7 Tips for Photographing People at Public Events

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The best way to get past any fear that you might have of photographing strangers is to make pictures of people at public events. Be it a concert, parade or street festival, people are there to see and be seen.

The reservation that some might have about being photographed by someone that they don’t know seems to go by the wayside when they are part of a crowd. This makes it easier to approach people. They often feel very flattered to be noticed amongst a throng of hundreds or thousands.

But while it becomes easier to approach people, this same situation is not always ideal for making portraits. Here are some 7 tips that can help you contend with some of the frequent challenges of photographing people at a public event.

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Find the Light First

A portrait is only as good as the light that you shoot it under. And when it comes to a public event, there is always an abundance of bad light, especially if you arrive during the middle of the day.

I prefer to look for a spot where there is a nice quality of light. It could be strong directional light in the late afternoon or some diffused light in an area of open shade. Once I find it, I’ll camp out there and look for subjects that will allow me to take advantage it. I will allow the subjects to come to me and once they agree to be photographed, I will move them into that good quality of light.

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Stay Aware of the Background

With so many people milling about, the backgrounds can be incredibly cluttered. So, as well as the quality of the light you should also be looking for as clean a background as you can.

I sometimes find such a background with a the side of a tent at the food court or just a nearby wall. Regardless of what it is, I’m looking to find something clean and simple to help keep the viewer’s attention on my subject. When I can find good light and a clean background, I’m already halfway there.

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Get in Close

Sometimes, there is nothing that you can do with the background. There are people moving around. There are distracting signs or banners behind the subject and you can’t just go up to someone and have them remove it just so that you can make a better picture.

That’s when I move in close and will fill up the frame with the subject’s face. Getting in tight allows me to not only eliminate those distractions, but it also makes the subject’s face the most important thing in the photograph. As I have an affinity for characters, rather than just “pretty” faces, I have frequently used this approach to my advantage.

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Take Advantage of Depth of Field

An effective way to reduce the impact of the background is through the creative use of limited depth of field. By throwing the background out of focus, your sharp subject can appear to pop off the frame for a very beautiful portrait.

To achieve this, I will often use a longer focal length in combination with a moderate to wide aperture (e.g. f5.6, f4, f2.8. I tend to prefer a moderate aperture to help keep most of the face sharp, but I will sometimes use an extremely wide aperture such as f2 or f1.8 if I want to emphasize a smaller area of the face.

A telephoto focal length of 85mm or longer will also help you to achieve that shallow depth of field, but it will also create compression. Compression is the optical effect that makes the background appear that it’s closer to the subject than it actually is. That combined with a shallow depth of field provides a great look to the background.

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Use the Environment

Sometimes, the things behind the subject are not a bad thing. They can actually provide a sense of place and reveal something about the subject. It becomes a way of telling the story of the subject and the happenings around them.

For these shots, I will use a wide angle lens and move to close to my subject. I keep the subject relatively close to the camera so that they are a dominant element in the frame. I will normally compose them off center and use the rest of the frame to include the important elements behind them. I will favor a moderate to small aperture in order to increase my depth of field to keep both my subject and background relatively sharp.

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Take My Picture

When people see you making pictures and taking it seriously, you will often be approached by people to make their photographs. Always take advantage of such opportunities. Some people are not expecting you to say yes, but you should never look a gift horse in the mouth.

If I have found the light and the background, a willing subject may complete the trinity of a good photograph. I will immediately make some photographs. But since most people are mugging for the camera or giving me the V-sign, I will quickly approach them and ask to change the position or body language to help improve the photograph. All the while I am complimenting them for something that I find interesting about them in the hopes of keeping them long enough to make the kind of picture I want.  But there are times when the subject gives you something better than I could have come up with and I just go with it.

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Have Fun

The camera provides you the ability to meet and talk to people that you might not encounter during your normal day. It is a wonderful opportunity to have a name and a story to go along with your images.

Even when my conversations with my subjects only last a few moments, I get to take away more than a good picture, but also a memory of that person and who they were that lives outside of the photograph. I often enjoy sharing those stories as much as the photographs themselves.

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