A Beginner’s Guide To Shooting People

People are the ultimate quarry- anybody can shoot a lion or a hippo, but to truly catch a human unawares requires cunning, patience and dedication. I am, of course, referring to photography here, because this is not that kind of blog. I have spent a lot of time recently chasing people, trying to catch them and record their likenesses, and I thought I’d waffle on a bit about what I have learned.

In my experience, people generally fall into three categories:

1) People who want to have their picture taken
2) People who don’t want to have their picture taken
3) People who charge to have their picture taken

Kit-wise, all I will say is this- nothing longer than a 50mm lens (this forces you to involve yourself in the scene), and no bloody flash. To get richer skin tones I recommend putting the EV shift down one or two thirds of a stop, but that’s just because the Nikon D700 is an amazingly racist camera which wants to render everybody as white.

Now, the chase.

On the street, people may consent to having their picture taken simply because they don’t notice you. This isn’t actually consent, but unless they tell you to stop, go for it. Think like a guerilla- travel light, move fast, attack often. Poke your lens though gaps in fences, hide behind corners, whatever it takes to get the shot. However be aware that this sort of behaviour might lead to you being suspected of all manner of deviancy. Go for low apertures- these pick subjects out from the background better and will give you faster shutter speeds, both of which are useful.

To catch people unawares, watch them carefully, keeping your camera neutrally at your waist. They will look around, sometimes at you, sometimes not. Prep your camera settings so there will be no fumbling around, pre-judge your composition, then when they have looked at you and away again, slide the camera up smoothly and pop off a shot.

With people who want to have their picture taken, you can push them around a bit. They have given consent, so don’t be afraid to ask them to move around etc. If it’s somebody you dislike, this is a wonderful opportunity to waste their time and make them look daft for your own private satisfaction. Revenge best cold etc. However if they have consented to have their picture recorded and you have no reason to annoy them, work fast, look calm and keep them happy.

If you ask somebody if you can photograph them and they say no, you have a couple of options. One, you can accept it and walk away. Two, you can walk away, then sneak back later. Be aware that if you are caught this could be construed as harassment, so it’s probably best to be cautious about that sort of behaviour. Three, you can use persuasion.

Persuasion is my favourite game here in Uganda- flattery, joking, explanations and general clowning can be the difference between a great frame and a what-if. I have met people here who firmly believe that the images I shoot will be sold for megabucks to my national newspaper clients in America, who will publish them under the headline “Look at this stupid African!” A refusal can often be swiftly negated by a short, friendly chat and a clear explanation of why you want to photograph this particular person, which usually heads into flattery. Flattery is like a game of chess, trying to figure out what it is that this particular person is going to be most effectively charmed with. Compliment shoes, goods, eyes, goats, purple jumpsuits (seriously, that is my list from the past week), whatever it is which will make the person feel more like a model and less like an animal in a zoo. Photography is really invasive, and we often forget that.

Persuasion will not work on some people- usually the elderly, often stricter Muslims, and almost always idle young men engaged in gambling and/or drinking. Sneak shots, shoot and scoot or get ready to be yelled at and possibly chased. However, if you can approach as a friendly face, camera out of sight, then produce it when somebody is comfortable with your presence, this can sometimes circumvent some people’s defences.

If people ask for money for the privilege of taking their picture, say no. Then photograph them by framing up as though you’re photographing something totally different. Or suggest they take a bill round to every single place they have ever been which had a CCTV system installed. Photography is a threatening tool, and one which has been used by many for financial, rather than artistic or social, reasons (stand up, Red Pepper newspaper, almost single handedly responsible for people in Uganda not trusting cameras). The only way to change that perception is to keep shooting and producing images which people recognise as true and interesting representations of themselves.


About Muzungu

I’m a Uganda-based freelance photographer (and occasional writer) working for a broad range of clients including NGOs, newspapers and magazines and development agencies. My work has taken me across East Africa, South America and Europe, and previous clients include USAID, the World Bank and the East African. I also work on personal documentary projects in my spare time. If you’d like to hire me or to know more, please feel free to get in touch.
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One Response to A Beginner’s Guide To Shooting People

  1. otomcio says:

    All good advice. I especially liked the last photo.

    Just wish I had the nuts to ask people straight out rather than snap them over my wife’s shoulder.



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