Chennai chal­lenge

János Asztalos’s trip to In­dia has left him think­ing hard about com­po­si­tion and set­tings

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I first dis­cov­ered pho­tog­ra­phy in my teens, when I at­tended an af­ter-school class where we shot both dig­i­tal and film. I even learnt the ba­sics of print­ing black-and­white pho­tos from film. I picked up pho­tog­ra­phy again in 2013 when I found a bar­gain: a Nikon D60, com­plete with 18-55mm kit lens and 55-200mm tele­photo.

I took my cam­era to In­dia on a busi­ness trip and was lucky enough to spend a few days trav­el­ling around Chennai (for­merly Madras), in the south-east­ern part of the coun­try. It was very in­ter­est­ing to see how much peo­ple’s lives dif­fer from our life in Europe. This is es­pe­cially true when you move away from big cities like Chennai. My aim was to cap­ture those mo­ments which are part of ev­ery­day life in In­dia, but which are per­haps un­fa­mil­iar to us in the West. The por­trait of the crafts­man [01], the lady making gar­lands [03] and the man preparing for a fes­ti­val [04] are all ex­am­ples of th­ese mo­ments. In­dia’s rich colours also grabbed my at­ten­tion, and I wanted to cap­ture th­ese as well.

In Europe we’re used to cam­eras; some­times we don’t even no­tice if some­one’s tak­ing pic­tures. In In­dia, though, ev­ery­one had a re­ac­tion to my cam­era, which oc­ca­sion­ally made it more dif­fi­cult. It was hard to pre­dict peo­ple’s re­ac­tions. The spon­ta­neous ex­pres­sions I wanted to cap­ture were fleet­ing, giv­ing me only a short time to set up my cam­era. It also meant that I didn’t have a chance for a sec­ond shot.

Re­cently I’ve been us­ing my 35mm f/1.8 lens the most. It makes me think more, change my po­si­tion, get closer or fur­ther away from the sub­ject. All of th­ese are help­ing me to im­prove my skills. I would like to im­prove my com­po­si­tions, and I’m also curious about what the most im­por­tant con­trols are – the ones you need to check be­fore press­ing the shut­ter release.


János, you clearly have a love of por­trai­ture and dif­fer­ent cul­tures, and the in­clu­sion of bright colours works really well. We would sug­gest, how­ever, that you con­cen­trate on the fram­ing of the sub­jects as well as their be­hav­iour. Take note of what’s in­cluded in the back­ground, and try to keep it as sim­ple as pos­si­ble. If you can’t move things in the scene to make it cleaner (and most of the time, you can’t), then re­po­si­tion your­self. You might find that mov­ing af­fects the por­trait and the light isn’t quite right; if that’s the case then try to re­turn at an­other time when the light is bet­ter.

Avoid crop­ping peo­ple’s limbs; it’s bet­ter to step back and in­clude the whole of their body than to chop off an arm or part of a foot (see right). If you need to crop in closer, though, make sure the frame edge does not fall on a joint; land­ing on el­bows, knees and an­kles are usu­ally por­trait-crop­ping no-no’s.

Ex­per­i­ment with dif­fer­ent an­gles, too: get up high, down low or just tilt the cam­era back and forth to change the per­spec­tive. You shouldn’t be able to tell how tall the pho­tog­ra­pher is from their pho­to­graphs.

You can check some set­tings long be­fore you shoot; for ex­am­ple, if you know you want to cap­ture a por­trait with a shal­low depth of field, you could set a wide aper­ture of, say, f/4 in aper­ture-pri­or­ity mode, and then set ISO400 or 800, or even Auto ISO, to en­sure your shut­ter speed is fast enough to shoot hand­held.

Fi­nally, don’t be afraid of eye con­tact. While can­dids can be great, there’s noth­ing like direct eye con­tact to make a por­trait really en­gag­ing. Of course, this means get­ting past that awk­ward mo­ment when you’re first spot­ted, and get­ting to know your sub­ject, be­fore you start shoot­ing.

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