page 2 of 23

The Shy Photographer: Why some people can't photograph people 
by Jim McGee

Over the years many adjectives have been used to describe me, but I don't think shy was ever one of them.  As a matter of fact I can already hear several people laughing out loud at the title of this article.

But when I first picked up a camera and started shooting seriously I only shot landscapes, never people.  At the time I didn't even admit to myself why that was - landscapes are less intimidating because they don't judge your work.

My freshman year of college I'd been admitted to both the College of Engineering and the Art School.  I'd been doing charcoal and pen & ink drawing most of my life.  Being self-taught, I was self conscious about my drawings, but I found that doing portraits and caricatures could be a good way to meet girls.  I wasn't particularly shy otherwise and since, like most teenage boys, I really liked teenage girls, I got over any shyness about drawing them.  Because I had confidence in my abilities as an artist I felt comfortable showing and sharing my work.  But my path in school would be in the School of Engineering, and in the ensuing years the sketch books were laid aside - sacrificed to the crushing course load of an engineering curriculum and a full time job.

Photography was always something I'd wanted to try.  I had a number of point and shoot cameras that I used to take snap shots of friends and family at parties.  But when I got my first "real" camera I found that I only really took photos of landscapes.  Being a perfectionist I felt that I was still learning the craft of photography.  At that time I would only get two to four images that I thought were keepers.  

If I took pictures of people, they'd naturally want to see them afterwards.  What if those shots weren't the keepers on the roll?  I looked at the work of portrait and fashion photographers in magazines and I knew that my portraits weren't even in the same league.

The truth was, I was the only one holding myself to that standard. So while my landscapes improved dramatically, my portraits, when I did them at all, tended to disappoint me.  The reason being that since I wasn't doing them I wasn't learning.  And since I felt my skills were sub-par I was nervous about approaching people.  The funny thing is I had no qualms about shooting away with a point and shoot - because my expectations were different. 

Like any other type of photography, becoming good at shooting people requires lots of practice, and lots of mistakes.  You learn from looking at the results and finding the flaws.  Through that process you learn what to look for when looking through the lens.

The other part of photographing people is learning how to put them at ease in front of a camera.  The corollary to my nervousness with a SLR versus a point and shoot is people tend to tense up and be unnatural in front of a "real" camera.  People are used to getting their pictures taken at parties and picnics with "little cameras".  Pull out the big gun and they get serious because now you're taking a serious picture.  So you have to learn to put them at ease, to involve them in other things, so their expression is natural and relaxed.

My wife is a good example.  She is very uncomfortable having her picture taken.  In most photos it looks like a gun was being pointed in her direction rather than a camera.  The first picture I ever took of her that I felt actually looked like her was taken with a 300mm zoom lens from across a square during an outdoor concert.  She was relaxed and wearing a natural smile.  Best of all, she never knew I had taken the shot until the roll of film was developed.

I liked this approach, it was anonymous.  So for a while my 300mm zoom lens became my portrait lens.  With this lens I learned about cropping for portraits, the importance of focusing on the eyes, about light and shadows, and about watching for fleeting expressions that can communicate an incredible range of emotions.  

And gradually, I learned about approaching people.  I started with street performers.  They're used to having their photo taken, and for a small tip they'll gladly oblige.  

I noticed that when you're walking around with a camera and a couple of lenses people are curious, and will ask you questions.  So I started photographing those folks.  Engaging them in conversations about what I was shooting, why, and where I was from, relaxed them.  The photos got better.  Gradually the walls came down.  And as I became more relaxed people responded.

Today I have no qualms about walking up to someone and asking to take their picture.  And while I'm no Annie Leibovitz, I feel I've come a long way.

Recently my father passed away.  He was the last of eight brothers and sisters, all of whom had been a big part of my life growing up.  Before the funeral I was going through old snapshots of my own, and shots that my cousins had given me, blowing them up to 8x10s that would become gathering points for people and old stories the day of the funeral.  My one regret was that I had shied away from shooting people for so many years.  These guys had all been characters, and I found myself wishing I had the chance to try and capture some of that on film.

A lot of photographers have a  shyness about people pictures.  My advice is to force yourself to put it aside.  Start with a long lens and strangers, like I did, if you must.  But force yourself to do it.  I've met some incredible people, heard some incredible stories, and found it rewarding in unexpected ways.


                            Subscribe to Vivid Light 
Photography by email 







Landscapes don't judge your work.








Becoming good requires lots of practice, and lots of mistakes






...for a while my 300mm zoom became my portrait lens















It's been rewarding in unexpected ways


text and photography copyright 2001 Vivid Light Publishing