How to take pictures of people by Gennady Yagupov

Gennady Yagupov

In this article, let’s look at how to breathe life into your photos. We’re going to learn how to distinguish moments that are genuine and real from moments that are not.

Unfortunate moments have a right to exist in the yellow press, for example. We are going to work with real moments. They may seem random, absurd, without the content of the decisive moment. But it will tell you more about the person than any staged photograph

1 . Take people by surprise

The global problem with all portrait photography is this: when people are ready to be photographed and know they are being photographed, they quickly start to act something out, they want to look in some special way.

People already play a lot of different roles in life, wearing, as they usually say, masks. And in front of a camera lens, those masks sharpen their angles and become more expressive and deliberate. We photographers don’t want to shoot masks at all. We want to photograph something natural, new, to make a kind of discovery about a particular person being portrayed. When we catch the model off guard, she appears defenseless in the photograph. Sometimes it looks ridiculous. However, it’s not our job to photograph the absurd, it’s the exposure that makes it so.

Of course, a person caught off guard, giving the photographer a unique emotional state is a very tempting and rather uncomplicated option for a photograph. But you should always remember that this technique is just another one of the tools. We are shooting a real person, not a person suddenly caught in the lens. And, of course, this is not a section of the paparazzi craft. It only works when you’re shooting up close, not with a “TV set” from across the street. To the occasion, there’s a great phrase by Robert Capa: “If your shots aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

There’s a great metaphor in the movie Leon: “A sniper rifle is for girls, anyone can do it. The height of professionalism is when you use a knife and walk away.” It is also worthwhile to use the element of surprise only when there is no other way to “sway” the person. When he is near you, but not in dialogue (he sees you, but does not feel you) and there is no possibility to bring him into a state of dialogue. Check picture of Gennady Yagupov

2. Let people open up

Sometimes the way people want to look in a photograph is very ridiculous in itself, but says more about the model than her open and sincere portrait. When a model clearly doesn’t match the image she made up for herself, a lot can be shown through the cleft between the made-up and the real. If a person doesn’t look like Peter the Great, but really wants to be, it’s immediately noticeable and creates a very moving image.

Catching this image is quite easy. It is enough to see a little and know the person before the shooting. After all, to pull on an organic image so that it does not conflict with the real person, and maintain it for a long time – quite a challenge. For example, the actor Nicolas Cage may look like Viktor But, because he is, say, a good actor. Or because he’s wearing some extraordinary makeup. But most people are not able to hold this artificially created image. More often than not, it’s in the moments of public appearances or when a photographer takes a picture. And we photographers can see it, feel it, and play on it.

3 . Use the authenticity of the surroundings

The environment and setting can help you get to the point. In contemporary photography, the issue of authenticity only comes up when talking about social projects. After all, if you slip a person into their environment, the photographic message is more succinct.

But those who shoot portraits also use this technique – today it’s common to take pictures of people in interiors. The irony of it is that 80% of the time these interiors have nothing to do with the photographed person. They don’t really bring out the people, they are just like a background. Meanwhile, the setting in the frame is incredibly significant. If you put the components of a photograph on a scale, the setting must balance the person you’re photographing.

There’s a picture by Cartier-Bresson that captures Matisse. And looking at the setting in the frame, you realize: this is Matisse’s chair, his birds, and his cloak on the wall. All of this is Matisse. The Matisse that Bresson saw. Take away the interior and it’s a completely different photograph.

4. Treat real photographs as if they were beautiful.

The way the defenseless and open-minded people look in photographs may seem ridiculous to us. You have to understand that these are not horrible shots, but quite the opposite – beautiful, people are beautiful in them because they are clean and open.

If we think back to Harry Winogrand’s photographs in this regard, we realize that most of the people in them are in just such a state: “caught off guard,” authentic and uncovered. The girls in his album Women Are Beautiful either smile in embarrassment, or hide their eyes, or (without seeing the photographer) continue to play a role, which Winogrand, having taken out of the context of everyday life, instantly debunks in front of the viewer. This is why he is a great artist who has served as inspiration for many practitioners and as a subject for theorists to write books and articles about photography.

Looking at those pictures which are sent to the contest by readers (or pictures brought by participants of my master-classes) it is easy to notice great number of identical portrait types: “I am macho”, “I am smart”, “I am beautiful”. This in itself is normal; even Barthes wrote about this typology in “Mythologies. It is much worse when they try to express one type of meaning with one type of portrait: to show old age by photographing an old man, or happiness by photographing a smile.

We have already talked here about the similarity between the work of meaning in photography and the work of meaning in literature, but let me repeat this maxim one more time: you can say “Vasya loves Masha” and you can say the same thing but without the word “loves. And this second case is literature. In the same way, you can show a person’s mind not by photographing him in the pose of Rodin’s “Thinker,” but by approaching the question from a different angle.

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