Shooting People Part 6: Getting Closer

I have had this on hold for far too long.

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four & Part Five

If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough – Robert Capa

One Eye on the Photographer
Yangon, Myanmar

Capa’s truism has been so often repeated it has become a cliché. What is hasn’t done though is to become well enough understood. Too many people still think that what it all boils down to is that you should “fill the frame”, or not leave too much empty space in your photos. These same people are still the ones who recommend long telephoto lenses as the best tools for taking portraits. Really, I think they are wrong on both accounts.

While I don’t really want to focus on technical details, at least some understanding needs to be made of perspective. Many people assume that if you use a telephoto lens and shoot so that the person you are shooting covers a certain proportion of the frame, you will end up with the same photo as if you used a wider angled lens and got close enough so that the person is taking up the same amount of real estate on the photo. This is wrong, and the reason it is wrong is due to perspective. As simply put as I can make this, perspective means that when you are very close to someone, they appear large in the frame (duh!), but while they are very large, things in the background look to be very small. This has everything to do with physically how close you are to the person you are shooting and nothing to do with whether you were using a telephoto lens or not.

Buying Meat
Taipei, Taiwan

To give an example, think of all the cheesy photos you have seen where someone is posed as though he is holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Clearly, the tower is much, much taller than the person holding it up. However, if the photographer and subject stand in the right spots, they can appear equally tall in the photo and can make the cliché work.

Here is a bit of an original take on the cliché.
Photo by Marty Portier, at, licensed under the creative commons.

Now, why does this matter when it comes to taking good photos? This comes down to the almost instinctual way we look at photos. When we see someone in a photo who is really big, relative to something in the background, we know that we are very close to the subject. This is instinctual; we know it even if we are not able to put it into words. Expanding on this, when someone “knows” that they are close to the subject of the photo, they become more involved in what they are seeing.

I will give two pretty strong examples of why I believe that being close is so important in making good photos.

Saigon, Vietnam

Street Shaving
Varanasi, India

The above photos are both documenting a quite similar activity, yet I don’t think there are many who would find the first to be more interesting than the second.  In the second, it is immediately obvious that I was in really close.  People need not understand perspective, think about the size of background relative to foreground objects, or do anything more than just look.  Our visual systems are awfully fine tuned and everyone just “knows” that the second was from in close; that knowledge makes the photos more interesting to most people.  Zooming in even more with the telephoto lens I used in the first shot would not have allowed me to create the same immediacy in the first shot; though changing to a wider angle lens and walking 5 meters forward would have done so.

Pig Plucker
Xindian, Taiwan

There is another reason to move closer, one which is not as often discussed.  It is certainly related, yet I think it is worth discussing on its own.  I believe it is pretty well illustrated in the following photo.

Bit of a Glare
Yangon, Myanmar

Wide angle lenses tend to create more three dimensional looking photographs.  With longer lenses, it is quite easy to have your subject stand out against the background, but shallow DOF, along with the more exaggerated perspective help to create a layered look that some how give more of a front to back feel for the photos taken from in close.

Getting closer and shooting wide takes a little more practice and nerve for newer photographers, but once you learn to do that, you create different looking, great shots.

2 thoughts on “Shooting People Part 6: Getting Closer

  1. Haha, I’ve got a post in the draft stages that covers basically the same thing you said in paragraph 2. Talk about timing!

    I think most photographers who use telephotos for portraits, do so where the subject is only the person and not the surrounding environment. In that case, a tele works better. For shots like these where they are environmental portraits, then a wide-angle is what’s needed.

  2. Pingback: Weekly Links – May 20, 2010 « The Daily Bubble Tea

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