Photographing People Part IV: Payment and Model Releases

In this photographing people series, I’ve discussed the golden rule, the approach, and putting your subject at ease. Now I’ll cover the sometimes sticky subject of payment and the hot topic of model releases.

To Pay or Not to Pay

We’ve all come across the situation where a very photogenic local is perfectly happy to pose for a photograph….in exchange for money. To me, these situations are transactions rather than interactions.

This isn’t to say that I don’t “pay” people in other ways, the most important of which is to give respect. Sharing an image on the back of my camera is a nice way to show people what I am seeing in them. As often as possible I get contact information so that I can send copies of images to people. And I do follow through on my promises, even if it takes me a year.

Also, if I’m photographing in a market, for example, I’ll buy something small from the vendors I’m photographing because I need to eat or pick up a few souvenirs anyway. I want people to have a favorable interaction with me and hopefully this will set a good precedent for whoever comes along next with a camera.

Picture of women at their sewing stall in Takoradi

I found that people in Ghana often refused to have their photo taken or alternatively wanted to be paid. These women at a stall in the Takoradi Market Circle first had asked for money, but after I put my camera down and chatted with them for a while they then allowed me to photograph.  They had realized I didn’t simply want a snapshot, I actually wanted to get to know them. I later mailed a packet of photos to Ghana for them.

Model Releases

One of the most frequently asked questions I get when I’m teaching is

Picture of people at Afro's Chicken in Durban

It isn’t practical to get releases from everyone in many of the shots I take, like in this scene at Afro’s Chicken in Durban, South Africa.

about model releases. Do you need to get a model release? Well, be warned, I am no lawyer, but for editorial work (newspapers and magazines) you do not need a model release, nor for personal portfolios. You do need a model release (and usually property releases) for any image that you hope to use for advertising or commercial work.

Although not required for my work, I do try to get releases when I can. I’ve found that in situations where I have time and there aren’t too many people involved, there is a natural time to ask for a release to be signed. This also gives me the opportunity to get people’s contact info so that I can send them a few photos. I carry around a stack of model releases binder-clipped together, but have also used an app on my phone called Easy Release.

Picture of two South African women in Durban

I spent some time making pictures of these two friends (who were in the foreground of the above shot) and they were willing to sign model releases. When I later found out that the group shot would run in Traveler magazine, I was able to share with them the exciting news.

For the last series in this post, I’ll resurface the subject of gear and give the telephoto lens its just deserts.

Portrait of a man on Chitemba Beach in Malawi.

Photographing People Part II: It’s All in the Approach

In my first post on photographing people I discussed what kind of lens I usually use and what my general philosophy is on approaching strangers. Today I’ll cover when I ask for permission, how to communicate with body language, and the approach.

To Ask or Not to Ask….Permission

In most situations where I’m photographing people, if possible I prefer to ask permission (verbally or non verbally). Now this doesn’t mean I stop everybody who passes in front of my lens, but it is useful when I know I want to spend time making pictures of somebody. And of course there are moments that would be missed if I stopped to ask permission, so I take the picture! Then if I’d like to continue to shoot, I’ll ask permission.

People will occasionally tell me no, which is always disappointing, but I move on. I figure that if someone isn’t up for it, I won’t make a good picture anyway.

Two couples outside of a crepe stand in Paris

When I walked pass this crepe stand in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris, I had to click my shutter immediately or the moment between the couple on the right would’ve vanished.

Body Language

Permission doesn’t need to be verbal and in fact, it can’t be if there isn’t a shared language. This is where a simple smile or a point to the camera works wonders. Or I’ll start shooting, as with the situation in the photo above, and when I’m noticed I lower my camera and give a smile or wave. I’ve gotten very few ambiguous answers with these techniques. It is usually as clear as night and day whether somebody is keen for their photo to be taken.

Krista Rossow and South African women on beach in Kwa-Zulu Natal.

Although we didn’t share a language in this “discussion,” these South African women understood that I wanted to take their photos while I was on assignment in Kwa-Zulu Natal and later delighted in hamming in front of my lens. Photo by George W. Stone.

The Approach

I find that if I go into a situation nervous and unsure, people can sense the unease in my approach and will react similarly. I’m not always in the right state when approaching strangers, so I might need to give myself a pep talk. It is uncanny how people pick up on unspoken cues.

Portrait of a young monk studying at a monastery in Myanmar.

While photographing at this monastery in the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar, I moved quietly, watched with interest, made eye contact, and exchanged smiles.

In the upcoming posts I’ll cover putting your subject at ease, model releases and paying for photographs, lens choice, and much more. Please leave your own tips on photographing people in the comments below.

People dancing in front of the Marseille Cathedral at sunset.

Photographing People Part I: Gear and the Golden Rule

Photographing a stranger can instill terror in some photographers. Ten years ago I was one of those photographers. It took the simple act of watching a friend ask to take a stranger’s picture (and the stranger saying yes) that made me realize how easy it could be….I just needed to ask. Since that epiphany I’ve come to love taking photos of people.

In this post and the series to follow, I’ll be discussing the kind of people photography that I love to shoot. It is closer to street photography than it is to traditional portrait photography; a mix of the two that involves meeting strangers, making friends, and hopefully coming away with a good picture.

These posts are for photographers already comfortable at approaching strangers and especially for those of you who haven’t photographed people before but want to try. I know this kind of photography isn’t for everyone, but if it tickles your curiosity, I encourage you to try taking a photo of a stranger.

Gear: Wide or Long?

When I write about photographing people in these posts, unless mentioned, I’m exclusively referring to situations where I’m using a wide-angle lens and am close to my subject (from a few feet to sometimes even inches away). I’ve not only come to love the interaction gained by getting closer, but I like the way wide-angle images make the viewer actually feel like they are in the situation themselves.

Wide-angle shot of people at an outdoor bar in Marseille, France.

Don’t you feel like you can almost hear the conversation, the laughter, and the buzz? This photo takes you straight to a chill evening in Marseille, France. As a photographer I achieved that effect by actually being close to the subjects and using a wide-angle lens.

Telephoto lenses are great for getting the subject closer in the frame. They can make beautiful portraits that soften the background or can be used to isolate a subject in busy scenes. But when photographers are using a telephoto lens as a crutch because they are too afraid to actually get themselves closer to the subject, then I’m no longer a fan of these kinds of lenses. Please don’t think that the person across the street won’t notice a huge lens pointed in their direction! I’ll discuss more uses for long lenses in people photography in another post, but for now let’s pull out the wide-angle and get closer.

Telephoto shot of people collecting debris on a Hawaiian beach.

A telephoto lens is useful for compressing space and isolating an individual like in this image taken at 200mm in Hawaii during a beach clean-up during my voyage with Semester at Sea.

The Golden Rule

My philosophy with taking pictures of people is as simple as the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I figure that if someone were taking a photo of me I’d at least like to know why. And to dovetail with the sentiment above, it is much easier for someone to react suspiciously and act uncomfortably when a long lens is aimed at them rather than by being close enough to say hello.

Assuming we have a shared language, I’ll tell people what interests me in taking their picture, whether that is the colors or clothes they are wearing, the light they are standing in, or the interesting thing they are doing. Also consider telling people what the photos are for. I often have the reason that I’m working on a travel story, but it can just as easily be to build my portfolio or work on my people photography. The key here is to be genuine.

Diptych of people photos from San Francisco

While on assignment in San Francisco, I knew I wanted to photograph both of these people the moment I saw them. Although the shot on the left is taken at 70mm from some distance, I had already spoken with the woman so she knew what I was doing. When this man on the right crossed my path at a food truck event at Fort Mason, I chased him down and told him how fabulous he looked with all of his colors and patterns. Then I took this portrait at 50mm on my 24-70mm lens.

In the coming posts I’ll cover how I approach people, putting your subject at ease, model releases and paying for photographs, lens choice, and much more. Please leave your own tips on photographing people in the comments below.

Vieux Port in Marseille

On Newsstands: Paris & Marseille in Virtuoso Life

Last September I was on my way to visited my talented writer friend in the south of France and was lucky enough to receive two assignments for Virtuoso Life in Paris and Marseille.

In Paris I meandered through the old streets of the Marais neighborhood, photographing beautiful shops and meeting talented designers. In Marseille, I ensconced myself in the old neighborhood of the Panier. Even though I was in the middle of the second largest city in France, I felt transported to another world where old men still played pétanque by the port, laundry was strung out to dry, and every shop was cute as a button.

The stories are both out in the January/February 2015 issue of the magazine, which you can find digitally here.

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