A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
September 21, 2009 12:32 PM   Subscribe

How can I sharpen my skills in photographing people?

I am in medical school right now and am strongly leaning toward a career in tropical medicine. I also really enjoy photography, but I haven't had much experience photographing people and I am interested in learning more.

What resources or equipment would you recommend to better learn the art of taking portraits? What other things must I consider when taking photos of people (e.g. ethical, cultural, and legal considerations)?
posted by sciencemandan to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Can you clarify what your career in tropical medicine has to do with your question? Are you looking to take pictures of your patients at field hospitals in Indonesia or fellows of the American Board of Tropical Medicine? Street photography? For profit, or not (inc. publication in medical journals)?

What kind of camera are you using now?
posted by Admiral Haddock at 12:54 PM on September 21, 2009

I suggest a DSLR such as a Nikon D90 with a beautiful (and cheap) 50mm f/1.8 lens. With this combination you can take incredibly professional photos. The next step is learning about light, but just by plonking someone down next to a window will yield fantastic results. For other considerations, you might want to be polite and ask people if you may take their portrait, and you are free to use the picture for non-commercial use.

The best advice is to take lots of pictures! You can also sign up to Flickr where there is a great wealth of talent and pay attention to some of your fave pics and imagine or ask how to take them. Good luck and have fun.
posted by avex at 1:03 PM on September 21, 2009

Oh I should have said that with portraits it helps to have a bond with your subject. Sharing a laugh and a smile will yield relaxed and better results.

As for me, I practice a lot on my puppy dog!
posted by avex at 1:05 PM on September 21, 2009

Traditionally, twin lens reflex cameras have been used to produce the finest portraiture prints. Here's a quick eHow. Do some research and I'm sure you'll be able to find a solution for your particular need.
posted by torquemaniac at 1:16 PM on September 21, 2009

Response by poster: As far as the relevancy of tropical medicine, I am hoping to take pictures of the patients I am serving (not for profit).

Right now, I have a Sony Alpha A200 DSLR. I took a trip earlier this year overseas and that was the best I could afford.
posted by sciencemandan at 1:37 PM on September 21, 2009

Best answer: Sorry to be the naysayer here, but a TLR has never been the standard camera for taking portraits. Some people have used them, but they are by no means a majority. Not even slightly.

The type of camera you use doesn't really matter. Any DSLR will work great. I would actually suggest you do not use the 50mm, at least not exclusively. That lens on a crop factor DSLR will end up being the equivalent of an 80mm lens. Which is, in my mind, a bit too long. It makes your pictures look a little distant and formal to me. That's definitely a taste thing.

Your Sony is a fine camera, I'm sure. I wouldn't worry about it. I would be looking for a lens that would simulate a 35mm to 50mm lens on a full frame camera. So probably you are looking at something like 20-35mm. You may have a zoom that does this. A prime lens, that stops down to f2 or less would be ideal, and you may be able to get an adaptor for the camera to do this. So if you can find a 24mm f2 lens on ebay, or 2.8, that would be great.

That's all you need.

Now you can get into lighting. There is strobist.com, and you can learn a lot there. BUT please take it all with a grain of salt. There is a lot of pretty ok, "trick" photography on the site. But not a whole lot of great photographs. This is 100% my opinion, but I don't see a lot of people there digging into the deep history of photography, so there is a lot of inward gazing and not all that amazing stuff.

I'm firmly of the opinion that if you want to get better at photography (or anything else), your best bet is to dig deep into the people who worked before you, look carefully at their work and then imitate them until you have absorbed their style. Then find someone else you like. Do that 10 times, then forget all about them and try to find your own way of doing things.

You'll want to get photoshop, not because it's such a great program but because it's what everyone uses. Lightroom is a good program too.

I'd advise you to work without flash of any kind for a while, until you start learning about light. Using one off camera flash can be helpful in seeing how light works though. Just be careful about going with 2 or 3 lights, I think it's putting the cart before the horse.

Never, ever, ever use your on camera flash. It looks just awful. Ever. If you want to show a photograph to someone who knows photography, it's the most obvious thing in the world and they'll know it immediately.

So here's some suggestions for great portraitists to look at
Irving Penn
Annie Liebowitz (her book American Musicians is pretty amazing)
Albert Watson
Cartier Bresson (more of an informal portrait style)
Robert Capa (same)
Singer-Sargent (looking at painters is never a bad idea)

Don't click on the self link here if you don't want to know what my photography looks like. This is my method, so if you think these look like crap, I'd forget the above.

Oh yeah, read Lenswork magazine for a year or so (before Brooks Jenses gets too annoying) and definitely read the book On Being a Photographer. And read theonlinephotographer.com all the time.
posted by sully75 at 2:14 PM on September 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

Good stuff, sully75.

OP, the best way to get better at photographing people is to do it. Lots of it. Then brutally throw away 95% of the photos you take. Yes, even the ones that are almost awesome. And then look at the ones that remain very, very critically. And then look at the work of photographers you admire. Very, very critically, figuring out how they did what they did. Then try to emulate it, one technique at a time. Lather, rinse, repeat, for the rest of your life.

There's no magic trick, no secret scroll, no special software. There's just you, and time, and effort.

My People galleries.
posted by seanmpuckett at 2:27 PM on September 21, 2009

In multicultural environments (most recently an International conference poster session) I always point to my camera and smile or ask if I can take a picture. Most are willing to have their picture taken but don't be offended if they want to make a set pose or decline.
posted by wingless_angel at 3:06 PM on September 21, 2009

Oh yeah...I was going to say, I think there are fairly large issues regarding ethics, medicine and taking pictures of indigenous people. I don't know what they are exactly, but I think the easiest thing would be to take pictures of people you aren't taking care of, i.e. have more or less the role of a tourist. I think taking pictures of people who may be your patients is going to be really problematic.

That said I'm in nursing school and have seen slide shows of nurses's trips to Africa for relief missions. I think these were more this-is-what-I-do then this-is-my-art, and somehow that distinction is significant to me.
posted by sully75 at 3:13 PM on September 21, 2009

Equipment has absolutely nothing to do with taking portraits, no amount of money or fancy cameras will improve your ability to make images of people.

With that said I think making portraits is mostly being able to connect with them and then tell something about them through the image. If you have to know what you want to communicate, and then be able to work with your subject to get that result. I would look at a lot of well known portrait photographers, look at a lot of editorial (magazine) portraits, and just practice a lot. I shoot portraits for a living FWIW.
posted by bradbane at 4:40 PM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

People skills, people skills, people skills.

I was a history and political science double major in college, but have made my living as a photographer since March of my senior year.

The toughest college class I ever took was an acting class. It was pure hell at the time, but I learned to drop my inhibitions and relate to people.

After over 30 years in professional photography I'm still here; due way more to that acting class than to my photographic ability.

I frequently find myself agreeing with bradbane's answers to photography questions, and this is one of those times.
posted by imjustsaying at 5:22 PM on September 21, 2009

Don't worry about your equipment at this stage. You don't need an DSLR to learn to take great portraits. Also see Ken Rockwell's article on why your camera does not matter.

Get in the habit of carrying your camera around with you at all times. You never know when a great opportunity will come up. People will get used to you having your camera around. Don't be shy. The right thing to do is to ask before you take a photo, but if people are out in a public place, say at an event, you can go ahead and photograph them.

I had a great portait taken when I was out on a busy city street one night with a friend. The photographer asked if he could take our portrait, saying he had given up drinking and he was pouring all his energy into photography. So he spent nights out in the busy part of town, asking people if he could take their photos. He emailed it to me later. He was very polite, and I thought he had a great approach.
posted by Flying Squirrel at 3:50 AM on September 22, 2009

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