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Photography Jemima Stehli, "Strip No. 5, Dealer", 1999
"Strip No. 5, Dealer", 1999Photography Jemima Stehli, courtesy of Laurence King Publishing

Want to take great photographs of people? Here’s how

There’s a myriad of ways you can train your eye, but it never hurts to have a pro push you in the right direction. Here’s an insider’s guide to shooting great pics

Untrained, self-taught or formally educated: there are many ways to hone your photographic eye, but it never hurts to have a pro push you in the right direction. Step in: photographer, writer and teacher Henry Carroll. Although having graduated with an MA in photography from the Royal College of Art in 2005 Carroll knows that going to art school isn’t the only way in, believing such knowledge should be available to anyone, no matter if you’re knee-deep in tuition fees or not. “A good course will guide you to the bridge, but you then have to cross it on your own,” he says. “You’re on this side, but your true creative voice is on the other. It’s about tapping into your own creative intuition or instinct.” As he celebrates the release of his new book, a handy take home guide full of photography pearlers, aptly titled Read This If You Want To Take Great Photographs of People, the lensman shares his best tips with a nod to greats like Bruce Gilden and Jemima Stehli.

ASSAULT YOUR SUBJECT

“Bruce Gilden’s approach to photographing people on the street stands in complete opposition to Cartier-Bresson’s. With Gilden, it’s less a case of chancing upon a scene and much more about creating it for himself.

Attracted to New York’s oddballs and eccentrics, Gilden pounces on passers-by, hits them with a dizzying flash and snatches their picture like a mugger. That’s why these two characters look like they’ve been captured riding a rollercoaster rather than walking down Fifth Avenue!”

ALLOW YOUR PERSONALITY TO FEED INTO YOUR PORTRAITS

“Some prefer to prey on their unsuspecting subjects from afar – snipers. Others get closer and like to establish some kind of connection – undercover agents. Then there are those who dart in, shoot up close and make off – assassins. 

Gilden thrives on the excitement of taking people by surprise. It’s what gets him up in the morning. It’s what gives him the motivation to keep shooting. Ultimately, it’s what makes his work so individual. By understanding who you are and what makes you tick, you’ll discover your own unique way of photographing others.”

KNOW WHAT BUTTONS TO PUSH

“When asked how they capture revealing or seemingly truthful portraits, photographers often say something like, ‘It’s important that my subjects are relaxed. They must feel comfortable with me.’ That’s all fine and dandy, but there’s another way to break through your subject’s facade.

By employing elaborate techniques – anything from the very subtle to the playful to the borderline cruel – you strip away people’s socially learnt behaviours and expose a more truthful side of their personalities that they usually repress.”

PORTRAITURE IS NOT ALWAYS A CASE OF MAKING YOUR SUBJECT FEEL COMFORTABLE

“For her series ‘Alina’, Bettina von Zwehl made women sit in a pitch-black room and listen to ‘Für Alina’, a highly emotive piece of classical music. During the sitting, von Zwehl would unexpectedly fire a blinding flash and capture the portrait. The flash fired so quickly that the subjects didn’t have time to react, meaning they were recorded in a state of deep, solitary contemplation. In many respects, they were still alone in the dark.

To be a great portrait photographer – especially if you like posed portraits – you have to be a master of manipulation. You need to know how to interact with your subject to get exactly what you want.”

TRUST YOUR ‘VISUAL INSTINCT’

“Composition isn’t about making photographs that look right. It’s about making photographs that feel right. There are ‘rules’ – you probably know most of them – but they’re not actually ‘rules’. They’re more like guidelines which you’re free to follow or completely ignore.

In fact, when your subject is as diverse as people, there’s only one rule you need to follow – trust your visual instinct. Who are you photographing? What’s their mood? What’s your mood? Where is the shoot taking place and what’s going on around you? These are the things to feed off.”

LISTEN TO WHAT YOUR GUT IS TELLING YOU ABOUT YOUR SUBJECT AND THE SITUATION

“Sometimes your visual instinct will lead you to a composition that does follow clear-cut rules. Other times it will lead you to something where the rules simply do not apply. Both outcomes can be equally powerful, as long as you let your gut feeling lead you there.”

ASK, WHO IS CALLING THE SHOTS?

“For her series ‘Strip’, Jemima Stehli invited influential male figures from the art world in to her studio where she would then undress. As she removed her clothes the men took pictures. But in so doing, they were also photographing themselves, resulting in an uneasy oscillation of power and control.

This ‘Dealer’ sits aggressively defiant with his black suit, clenched fists and spread legs. But the moisture on his brow and the fact that he’s chosen to take the picture when his face is partially hidden tell a different story.”

THE PHOTOGRAPHY STUDIO IS THE ULTIMATE ARENA TO EXERCISE YOUR ABSOLUTE CONTROL

“Rather than just a convenient location to take pictures, the studio is a place where you’re able to create something from scratch in a very controlled environment. Lights, props, backdrops and models – they can all be exactly the way you want. In the eyes of your subject, this instantly puts you in control.

Whether they liked it or not, the men in Stehli’s portraits were forced to walk into her world on her terms. She may be the one without any clothes, but who do you think was calling the shots?”