Closer to You

Ung mann foran den lokale butikken

One of the best tips for getting better photos – in my opinion – is to get closer. Real close. Particularly when photographing people, as in portraits, it can make such a difference, not so much because of the different perspective that a close-up position creates, but more for the interaction that happens between you and the subject you photograph. By getting close – literally in their faces – something extraordinary happens in the human exchange between the two of you. The person in the photo will have to relate to you, as you will have to relate to him or her. That often initially hesitant and tentative relationship that arises with such an encounter can transcend into some remarkable and captivating portraits.

If anything, such an exchange is maybe the best example of the photographic dialectics I was writing about in an earlier post this week. There is no way that the outside – the person that you photograph – and the inside – yourself – can avoid interacting. At least not when you move in close enough. The result, photographically, is something that goes beyond what each of you could have produced yourselves. True dialectics in other words.

I am not saying that everything has to be photographed close up. However, it’s a good place to start when for instance your intention is to show the personality of the person you are photographing. On the street for instance, sometimes the photographer stand back and observe the scene from a distance and capture life as it unfolds in front of him or her. But, sometimes the photographer encounter a person on the street that touches him or her in a maybe intangible or unconscious way. Then it’s time to move in.

And when I say move in, I mean exactly that. Go beyond the comfort zone of both, when a moment of indecisiveness occurs between the two of you, a flickering moment when neither of you feel comfortable nor feel sure of each other’s response. It’s a very fragile moment, that you as a photographer, can benefit highly from. For me it’s also a moment where both of you are equal to the situation. When you photograph someone from a distance without their knowledge, you have an advantage, but when you move in beyond the comfort zone of both, you feel equally uncertain about the created situation. For you as a photographer it has the increased benefit of you becoming more alert.

I often tend to start photographing a person only one – 1 – meter or yard away from their face. That is very close, if you haven’t tried yet! Most people feel uncomfortable about being photographed this close. However, it gives me as a photographer a chance to create an immediate response and interaction. It also forces me to face my own fears, which I think is necessary particularly if I am shooting on the street. From that first chock encounter I can then move out and shoot more environmental portraits or scenes where the person is only part of it. But I have established a relationship – albeit a somewhat bizarre and delicate relationship – that will still be with us.

Have you tried to go close – real close? I would strongly recommend it. It means facing your own fears and move beyond your comfort zone. However, once you have tried, there is no turning back (although it never becomes easy and customary).


69 thoughts on “Closer to You

  1. I am curious, Otto: When you do move in close like this to a total stranger – and not someone like a street performer, or a musician at an event, etc. where they might expect to be photographed up close – do you engage the person by speaking with them? Or is it all non-verbal? Do you ask them if it’s alright to take a photograph of them? If so, what do you say? Do you explain why you want to take the photo? Do you give them a card or something with your name on it, so that they can ask for a copy if they wish? I am curious to read your response.

    1. I really don’t have a set way of starting out. Sometimes I ask if it’s OK to shoot, sometimes I start out with talking, not necessarily about photography, sometimes no words are involved at all. It depends on the person – and myself at any given moment. Sometimes I just see a party going inside a house and become part of the party. And yes, sometimes I offer to send the digital files (by email), particularly if we have spent some time together, or sometimes they ask for it themselves. And of course I do send when I say I will.

  2. I know you’re right. And I love looking at close portrait photos. But still…so hard to do. I took some of my own family the last time we were together, that I like, but even they seemed put off.

  3. This is really great advice, and so difficult to do. For years, I enjoyed using telephoto lens for close ups, and it wasn’t until I went out shooting with some professionals that they discussed the needs to get close to the subject…it was a tough experience but once I got the flavor and taste of how it brings the photographer into the scene, I understood.

  4. So true Otto, I have experienced that a lot by getting real close, some people like that and some of them are getting real scared. But yet, definately there is something going on within me as a photographer getting real close

  5. Great advice Otto and so true. However, with street photography one often wants to capture the candid and unposed person. How do you overcome the subject inevitably posing (to some extent) when getting so close, especially with total strangers? .. John

    1. For me there are two approaches to street photography, one in which you are a distant observer (the candid approach) and the other in which you are a participating photographer . For candid photos you cannot get as close as I am talking about here. But then when getting this close, how do you overcome posing? Well, first of all, sometimes posing can function very well, but usually it’s a matter of keep shooting, until the person gets tired of you and puts down his or her guard. Thank for raising the important question, John.

  6. Hmmm, aktuellt och intressant tema Otto.
    Människor är iofs alltid intressanta och att gå nära är och har alltid varit ett av mina ledord…vare sig det gäller människor, djur, arkitektur eller miljö.
    En annan intressant iakttagelse är insikten att det med ålderns intåg, är mycket lättare att fotografera människor, speciellt att få dem naturliga och avslappnade.
    När jag som ung, ensamresande kvinna rörde mig i de mest skilda miljöer var det jag själv som väckte uppmärksamhet…nu är det möjligtvis min/mina kameror, jag själv uppfattas som ofarlig och det är helt underbart:)
    Nuförtiden kan jag till och med röra mig obehindrat med mina vita objektiv…för några år sedan var det en omöjlighet…eller rent ut sagt idiotiskt och farligt.
    Så vad vill jag säga med detta?…jo att det är rätt OK att bli “gammal”.
    Som de sa i SA…”la grande mamma fotografa”
    Ha det gott varhelst du än är…
    en “norrskenshälsning” från mitt norra hem!

    1. Jeg er helt enig med deg, Gertie. Det har blitt lettere å fotografere mennesker tett på med alderen. Delvis fordi jeg har blitt mer avslappet, men også fordi som du sier, at vi når vi blir litt eldre, fremstår som mindre farlige. Så, på noe vis er det OK å bli gammel. Takk fo kommentaren og hilsningen. Ha det godt du og – fra the Northwest

  7. The portrait you opened this post with is certainly “remarkable and captivating.” I was mesmerized by it before I started reading. I don’t often take portraits of people (mostly family), but I’m going to take your advice next time. Usually I stand back. It will be interesting to see what happens when I get up close. Thank you! 🙂

  8. These are good tips for doing purtaritue. I will definitely keep in mind. I rarely do so but I completely agree. Your post reminded me of one encounter that I caught attention of a person and the person started to interact or posed to me. That was nice.

  9. Interesting discussion as always. I find it difficult, but easy with some in my family. My daughter doesn’t mind, but my son is forbidden…My husband I have no desire to photograph, my mother wants something like a kilometre in between us and – well – myself I do not ever want to be photographed close-up. What does this tell me? Well, we are all different. You might think it’s younger people who like to pose and older ones who don’t want to show off their wrinkles. But, we are all different. Respect is necessary, I’m working on coming up closer as well…

  10. I like how you discuss more than just the technical aspects of portraits, but the human relationship involved. As artists, I think we are often inclined to observe and report rather than participate in a moment as it is occurring. As always, you’ve given me food for thought! Thank you!

    1. I have always believed that the human relationship is the more important. Of course we need to be able to handle the technical side of things – but that is fairly easy to learn. Thanks for your nice comment, Claire.

  11. I started out with no people in my photos – not even at a distance. I now realise the benefit of including people – sometimes to give a sense of scale and sometimes to get a sense of the individual as you have done here. I love photographing people and nobody has ever refused me when approached. Getting in close is still not really comfortable, but I’m working on that aspect.

  12. The physical distance between the photographer and the subject depends on what exactly the former intends to express through the image. Sometimes you want to get closer and at other times you feel it makes more sense to click from a distance. However, I feel the viewer can easily tell whether the photographer has kept a distance intentionally or due to reluctance to get closer. That inhibition and sense of wariness speaks out loud through the photograph 🙂

  13. Photographing people from a close-up position is not easy for me, I feel this transboundary, I think I feel I am intruding into the person’s private sphere, this is something I need to work with. But I think I’m getting better at it, and the pictures I’ve taken has increased my desire to work with portraits. And when I’m quite close to the person I can see that this close encounter also gives a much better picture of the person.

    1. In addition, you well find that people don’t feel your are intruding on their private sphere, when you approach them with respect and mutual understanding. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the subject, Truels.

  14. I manage to only do this with small children, with adults who do not know can not take it, i feel embarrassed. Unfortunately it is one of my major limitations in photography.
    Thanks for your suggestions.
    Greetings, Patrizia

  15. Years back I used to shout at people before taking their portrait. Since there is a lens in someone’s face, the person will typically try not to look scared or upset, and the unique look of “trying to hold onto a normal face” while being yelled at for no reason, in the silence of the photograph later on revealed some of the most beautiful shots I’ve ever taken. Of course you need to know the people beforehand and have some trust already that you’re not a lunatic.

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