I have been actively photographing people now for 10 years. Odd for me to think about when I remember actively avoiding people for the first 10 years of my professional career. I’ve gotten pretty good at getting nice portraits of all kinds of rural people and if the light and the person and the background and the photography gods all align I can even get some really pretty portraits.
My standard teaching tip on getting good portraits is ” spend time with the person- don’t do a drive by photo shooting.” But sometimes time is the last thing we have as photographers- what to do then?
That was the situation when I was in the fishing village of Katumbe, Tanzania. There were 5 other people with me and we were there to give away Luci Lights not actively photograph. Consequently, there were always 30 – 40 kids and spare adults following us around- a moving chaotic parade- hardly the conditions for good portrait photography.
Still I managed to get some really nice images- here’s how. I asked my local guide to introduce me to mothers who had girls in school so I could give them a Luci Light to help with their studies. After giving each a light and interacting with them for maybe 5 minutes (the spending time part) I then asked each woman if I could take their picture. At this point I had to rush because the other people in my group were getting antsy and crowd was ready to move on.
I asked if I could take their picture inside their house. This is the secret. If you go inside and you place the person near an open door or window you get beautiful, soft light. Plus, since it was dark inside the background faded away and didn’t become a distraction. Then, with a little pantomiming and smiling I was able to make a connection with the mother and get eye contact and a good expression.
The other secret is to immediately show the person the image on the back of your camera after you take the first picture. This will break the ice and they will see what you are doing and will be much more cooperative. I only spent a minute or two taking photos but I showed the woman a lot of the shots complimenting her each time. I do this with anyone I photograph- women, men and children.
So that is the quick, down and dirty portrait technique- window or door light, inside, smile, show the results. Each of these pictures was taken with the Nikon 24-120mm lens at f5.6 at ISO 3200.