Photographing People Tip: It is all about relationships

Nikon D4, 14-24mm, ISO 12,800, ƒ/5.6, 1/200

Today I was blessed by one of my daughter’s friends. She came up to me to tell me how good my photos were of the play my daughter was in the other night. I think she thought I wasn’t taking her compliment seriously enough and so she went on to tell me how nice the photos were.

I seldom ever hear how nice my photos are any more. People thank me for taking photos and yes I occasionally hear a comment, but for the most part once you establish yourself as a professional then people just expect a quality image.

The young lady continued to tell me how impressed she was with my logo as well.  I had to tell her I was lucky to have a good friend design that for me. My daughter’s friend was very kind and gave me a blessing.

The fly on the wall

Nikon D4, 14-24mm, ISO 5,600, ƒ/5.6, 1/200

Fly-on-the-wall is a style of documentary-making used in filmmaking and television production. The name derived from the idea that events are seen candidly, as a fly on a wall might see them. In the purest form of fly-on-the-wall documentary-making, the camera crew works as unobtrusively as possible. –Wikipedia 

Nikon D4, 14-24mm, ISO 10,000, ƒ/5.6, 1/200

If you are able to put people at ease then they will allow you to be present as if you were not there. There is a trust that must be established to pull this style of photography off.

I think this is one of the most powerful forms of photography. The best photojournalists do this every time they pick up the camera.

The fly in the room

I think the “fly on the wall” isn’t the best description, because this just means you are in the room. More like ease dropping on the conversation. The photos that are most compelling require good composition and lighting on top of the decisive moment to capture the essence of the subject and message.

Nikon D4, 28-300mm, ISO 12,800, ƒ/8, 1/200

I like to see myself moving around the room like a fly. Have you ever tried to get rid of a fly and they seem to disappear in the room only to notice them right in front of you at times. While I do not want to equate what I am doing as being a pest, I do want you to notice how the fly is able to get very close and quickly get out of the way.

The obstacle course

Nikon D4, 28-300mm, ISO 4,000, ƒ/5.6, 1/250 [Combating the teleprompter and microphone]

Most every place I am photographing is like working an obstacle course. To get a good line of sight to a subject requires me to move a great deal at times.

Microphones on podiums often are right in front of the speaker’s face. You are moving side to side and even behind the speaker to find an angle to not just get rid of the microphone, but sometimes teleprompters and things like flower arrangements.

Nikon D4, 28-300mm, ISO 11,400, ƒ/5.6, 1/250 [Moved to the side to eliminate the problem with the teleprompter and microphone.]

Those are just the things between the camera and subject and then you have to contend with a background. Often you are trying to move to keep things from growing out the head of the speaker or looking like they are being impaled by something.

Nikon D4, 28-300mm, ISO 6400, ƒ/5.6, 1/250 [Found another spot to get a clean shot of the speaker]
Nikon D4, 28-300mm. ISO 12,800, ƒ/5.6, 1/250 [I am using the plants around the stage as a way to frame the subject.]

Off the stage and informal

Nikon D4, 14-24mm, ISO 12,800, ƒ/10, 1/60 [I put the camera up as high as I could hold it and shot down to give the birds-eye-view of the reception. I also waited for a moment when the people in the foreground were showing their enjoyment of the moment. Also I wanted your eye to go from the front to the back, so I chose to increase the depth-of-field by using ƒ/10.]

My favorite shots at meetings are never from the stage but the small conversations at receptions or just in the halls outside the meetings. This is where you see relationships.

Nikon D4, 14-24mm, ISO 11,400, ƒ/3.5, 1/200 [I came in close to show this moment and used a shallow depth-of-field to keep the focus on the foreground of the two people.]

I think we all so want of a good relationship in our life that we enjoy seeing other relationships as well. We hope to learn something from them and appreciate them. I believe the reason we are here on this earth is for relationship and that our DNA makeup has us pursuing this every day of our lives.

Nikon D4, 28-300mm, ISO 12,800, ƒ/8, 1/250 [Here I wanted to show the ladies listening to their friend and so I used ƒ/8 for a little more depth-of-field.]

Capturing people in relationships of all kinds I believe is the core value of the human race. We celebrate strong relationships through marriages and parties. We punish those who destroy relationships that steal or even kill another. However, even in these situations we can be brought to tears when relationships are restored.

Nikon D4, 85mm, ISO 1,100, ƒ/1.4, 1/250 [Here I wanted to isolate the subject so I used the 85mm @ ƒ/1.4 for a shallow depth-of-field.]

Showing how people are engaged is one way to capture those relationships. Another thing is to show how interesting a person is and this can be done by isolating the subject.  It is the mixing of all these different lenses, ƒ-stops and compositions that help me bring more impact to the moment. While I have chosen sometimes to go wide and other times to isolate, notice how even with their differences of nuance they still have you focused on a relationship.

The reason I think photography is so powerful as compared to words—it has the power to capture the essence in relationships.

My tip to you is to hire photographers who value relationships and to take the time when we photograph people to honor the importance of this by picking the right moments using composition and lighting to celebrate humanity.

I don’t want to be a fly on the wall—I want a relationship with those in the photo. My goal is to develop friendships for myself and to connect others to those people.

Only Photography can capture the “Microexpressions”



Lie to Me is the hit TV [January 21, 2009 to January 31, 2011] series based on the research of Dr. Paul Ekman. Haggard and Isascs are credited with the discovery of Micro Expressions in the 1960s. Paul Ekman created a coding system for microexpressions and in 2001 he was named by the American Psychological Association as one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century.

A microexpression is a brief, involuntary facial expression shown on the face of humans according to emotions experienced.  They are very brief in duration, lasting only 1/25 to 1/15 of a second. The 1/25 second was determined because back in 1960 this is how they slowed down a film that ran at 1/25 frame rate.

Even in the TV show Lie to Me you see that when a microexpression is detected they must investigate further, because one must not conclude that someone is lying if a microexpression is detected but that there is more to the story than is being told.

While some people are natural at seeing microexpressions many people learn how to detect them through training.  What is important it is much harder to detect a microexpression on people in person or within video.

The easiest tool to practice detecting micro expressions are photographs. So as you will see if you watch the TV show Lie to Me, which you can get on Netflix, is they use photographs to isolate and show the facial expressions.

The major emotions-how surprise, fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and happiness are registered by changes in the forehead, eyebrows, eyelids, cheeks, nose, lips, and chin. These help as there are not just one type of each expression. For example the emotion of surprise has many different expressions; questioning surprise, dumbfounded surprise, dazed surprise, slight, moderate, and extreme surprise. The intricacies of facial expressions are more easily read in photographs of how various emotions can blend or create different expressions.

Charles Darwin believed that facial expressions were universal. Through the years many have disagreed with Darwin.

Dr. David Matsumoto however agreed with Darwin basked on his research during the 2004 Olympics.  He studied both the sighted and blind Olympians during the 2004 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

What is important is how he conducted the research. He studied the thousands of photographs and compared the facial expressions of sighted and blind judo athletes, including individuals who were born blind. All competitors displayed the same expressions in response to winning and losing. So it is not something learned, but innate.

Take away

I believe that the power of the still image is because it can capture the microexpression that video cannot do. Sure you can argue that if you slow down video you can see a microexpression, but you are then trying to stop the video and thus creating a still image.

Today we can record up to 200 million frames per second, but the most common used high speed cameras record around 1000 frames per second. Television series such as MythBusters and Time Warp often use high-speed cameras to show their tests in slow motion.

We use these high speed cameras for seeking the truth and helping us scientifically build safer cars for example.

So if we want to understand something and get to the truth as in TV shows like MythBusters we must examine things in fractions of a second. This is where the still photographer has worked for decades.

My take away from all this about the microexpression is the the power of the photograph is it’s ability to freeze the moment for us to truly understand. For most people microexpressions are not controlled and therefore when we see these expressions tend to hold them as truthful moments.

It is important to point out that some people are born able to control their expressions (such as pathological liars), while others are trained, for example actors. “Natural liars” know about their ability to control microexpressions, and so do those who know them well. They have been getting away with things since childhood, fooling their parents, teachers, and friends when they wanted to.

Photojournalists are very aware of “The Decisive Moment” and what I believe is that microexpressions is more about that moment. This research and material published on microexpressions is great content for the photojournalist. Understanding microexpressions will make you a better photojournalist in my opinion.


Which photo is best? Another Example

Click on photo for a larger view.

This is a series I shot of a little Senara boy in the town of Konadouga, Burkina Faso, which is located in West Africa.

Which of the photos would you pick and why?  Here are larger versions of the composite above:

Photo 1

Photo 2

Photo 3

Photo 4

Photo 5

Photo 6

Photo 7

Photo 8

I think anyone of the photos will work. Yes I do believe they are all good and which one to use depends on what I am wanting to say to people. Now I might crop the photo a little depending on the photo I select and how it will be used.

I could easily see this photo running over two pages of a magazine with the headline and story on the left over the photograph.

I think the furrow of his eyebrows and his hands on the post change so much from photo to photo. The only photo I really feel like makes the child look content and happy is Photo 2. You could argue Photo 3 also he is playful and enjoying himself.

All the other photos he is looking at the photographer inquisitively which can be interpreted many different ways.

For the most part all the ones with the furrow of his eyebrows and tight grip on the pole communicate some type of desperation to me. These look more like the NGO photos trying to raise money for their programs that help children. The expression communicates uneasy feeling which can help the viewer feel responsibility for the child.

I am shooting slightly from above the child a few feet away from him. What I find interesting is in the last photo he raises his chin which makes his eyes look more level to the camera perspective. This in turn puts him more on eye level with the audience.

That last photo could be used where you may have the child making his on plea for help in the copy.

Which photo is best? The first question should be what are you trying to say.

Photographer Tip

When shooting situations like this in the field you have to feel the situation. Then you must know what you are trying to communicate about this person to people who are not hear but will be the audience.

There are two of the journalists questions I think you need to really understand and know what the answers are before you push the shutter release.

What and Why are the two question of the five I would stress.

Here are the five questions a journalist should ask:

  • Who is it about?
  • What happened?
  • When did it take place?
  • Where did it take place?
  • Why did it happen?

Some authors add a sixth question, “how”, to the list, though “how” can also be covered by “what”, “where”, or “when”:

  • How did it happen?

What is going on that you need to communicate to your audience? This helps you pick the situation and moments out of everything that you are seeing and focus on the message.

Why should the audience care? This is a deeper question that I like to ask rather than just why did it happen. This helps me often work to find the peak moment that will engage the audience.
This is why I might crawl on the ground to get my audience eye level with children. When they are eye level with a child this should help them feel like a child, because to see this moment like this would mean being like a child on the ground.

Remember if you don’t know why you are pushing the shutter release then no one else will understand either when they see your image.

Which photo is best?

I will take a few situations show you the take and help you see why one photo stands out over the rest.

First I am taking the drive of a basketball player to the basket. This is the series of six images shot extremely close in time. They are so close in time that the time from the first to the last image is only one second total time.

Take a moment and go through each photo separately and make your pick first. We may or may not agree, but in the end can you articulate why one photo is the best?

Photo 1

Photo 2

Photo 3

Photo 4

Photo 5
Photo 6

Sports is about competition

Rather than calling these rules lets call this list of mine guidelines. These are things I generally am looking for in a sports photo beyond the technical correctness of the photo.

  1. The ball
  2. Competition
  3. Peak action

I like three photos more than the others. I like 1, 2 and 4, because all three elements are in those photos.

The 3rd photo she is so much in front of the competition they don’t really exist and in the 5th and  6th photo she has already blown by the competition therefore she is not overcoming adversity.


The moment before she blows by the player to the basket you can see the defender and the offensive player competing for the space on the floor. Now it is clear to me in photo 2 the offensive player has more desire on her face than the defender.

I think this face expression is the nuance that commentators talk about between the winning team and the loosing team. She wants the win and it shows and the defender’s expression is complacent.

I think the pick is definitely between 1 and 2.  Let’s look at them side by side.

I like the ponytail of the player up in the back, it gives it more motion than the other photo. I also like the defender’s hand looking like it is trying to reach for the ball more in the second photo. I can also feel her next step being the jump step to the basket and completing the move to the basket.

The last thing I would do is the crop a little tighter and my final image would look like this here.

What do you think?

Do you come to the same conclusions? Maybe you can argue for another photo. The point is you really need to be able to break down your photos and talk about why one is better than the other.

A few things happen when you start doing this. First of all you will most likely notice you didn’t shoot enough. The photo you want is either before or just after you moments that you do have.

Second, you will start to anticipate sooner the moments. Why is this? You now are training yourself to know what to look for in the photo.

Too many people are shooting just nouns and not complete sentences. Photo 3 is a great example of the noun and not a sentence. Yes you could say she is doing something, but notice the difference of having a competitor in the photograph.

The defensive player helps to tell the rest of the story. In photo 3 you have no idea who they are playing. This could be just her warming up before the game, but the other photos show the competition.

Some might argue to use image 5 or 6 because she is shooting. If I didn’t have number 2 I would go with those, but I would much prefer to see the battle on the floor for position than the open shot.

This should be happening with all of your photo shoots, not just sports. There is a moment that is best. Stay tuned for other examples.

Which photo(s) would you choose and why?

This is part two of question series on which photos you would choose and why.

Again I was covering the Revive! Young Adult Track at the 2012 Eucharistic Congress put on by the Archdiocese of Atlanta.  These are photos of a speaker for the evening.

Your job is to help me pick the best photo or photos that would run with an article about her speaking to the group.

Here is the write up from the Archdiocese of Atlanta website, which is all I knew about her going into the evening.

Come back and check out the discussions about why people choose one photo over another photo.  Be sure and vote below so you can see how you compare with others.

Mother Mary Assumpta

Mother M. Assumpta Long, O.P., is the prioress general of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, in Ann Arbor, Mich. She was one of the four founding sisters of the community in 1997 as Pope John Paul II invited new religious communities to form and respond to the needs of the New Evangelization. The community now has over 100 sisters teaching in seven dioceses, drawing its inspiration from the rich heritage of the Dominican Order of Preachers and the vitality of the New Evangelization. The average age of the sisters is 28.

A former college president, Mother Assumpta holds a licentiate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, Rome, Italy, and has taught at the elementary, secondary and junior college levels. In the early 1990s she was invited by Cardinal John O’Connor to assist with the initial formation of the Sisters of Life in New York. She is a well-known speaker throughout the United States.

Help me pick a photo or a series of photos 

Photo #1

Photo #2

Photo #3

Photo #4

Photo #5

Photo #6

Which photo would you use? You can pick more than one.

I would use the poll, but can’t do two at a time right now on my blog.  Put your comments below.

Which Photo Would You Use?

I am covering the Revive! Young Adult Track at the 2012 Eucharistic Congress put on by the Archdiocese of Atlanta. These are photos of the keynote speaker for the evening.Your job is to help me pick the best photo or photos that would run with an article about him speaking to the group.

Here is the write-up from the Archdiocese of Atlanta website, which is all I knew about him going into the evening.

Fr. Leo Patalinghug

Known for his love of cooking and inviting people to rediscover the kitchen as a place of daily grace, Father Leo Patalinghug is a popular conference speaker. A native of the Philippines raised near Baltimore, he studied writing and political science before seminary and earned a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. He developed his love of cooking in seminary at the North American College in Rome, Italy. He was ordained in 1999 and, as a parish priest, authored “Grace Before Meals: Recipes for Family Life,” a book that blends simple recipes with ideas on bringing the meaningful spiritual discussion to the dinner table.

His cooking skills led to a Food Network episode where he defeated chef Bobby Flay in a steak fajita cooking competition on “Throw Down With Bobby Flay.”

Father Patalinghug is on the faculty at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., where he directs a pastoral field education program for future priests. He holds advanced theological degrees from the Pontifical Gregorian University and Pontifical Maranium Institute in Rome. He is featured in a 2012 EWTN series “Savoring Our Faith.” He frequently speaks at conferences, college campuses, and prison ministry. His topics include spiritual combat, praying as a family, teen spirituality, and the theology of beauty.

Help me pick the photo from below.

Photo #1
Photo #2
Photo #3
Photo #4
Photo #5
Photo #6
Photo #7
Photo #8

Which photo would you use? You can pick more than one.

Please let me know why you chose one over the other below in the comments. Looking forward to hearing people’s thoughts on this one.

Getting the moment

Nikon D4, ISO 12,800, f/4.8, 1/50, 28-300mm

You have probably heard about “The Decisive Moment” coined by the famous Magnum Photographer Cartier-Bresson.  What I think you need to explore when actually picking the right moment is more than just the subject.

As you can see in the first photograph the main subject is really animated and this could be a wonderful moment. If you were to get just this photo you might be really pleased with your results.

However, take a look around the frame. Look at everyone’s expression in the photo. When you do that the photo above starts to fall apart.

Nikon D4, ISO 12,800, f/4.8, 1/50, 28-300mm

Now take a closer look at the second image here. As you can see the other people are in a better moment and even the main subject is better than the first photograph. I would have preferred to have more of the young boy in the photo on the left, but the expressions are still pretty good to carry the photo.

Nikon D4, ISO 8000, f/4, 1/80, 28-300mm

In this example the composition is OK and the moment is OK, but just not much energy here is there in the photo.

Nikon D4, ISO 8000, f/4, 1/80, 28-300mm

Now in this photo the expressions are more engaging and the musician is reaching out to the man in the blue shirt. You also can see the lady on the left being moved by the moment.  Definitely a better moment than the photo above.

Nikon D4, ISO 8000, f/4, 1/80, 28-300mm

In the third example from the same situation you can see the handshake is more complete.  The second photo the hands look quite awkward.  The expression is not as huge as the first one, but the moment is much stronger because everyone looks good and no funny hands as in the second one.

To get the right moment often takes you to shoot just a few more than just one photo. You are shooting not just for the main subject as you can see in these examples.  You are trying to capture everyone in the best possible moment when it all comes together.  This is what “The Decisive Moment” is about. It is about getting all the elements in the photograph working together.