Read This If You Want to Take Great Photographs of People

Read This If You Want to Take Great Photographs of People

by Henry Carroll

“Don’t take pictures of people. Take pictures about people.”

Carroll explains the rules of thumb for a traditional portrait, but the book is mainly about moving beyond that.  “Don’t suppress your subject’s physical nuances. This is what makes them who they are. There are rules in portraiture about how your subjects should stand, what they should do with their hands, and so on. These rules are fine for corporate headshots, because they’re designed to remove any trace of a person’s individuality. But that’s not what we’re about, right?” 

“Don’t let your subject hide behind their smile. A smile put on a photograph is a mask. They’re just a little self-conscious and phony. Instead, wait for your subject’s ‘default’ expression: the look that only they give when they’re not aware of looking or being looked at. You’ll see it once their energy levels drop, so take your time, keep things calm and don’t rush the shoot.”

Young Landless Girl, Parana, Brazil, Sebastião Salgado, 1996

“A candid photograph, one where the subject is seemingly unaware of the photographer’s presence, often carries a greater sense of ‘truth’… To capture people in their natural state you have to remain unobtrusive… Achieving this is a question of time and space. People need to get used to you being there. That can take time and can’t be rushed.”

“By asking your subject to look away from the camera you break the direct connection with the view. This shifts the viewer’s attention away from the subject and on to what they might be thinking… Our natural desire is to know what the subjects look like is denied and instead we become more interested in what they might be looking at.”

“The best group portraits still capture the individuality of each subject. The most common approach to group portraits is to ask everyone to look directly into the camera. This shared gaze unites the people within the group, but it also takes away their individuality. Instead, once you have posed your group, let them stand there. Let boredom creep in. Let their gazes and body language wander a little. By doing this you’ll capture a different kind of group portrait, one made up of individuals rather than faces in a crowd.”

The Family, Luzzara, Italy, Paul Strand, 1953

“Your composition doesn’t need to prioritize your subject’s face. Sometimes that’s just not important. Study your subject—look at their shoes, their jewelry, the way they’ve combed their hair. These are the details which often let slip who they are. Break free from the limitations of compositional conventions and your visual instinct will speak to you that little bit louder.”

“Do you make the environment an important part of your portrait or strip everything away? … A plain backdrop separates your subject from the world and holds them up for inspection… Make sure everything in your frame has something to say… What you choose to exclude is just as important as what you choose to include.”

“You can reveal a lot about your subject by photographing the traces they leave behind. When you take your subject out of the picture, everything stops, and you’re left with a still life… Just be aware that if you tamper with what you find too much, you’re no longer photographing your subject. You’re photographing yourself.”

“Choosing between black and white and color affects who you photograph and how you photograph them… Color enlivens what black and white dampens, black and white simplifies what color complicates, and where color shocks, black and white can transform atrocity into art.”

“Use the subtlety of tone to establish the overall mood of your portrait… By making use of midtones you lower the contrast of your portrait, which subdues the mood and lends your subject a more introspective quality…. The best way to draw out midtones is to avoid bright sunshine and instead shoot under the soft, even light of an overcast day.”

Taking the opposite approach, “pair the reductive qualities of black and white with the high-contrast nature of hard light, and shadows become voids of black and highlights burn out to white. If your subject is a nude, this process of abstraction will ruthlessly carve up their form with what’s called negative space. Negative space is the area around your subject. With black and white, this negative space can become so present in your photograph that it calls for you to build your composition around that, rather than your subject.”

You can create mood with color. “Warm hues project positivity and well-being… Even a very subtle warmer or cooler shade fundamentally affects the mood of your picture and how your subject is portrayed.”

“All colors provoke an emotional response… but nothing catches the eye like red… It’s something to keep a close eye on when composing your photograph. It’s fine if your subject is primarily red, as this will naturally bring them forward. But if they’re not, and something else in your image is, then this can overpower your subject no matter how much space they occupy in the frame.”

“Light is never neutral. It always comes loaded with psychological implications… The most beautiful studio portraits employ the simplest lighting setups.”

Bubble Wrap, Hendrik Kerstens, 2008 (Parody of Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer)

“Your camera’s inbuilt flash offers you no creative control, so use a flashgun instead. If you’re after brute force, attach one to your camera and point it directly at your subject. To soften its blow simply turn down its strength or bounce the light off a white ceiling.”

“Ambient light is a gift not to be wasted… Ambient light is at its most atmospheric when it’s a mixture of natural and artificial light. Portraits can carry an underlying sense of transition—day to night, light to dark, past to future. All of which can be used as metaphors to create an aura around your subject.”

“Ambient light is often low-light, but don’t –whatever you do—try to counteract this with flash to avoid camera shake. Flash is the nemesis of ambient light. Its blanket power will burn out any atmosphere and leave you with a snapshot. Use a tripod instead. If you haven’t got one [on] hand, increase your ISO.”

“The biggest challenge when photographing people… is to reveal that hidden, intangible something that lies beneath. After all, photography can only record light reflecting off surfaces. And herein lies the paradox of our medium. How do you reveal what’s happening of the inside, if all you can show is the outside?”

“It’s about fusing instinct and technique. It’s about everything working together.”

Carroll refers to works by famous photographers as examples of the various concepts he discusses. The book includes both color and black and white photographs by Sam Abell, Richard Avedon, Roger Ballen, Hippolyte Bayard, Robert Bergman, Margaret Bourke-White, Bill Brandt, Mike Brodie, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ed Clark, John Coplans, Luc Delahaye, Rineke Dijkstra, Robert Doisneau, William Eggleston, Glen Erler, William Gedney, Bruce Gilden, Philippe Halsman, Philip Haynes, Bill Henson, Fred Herzog, George Hoyningen-Huene, Tehching Hsieh, Peter Hugo, Hendrik Kerstens, Kelzo Kitajima, William Klein, Helen Levitt, Dana Lixenberg, Duane Michals, Zed Nelson, Arnold Newman, Richard Rinaldi, Thomas Ruff, Sebastião Salgado, August Sander, Cindy Sherman, Hannah Starkey, Will Steacy, Jemima Stehli, Otto Steinert, Joel Sternfeld, Paul Strand, Jeff Wall, Gillian Wearing, Weegee, Gary Winogrand, Donovan Wylie, and Bettina von Zwehl.

The book also includes “technical tangents” on focal length and composition, aperture and depth of field, ISO, black and white, color, and lighting setups.


Carroll, Henry. Read This If You Want to Take Great Photographs of People. London: Laurence King Publishing, 2015. Buy from Amazon.com


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