How to take great photos of people

Lesson 9 Module 3

Do you remember National Geographic's famous shot of the 'Afghan girl'?

Even though it's been more than 20 years since Steve McCurry's shot ran on the cover, it's still one of the most memorable photos of all time. In this lesson we're going to see what National Geographic's 'Afghan girl' can teach us about taking great photos of people.

And even if your shot doesn't end up on the cover of NG, you're still guaranteed to elevate even the most ordinary group shot of family or friends into a photo that they'll want to frame on their wall or post to their Facebook profile.

Just keep reading to learn more now.

Focus on the eyes

Can you picture the 'Afghan girl' photo now? Ok great, what stands out the most in that shot?

Her eyes. Those piercing, blue-green eyes and the hypnotic look of fear or pain that lies behind them is what makes this portrait so powerful.

How can you apply what we've learned from one of National Geographic's most iconic photos to your own photography? Focus on your subject's eyes when you're composing your shot—you're guaranteed to make a much more powerful portrait.

Do you remember the 'Rule of Thirds' from Lesson 5? This fundamental rule of good composition is also a great place to start when you're composing your next portrait or group photo.


When you're framing your photo, place the eyes of your subject at the intersection of one of the frame's 'thirds' (if you don't remember exactly what I'm talking about, just click here now to re-read the basics of photo composition in Chapter 5. If you're shooting a group photo, try lining up one of the horizontal 'third' lines across their eyes.

Either way, I can guarantee you'll find that more of your group shots and portraits end up in a frame or gracing someone's Facebook profile.

But good composition is only one part of taking great photos of people so we'll cover another crucial aspect next.

Working with People: Be spontaneous and fun

Let's keep in mind that we're not taking photos of a dragonfly or a mountain range here, we're working with people.

People get bored, uncomfortable, shy, or self-conscious when they get in front of a camera so another fundamental of taking great photos of people is to work quickly and not give them enough time to get self-conscious, bored, or otherwise un-photogenic.


Spontaneous, lively, and fun photos of people don't happen by accident. As a good photographer of people, your job is to make them forget that they're standing in front of a camera so they can go back to looking natural and give you the chance to capture an amazing portrait.

By far the best way to do this is to have your camera set up and ready to go before the people you're planning to take a photo of know the camera is there. This means that you should evaluate the ambient light, set your exposure settings, and decide whether you want to use the flash or not.

That way, once the dreaded camera makes its appearance, you won't give them enough time to get nervous and go 'plastic face' on you. Become familiar with the automatic quick settings on your camera like shutter priority (Tv) and Aperture priority (Av) so that once you pull out the camera you can concentrate on what's happening on your subject's faces instead of last-minute camera setting adjustments.

What can you learn about people photos from Paparazzi?

Ok, I'm not telling you to stalk Britney Spears or get attacked by Russell Crowe at an airport.

Paparazzi are the most obnoxious type of photographers, but there is one lesson we can learn from them about taking photos of people: shoot quickly and take several shots to make sure you capture your subjects at their best.

Have you ever seen tv coverage of a Paparazzi favorite like Britney trying to go to the grocery store or navigate airport security at LAX? It's a photoreactive epileptic's freaking nightmare. Almost like strobe lights at an 80's roller rink, it's amazing that anyone is able to see through all that light.

Now I'm not saying that you should blind your friends and family with a blast of superheated lights from your mini-flash, but you should try shooting a rapid series of shots so that people don't have enough time to get bored or uncomfortable with the camera.


The '1,2,3, CHEEESE!' approach works ok in a lot of situations, but you should also try a few extra clicks of the shutter immediately after the first shot. People blink, look in the wrong direction, or just look plain awkward when they're standing in front of a camera so the less chance you give them for this to happen the better. You'll also give yourself more choices when you're at home and narrowing down the rough edit of photos to the final 'best shots'.

And after all, you're only shooting digital so there's no need to worry about wasting film!

The 'anti-Paparazzi' approach: Turn off the flash for natural looking portraits
The rapid fire, Paparazzi approach can definitely capture that instant when your subject has the perfect expression, but what about the unflattering light?

If you'll think of National Geographic's 'Afghan Girl' photo for a minute, you'll remember that this was shot with natural light and no flash. Because unless you're using a real photography studio and know a bit about off-camera flash, you're guaranteed to stay stuck in the 'snapshot' photo bush leagues if you don't experiment a bit with turning off the flash.


In Lesson 7, we learned about how you can control the basic flash modes on your camera to have a better range of options for your creative effects. As it turns out, turning off your camera's flash can also help you capture more natural and spontaneous portraits and group shots of people.

Think about it this way. If someone is taking a photo of you and you keep getting bombarded and blinded by the flash, are you going feel more or less comfortable?

I'm betting you said less comfortable, and the same situation applies to whoever your taking a photo of.

Imagine you're just taking photos in a rapid sequence, but without the Paparazzi strobe effect. Since point and shoot digital cameras don't even have a shutter, the people you're taking photos of probably won't even know when you're shooting. They're much more likely to have a natural expression on their face and not a plastic 'CHEESE!' smile.

And natural light is also more flattering. It's not as harsh and the shadows not so dark as when you hit your subject with 1000 watts of strobe light. As long as your ambient light is strong enough for you to shoot at the 'Shutter priority' (Tv) mode at 1/60th of a second at ISO 400 to 800 (maximum), you'll be able to bring back amazing natural light portraits every time.

Try placing your subject next to a window during the day. Even if it's sunny outside, the direct sunlight won't actually be on the person's face—instead the indirect light will create a softening effect, filling in shadows smoothly and making the portrait look healthy and natural.

What's next?

I hope you have some Jimmy Buffett music on your playlist because next week we're going to the beach!

We've all seen the amazing photos of perfectly white sand beaches, sapphire lagoons, and swaying green palm trees. The problem is that when most of us get back from the beach there's a bunch of washed-out hazy shots that look like they could have been taken anywhere but the beach.

So I'm going to show you how to bring back the album cover of your very own Jimmy Buffet cd from your next beach trip—see you next week, and don't forget the sun tan lotion!