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