How to shoot people

In Communicate, Dubai, Journalism, Photography, Published journalism on November 30, 2010 at 1:01 pm

National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry tells Communicate – and others – how to produce a presentable portrait

Originally published in Communicate, July 2010

Steve McCurry, the American photographer famed for his 1984 National Geographic cover image of an Afghan refugee girl, came to Dubai last month as one of the speakers in the Bold Talks symposium, and to run a photography workshop the next day. Keen to improve our ability to take haunting images of Pashtun waifs and marketing managers alike, Communicate seized the office camera and went along to his class.

Communicate, as represented by its editor, is a shutterbug on holiday, and is seldom far from its point-and-shoot digital camera. We have taken photography courses at university, but those largely involved getting to grips with a dark room, with little guidance on what to do behind the lens. So we were keen to find out how to take portraits as strong and haunting as McCurry’s.

We join a class of around 30 students – possibly a tad too many for the degree of one-on-one coaching we hoped for, but still small enough for most to have their work critiqued by McCurry. Many have brought along a selection of their own images, and McCurry starts off the program by critiquing these portfolios.

Communicate’s fellow attendees cover a broad spectrum – from strict amateurs to creatives who dabble to occasional part-timers to fully fledged pros. All want to better themselves, and hope to pick up some McCurry magic.

Luckily, it turns out that being an ace photographer is pretty simple. In theory, at least. McCurry explains as much in bits and pieces as he quietly scrolls through the work of the assembled class on a large television screen.

That is the format: McCurry runs through some portfolios, then he shows us some of his own images and explains how they came about, all the while taking questions about lenses, f-stops, lighting and post-production. After lunch, and a discussion of other photographers McCurry admires, we are sent out to take pictures of people around Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC), the home of the Empty Quarter art gallery hosting the workshop.

SNAPPING POINT. The class mills around snapping one another. When one person finds a good, moodily lit alcove, the other students flock over. When McCurry shoots one of his disciples, others dive in beside, behind and under the master to see how their cameras can handle the ambiance. And McCurry takes photos of us (Communicate can now send its mum a Steve McCurry original of her son, albeit slightly blurry as we’ve not set up the Communicamera for the diminished light McCurry poses us in) and we take photos of him. Meanwhile, DIFC security guards, long tasked with preventing photography on the premises, hover anxiously but impotently.

After our shooting spree, we return to the gallery to wait, sit around, chat, and wait some more as our images and McCurry’s transfer to a computer for an on-screen post-mortem. Communicate takes notes.

It’s both reassuring (we can do this) and disheartening (how come he can do this and we can’t) to find that McCurry’s advice on taking portraits is pretty simple. For a start, he no longer uses manual settings. “With digital, I shoot everything on automatic,” he says. “I let the camera do all the work.”
“Seriously,” he adds when the students express surprise, “The camera can determine the right settings much faster than I can, much more accurately than I can.”

Using aperture- or shutter-priority modes gives excellent results, says McCurry, although he will double-check the camera’s histogram, the chart on high-end cameras that shows whether highlights and shadows have been properly lit. Forsaking the technicalities allows him to focus on focus, which he calls “my main concern – apart from exposure, obviously.” He adds, “What I’m trying to create is shapes, or some kind of composition.” He is unconcerned by depth of field.

When asked what make of camera he prefers (he uses a Nikon and a Hasselblad), McCurry gives the familiar photographers’ reply that it is the person rather than the camera that is important.

And he seldom uses either flash or a tripod. “Cameras now can shoot at 10,000 or 15,000 ISO and make just gorgeous pictures, almost in total darkness,” he says.

LIGHT WORK. While he’s running through his class’s collective body of work, McCurry persistently points out three common weaknesses : cropping, backgrounds and lighting.

“I would be careful about cutting off people’s foreheads,” he says of one student’s closely cropped shots. “It wouldn’t be my first idea to cut off somebody’s head; I think it’s better to keep the whole head.”

Having pointed out numerous trees, stains, shadows and shapes emerging from the heads of students’ subjects, McCurry shows a photograph he shot in Srinagar, Kashmir, of a boat being paddled on a lake. He spent a week and a half sitting at the back of it waiting for “the right feel, the right situation,” when the background was perfect. In general, backgrounds should be as clean and free from distraction as possible. This is one of the reasons that many of McCurry’s portraits are against plain, dark backdrops.

The other reason is that he regularly takes his subjects into darkened doorways. But not in a sinister way – he does it for the light. “It looks like the light was a bit bright,” McCurry tells one student. To another, he says, “This probably isn’t the best time to shoot.” He says another shot is “too bright.” It’s a common complaint. Photographers like mornings and evenings, and McCurry is no exception. In the middle of the day, he tends to move his subjects to more suitable locations inside alcoves, tents and other shelters, where light stops being vertical sunshine, coming from above and casting harsh shadows under the eyes of subjects, instead hitting them horizontally and evenly.

DARK SECRETS. “From about 9am to 3pm I’m in these dark corners, these dark situations, and after 4pm I’ll go back outside again,” says McCurry. “My day starts at dawn; I’m out on the street till 8.30am or so. Then I take a break, go and work inside, take another break for lunch and then go and work inside again until 3pm or 4pm, then go outside again, at maybe 5pm when the light’s soft.”

He goes so far as to say, “My location is determined by the light; all things being equal I’m looking to find good light situations and then, inside of that, find my subject.”

The Afghan Girl was shot using a 105mm portrait lens, and members of the workshop ask McCurry what lens he prefers to use for people shots. His answer is typically non-technical: “I just use a 28-to-70mm,” he says. “I’ve stopped using the 105mm and so on; I’m very lazy.”

He’ll even use such a standard zoom lens for major commissions. “I did a job a couple of years ago,” he says. “It was a major job for a major client, and I took every picture with that lens. The assignment was worth a quarter of a million dollars.”

Many photographs can benefit from some work in the digital darkroom, says McCurry to one student who suggests that altering his files beyond rudimentary adjustment of levels is untrue to the image. “I don’t agree with that, because I think your eye is much more sensitive and can do all sorts of wonderful things that the camera can’t,” says McCurry.

“Every photographer since the dawn of man – with the exception of a few – has improved his work,” he adds. “I don’t think it’s a question of ethics. If I am looking at my raw file [the unprocessed image the camera captures], I try to get back to what I thought I remembered seeing.”

REALITY CHECK. Having said that, “In journalism there’s only so far you can go in post-production,” says McCurry. For magazines and newspapers, you can’t make an image represent something that didn’t exist. And the same goes for orchestrating photographs. “In the ethics of documentary photography, you’re not supposed to stage people. If you’re supposed to be practicing journalism then you’re supposed to be photographing things as they are; you’re not supposed to be photographing things as you think they ought to be. If you’re reading a magazine or newspaper, you’re thinking what you are looking at is real and not a photographer’s fantasy.”

Communicate asks McCurry what his top piece of advice is for taking a good portrait. His answer: “Just to try and have the subject be relaxed and feelcomfortable, not to feel self-conscious or awkward. And just to get to a place where everything seems very normal. It’s as simple as that.”

Bearing this in mind, we head out with the rest of the class to practice what we’ve learned. Luckily for Communicate, we manage to tag along with a professional photographer Darrin James. We take some blurry shots of him with the Communicamera, then, forlornly, wonder where it all went wrong.

James takes pity on us and hands us his top-end Canon. As he is now standing with his back to a black wall, we decide to show off our technical knowledge, mutter something about exposure compensation, and fiddle with some settings. Since James is wearing a black t-shirt, we end up taking a photo of what looks like his disembodied head.

Luckily, when McCurry looks over the class’s photos and comes to our shot, he simply mutters, “Nice.” We blush, and try to pretend it was what we intended.

Kindly, James doesn’t tell on us. He has produced an instant portfolio of much better shots. But, then again, he is a professional.

And he teaches us one new trick when he’s putting his camera away. In his bag is a bottle. “This is the most important thing in a wedding photographer’s bag,” he tells us. Lens cleaner? No. Scotch? No. It’s deodorant. “It’s a sweaty job,” he says. “And you can reek by the end of it.”

McCurry has taught us that taking iconic photographs like his is technically very easy. The magic is the bit that can’t be taught. We may not be ready to capture a National Geographic cover shot yet, no matter how much we stop down our telephoto and increase our dynamic range. But at least we know how to make a disembodied head look good by keeping the light horizontal. And we’ve learned some more ways to make sure that neither our photos nor the photographer stink.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: