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Approach or Steal your images?

Pro-Photography Tips & Tricks

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  • I would like to bring up an issue of principle, which is connected to photographing people and portraits. One that every photographer has a different opinion and personal way about doing: Do I, as a documentary photographer, need to approach and ask the permission of my subject of photography to take their photograph, or do I "steal" the desired image without them knowing about me doing so?

    I’d like to bring up an issue of principle, one that is connected to photographing people and portraits. An issue on which every photographer seems to have a different opinion and a personal way of dealing with. Here’s a question. Do I, as a documentary photographer need to approach and ask permission people to take their photo? Or do I “steal” the desired image without them knowing it?

    The biggest advantage when we take a photo without our subject knowing about it is -Authenticity. When a person doesn't know he's being photographed, he acts naturally, doesn't react upon us as photographers and doesn't feel the need to impress. He acts exactly how he would if we didn't notice him at all. In this article, I use the verb "steal" for a reason. When we "steal" a shot, we are in an unpleasant situation. If we take a photo without our subject's knowledge, it restricts us from moving freely and makes it difficult to change lenses from fear that we will be noticed. What if the person notices us, what do we do then? Approach him? Quickly leave the place and by doing so let the photo we wanted go? For those who look for total authenticity, there is no better method than this. It does, however, have it's disadvantages - even risks - that we have to take into our consideration.

    The biggest advantage we (the photographers) have when taking photos without our subject knowing is - authenticity. When a person doesn’t know that they’re being photographed, they tend to act naturally and in their own skin, they don’t react to the photographer in front of them, and they definitely don’t feel the need to impress. They act exactly how they should in their given environment. In this post, I use the verb ‘steal’ for a reason. When we ‘steal’ a shot, we are in an unpleasant situation. From a technical side, it restricts us from moving freely, making it difficult to change lenses or adjusting our gear and camera settings. We have a constant fear of losing a moment or even worse, being ‘caught’ by the people we photograph. What if the person “catches” us? What do we do then? Approach them? Walk away? Either way, it makes it very uncomfortable for both sides (unless you’re a super ninja). But for those those who look for total authenticity, then there is no better method than this. However, it does have it’s disadvantages - even risks at times - that we have to take into consideration.

    I always ask people for permission when taking their photographs, and I don’t think I'm really losing anything by doing so. Next time when you ask someone to be photographed and you get their approval, try this: instead of taking one or two pictures and leaving, ask to stay near them for a while and take some more photos. In the beginning the people you photograph will not act naturally and they will definitely react to your presence as a photographer. For them, their daily routine has been hampered. Perhaps you’ll be lucky and they’ll love the attention and the "ego boost" from the fact that someone wants to photograph them. Or maybe they'll be trying to figure out what it is that is so special about them that you had to approach them. Either way, you'll find yourself stumbling into a block that hides that magical something you wanted in your photo in the first place. Many photographers will find themselves in despair during this step, they will leave the situation and miss the amazing opportunity that usually happens just about 3-4 minutes afterwards. What I mean is, after you take a few photos, your subject calms down, those who were embarrassed understand that it's not that bad, and those who were initially excited, get the satisfaction from the attention and calm down as well. From that moment forth, and during the time you choose to stay around them, they will pay less and less attention to you and your camera, they will go back to their daily routine and just from that, you will get an amazing thing out of them - intimacy. Your subjects will be comfortable with your presence and allow you to move freely around them. You can change lenses as many times as your heart desires, you can try different angles and you can move around in order to catch them in the best possible light.  The achievement of intimacy while working with people and especially in portrait photography is the key in making a good photograph. An image that catches the eye and pulls the viewer deeper inside it.

    For me, my story of Bata illustrates the advantage of approaching and asking for permission. I met her in a small village named Tsagaan Nuur which is located near the Russian border in northern Mongolia. Bata was responsible for the public showers of the village and on that particular day, she opened it for me and a group of tourists that came with me. Due to my un-ending luck, I was the last one in line for the showers but that opened up an opportunity, as me and Bata had some quality time together. I pulled out the camera from my bag and asked "photo?" to which she nodded with approval, and I shot the first image.

    MON 1050
    From that picture I learned two important things: first, that I had great lighting in that shower-house, as the window from the left side of the picture beautifully lighted Bata and the shower room and I had an extra window in the back room giving me a great back-lighting.

    Secondly, and the most important one, was Bata - she didn't feel comfortable in that situation of being photographed. Her entire body expression told me she felt uncomfortable and shy. Although I did not put my camera back into my bag, I did slow down - I started photographing Bata from afar and in a slower pace in order to make her think that I was busier with my camera than I was with her.

    The second image was taken in the other room. Bata's work was simple: She filled a small jar with water, came up with it to the floor above the showers and spilled the water into containers that streamed the warm water to different sections of the shower rooms.

    MON 1034 copy

    In this picture you see Bata filling the small jar with water, next to her -two big pots, wooden walls of the chalet, a filter and a knife on the wall. In the shower room just beside it there is a sling and a hanging towel. All the ingredients of the story assembled but there was still something missing. I felt like I had too many details in the picture and I was losing the main point of the story – Bata herself. I changed to a narrower lens (50mm) and shot another photo.

    MON 1041 copy

    That's more like it: here, we have Bata, she’s filling in the water , the wooden wall serve as a simple and pleasant background, and the light is penetrating through the chalet window, illuminating Bata's face perfectly. Still, I felt that there was something missing. Bata was still not feeling comfortable with me shooting her. She hadn’t opened up to me yet. From that moment I understood that I had found the frame and composition I had been looking for, and now all I had to achieve was intimacy in order to make this image more interesting. I sat there for a while. Bata was moving about quickly, trying not to look at me or the camera, filling the water in the jar, and going up to the second floor to pour the water into the different shower sections. This action repeated itself again and again, and every time Bata passed by me to refill the jar with water I took a few pictures without moving too much - trying to get Bata more used to me. This continued for a while until finally, it happened: I got the look I wanted from her , but was so afraid to ask for.

    MON 1043 copy

    When her look told me "You're still here?", I felt like I found my intimacy with Bata, a personal moment between us. She finally got used to me sitting there every time she went back to refill. If I hadn’t asked for her permission to take her photo, the look would have been probably less comfortable and inviting . The fact that I asked her permission to photograph her, allowed me to search and capture that particular moment. Her approval allowed me to comfortably choose the accurate angle i needed, to change my lenses without being afraid that it would ruin the shoot and the most important thing: to get Bata used to me thus opening up to me and creating a picture with intimacy which in my opinion, and I hope you will agree with me, is the most interesting picture out of all the other pictures of Bata.

    Don’t let the fear of being hearing "No" prevent you from achieving better photographs. You might not know it, but most of the people will be willing to have their picture taken or even agree to it just because they’re not bothered by it. And most of them will be even glad to help you, you just need to ask. Even if you don’t know the language you can still find a way.

    Remember, that creating a connection and intimacy with people is the main key for a quality photograph and of pulling off a great portrait. Try, dare - you won't regret it!
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