Some time ago, my colleague and friend, Sven Creutzmann, wrote an email to a photographer. The photographer had asked about advice on how to approach a project in which the person was photographing people. I thought Sven’s answer was not only good, but gets to the core of what is essential when photographing people when you want to create captivating images. I asked if I could published his advice, and this is it, just slightly adjusted to make it coherent when out of context.
If you want to capture strong and compelling images, you need to have some kind of interest in the subject you are photographing. What I too often see in photos from many photographers is that they miss intimacy. That intimacy you won’t capture without being interested in whom you photograph. So first, invest yourself in the subject. Next step then is to approach the people. That is mandatory, to get close.
While the importance of equipment is usually overestimated, choosing a wrong lens can be harmful to a photographer. Here we are talking people photography and that usually means short lenses. I often see photographers approaching people they want to photograph with a long lens. It makes you feel safe some 10 meters away from people; therefore, you might use a longer lens.
However, for that intimacy, I would leave the long lens at home to begin with. And even though the 24-105 zoom is a nice lens, it has a little disadvantage of having a slight tele, which may tempt you to not get that close in the end.
Much over 90 percent of the photographic process (when talking about photographing people) is not actually taking photos, but to get close to the subject. I once did a story in northern Canada with a guy who was hunting bears with bow & arrows. While you can be some 150 meters away from a bear when shooting with a rifle, you need to be minimum 10 meters close to the bear if you want to hit it well with an arrow. However, that means, that the hunter needs to know exactly the habits of the bear, how it moves, what it was attracted by, what would call its attention. The hunter also needs to be aware of the overall conditions: what about the wind, is it changing, will the bear take my lead? Only if you are a true master in understanding and following all these rules and conditions, you will be able to get close enough, to get the decisive shot.
That is exactly what you have to do with human beings. You will have to spend many hours researching about the work of for instance the train workers, if that is your subject. Approach them by surprising them with you knowledge about their work. That will be your door opener. Spend time with them, watch. And then, take the silly look-into-the-camera-and-smile pictures, that is what they expect of us as photographers. Take pictures of all of them, let them explain their work to you, show interest in details, ask questions, keep taking pictures, optical notes at the beginning.
Then come back and again (maybe bring them some prints), you will see that they will start loosing interest in your camera, you will start blending in, they get used to your camera. That is when you will be making good pictures as you are close to them and as they are not posing for the camera anymore, because they got used to you already.
That is the approach I recommend if you want to capture strong and compelling photos of people. Spend time in this way. It’s about practice. Once you have a positive experience, you will take that to your next photographic mission. It will help you to approach people with the same recipe.
Sven Creutzmann is an award winning, German reportage and documentary photographer based in Cuba. His has been published all over the world in major magazines and publications. Let me add that Sven and I run photo workshops together. This year we plan to organize a photo tour in Nicaragua in the autumn—if corona will let us. Check out his work: Sven Creutzmann.