Free­man on...

When peo­ple are your sub­ject, it’s worth try­ing to cap­ture the mo­ments when they re­veal some­thing of them­selves

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The fine art of cap­tur­ing ges­ture and ex­pres­sion

When hu­man be­ings be­come the main fo­cus of a shot, the op­por­tu­ni­ties and the ideal mo­ments take a very spe­cific shift. We’re deal­ing here with the most in­ter­est­ing class of sub­ject for pho­tog­ra­phy on the planet – po­ten­tially. There’s au­to­mat­i­cally a dual re­sponse from view­ers: on the one hand we’re all in­ter­ested in what other peo­ple might be up to, but on the other hand we’re all very, very fa­mil­iar with or­di­nary life and tend to pass it over in favour of the dif­fer­ent.

Al­most with­out ex­cep­tion, peo­ple in front of the cam­era be­come in­ter­est­ing and worth­while pho­tograph­ing when they move and ex­press them­selves in par­tic­u­lar ways. Flat ex­pres­sions, slumped pos­tures and un­ex­cep­tional move­ments just do not cut it in pho­tog­ra­phy. This should come as no sur­prise, be­cause if you watch other peo­ple’s be­hav­iour, that or­di­nar­i­ness is the de­fault, so why would it be worth a photo? That’s right, it isn’t, which is where at­ten­tion to mo­ment comes in. Say that you have sub­ject in front of you, and they’re likely to be there for a minute or two. It could be a stu­dio ses­sion or can­did shoot­ing in the street, with di­rec­tion or with­out. Sub­ject, light­ing and com­po­si­tion alone will just pro­duce a ser­vice­able im­age. To be spe­cial, you would need to wait for a ges­ture or ex­pres­sion that lifts it above the or­di­nary. And if that doesn’t hap­pen, at some point you have to move on.

Per­haps the most im­por­tant thing of all to re­mem­ber is that the mo­ment you choose to cap­ture that ex­presses some char­ac­ter in the per­son you’re pho­tograph­ing is your in­ter­pre­ta­tion, not nec­es­sar­ily truth­ful or rep­re­sen­ta­tive or fair. The great Richard Ave­don, ex­plain­ing why he used a gen­eral flood of light in his portraiture, said that it was so the sub­ject could move freely, “So that I can get to them, to the ex­pres­sion they make, so that they are free to do or ex­press some­thing which is the way I feel.” The point of the last few words be­ing, as he also wrote, “My por­traits are more about me than they are about the peo­ple I pho­to­graph.”

Tea pick­ing in Kawane, Ja­pan. The hand ges­ture, and tea leaf stick­ing to the thumb, are what make the pic­ture come alive

Our glo­be­trot­ting Con­trib­u­tor at Large, renowned pho­tog­ra­pher and pro­lific au­thor Michael Free­man, presents a monthly mas­ter­class that’s ex­clu­sive to

N-Photo. Michael has pub­lished dozens of books on pho­tog­ra­phy, in­clud­ing the best­selling Per­fec­tEx­po­sure.

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