only one in Malaysia who continued with the tradition of making handmade joss sticks for supply to Buddhist temples. I photographed him outside his shophouse, which is in the background, to show his work environment. 

I have set the aperture to a large depth of field of f/8 to ensure that the background and the foreground are in focus.

How to photograph people in their environment?
Dawn Service at the Memorial of Australian POW in Sandakan, Malaysia.

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

The event took place at dawn.

For this shot, I intentionally positioned myself behind to show the size of the crowd. With a 50mm prime lens on my Fujifilm X-T1, I set the aperture to f/4.5, a shallow depth of field, with ISO 800. With this setting, the background of the image was fairly sharp and the foreground was slightly blurred. I intended to lead the viewer to the stage front.

My camera's focus point was the presenter on the podium. I used spot metering on him to meter light. While holding on to the AEL button to re-compose the shot.

The electronic shutter was switched on to reduce any form of movement in the camera to further avoid blurry images. This is particularly helpful for low-light photography. Also, I do not want to be heard clicking my shutter away. So I set the camera shutter to silent mode.

The natural lighting enhanced the sombre mood of that time. 

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


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