My 25 years of traveling the back roads of the world have led to countless adventures, experiences and stories from the array of characters I’ve met along the way. As a documentary photographer, I take pictures of people, landscapes, nature abstracts, architecture and wildlife. I enjoy exploring remote places where my mind can run fast and free with the constant visual stimulation I experience from dawn to dusk. I’m always seeking something new and different. But it’s the colorful individuals I encounter and photograph of whom I have the fondest memories.
My goal has always been to make an image that captures a person’s individual spirit. In order to achieve this, I have learned over the years that it helps to spend some time getting to know my subjects. The cooperation and rapport that’s established between photographer and subject are critical.
I love connecting with people from other cultures, and the camera is a tool that allows me to get closer to those I want to learn more about. By taking it slowly and immersing yourself in the landscape, you’ll be able to experience these people’s surroundings. The strength in photographing people is in your ability to work in intimate situations. A friendly smile and eye contact are the initial keys. Engaging in conversation and listening to people’s stories before shooting photos is advantageous.
Whether I’m driving on back roads or walking to streets of small towns, I’m always looking for faces that have particular character traits– faces that will translate to film in a way that gives the viewer an emotional response. Then I approach my subject and begin conversation. By seeing the camera around my neck, they know immediately that I’m a photographer. I explain my goals and quickly begin planning my portrait.
In his travels, Daryl Hawk is always looking for faces with interesting character traits– such as the expressive face of this miner– which translate into film in a way that will give the viewer an emotional response.
One of the first things I do is to evaluate the lighting. Overcast days are great for producing soft, diffuse light, which is generally the most flattering for portraiture. The warm light of early morning or later afternoon is best. Bright, sunny days are more challenging. Photographing a person in the middle of a sunny day requires that you find a shady spot where you can position your subject.
While I strive to use natural light exclusively, fill-flash is effective when I want to add a touch of light and perhaps bring out a little more detail in my subject’s face. It’s imperative that the fill-flash is diffued so that it’s not overpowering. Something magical takes place when light, timing, great expressions and composition all come together instantaneously.
Although it doesn’t need to be shadowless, soft light is the best light for photographing people.
Above: A little fill-flash was used to add some subtle illumination to this man’s face.
Above right: Open shade always provides a soft, flattering light source.
Right: In addition to using a soft light source, sometimes you’ll want to back away from your subject to show a little bit of the surroundings.
Photography should be fun and therefore, our camera equipment should be tools that allow us to fully enjoy our time in the field. While carrying every lens, filter, and camera that you own may provide you with a wealth of choices, it can stifle creativity when the focus becomes the equipment, rather than the vision of your finished photograph.
My Nikon FMs are always loaded and ready to shoot. Your lens choice is a matter of photographic priorities. My two workhorse lenses for portraiture are a 24mm wide-angle and an 85mm moderate telephoto. The 85mm lens is great for close-up views of faces or upper-body photos. I prefer not to crowd my subject while working on various expressions and poses. I focus on the person’s eye nearest the camera.
I love using the 24mm lens for environmental portraits or group shots. Often when I’m traveling, I encounter a working or living environment so visually interesting that I want to incorporate it into the composition of the portrait. The idea is to portray not only the individual, but also what’s important to this person’s life. It can be a farmer working with a plow horse, a gardener planting her flowers, or a fisherman repairing a lobster trap.
When including a person’s environment, it’s important to pay attention to the background and be sure that it doesn’t compare with the subject or distract in any way. Take your time and avoid including unwanted elements. Also, you may want to shoot both vertically and horizontally for more variety in your images.
After you determine your lighting and background, look through the viewfinder and wait for your subjects to assume different poses. In order to elicit great expressions and help them relax, I talk to my subjects while I photograph them. I prefer to let them fall into their own poses and direct them a little only when I feel it’s absolutely necessary. Judt the idea that I want to take their picture will often lead to laughter and natural smiles.
A photo gains some dimension when you utilize a place where the subject lives, works or plays as the setting for the portrait. Just make sure the background makes a statement about the subject, and doesn’t distract from him/her.
Developing a rapport with your subjects takes time, but it’s worthwhile in order to capture relaxed, informal portraits.
Developing a photographic vision takes time and can only be enhanced by experience. As long as you have a real passion for photographing people, your work will continue to get stronger every year. I love becoming a part of a world with various cultures and lifestyles. It’s out of these experiences that your photographs will come. You must first be moved by what you’re looking at and then trust your instincts about seeing the world differently.
Allow your unique way of seeing what deeply moves you to come through– let your heart be your eyes.