Photography is all about time. It's the only visual art that is able to hold a single moment and fix it for our lasting consideration. To make that happen we as photographers must be keenly aware of both the slice of time that we are capturing and the all the time which leads up to that important moment. To do this well we must look into the future.
I'm serious here. Whether it's knowing that eventually the sun will break through the clouds to add some drama to a landscape, that your pet cat will stretch and yawn, or that the fellow with the jaunty hat will look up and the sunlight will reveal his eyes, to get many moments you have to be looking into the future to know where to be at the right time to produce the photo that you want. How far into the future is a variable, maybe seconds or maybe days or years, but it is about prediction. I'm going to focus on just photographing people in a street and documentary fashion for this article, sorry landscape and astro dudes. Here we go.
I think that all good people photographers are excellent at reading people. In some way we are all amateur psychologists and sociologists in our love, interest, and dedication to understanding people and their inner workings. When we first encounter a person what we initially can tell about them comes largely from their body language. Their motions and the energy that they give off tells us so much if we just pay attention. With this we can see from quite a distance what is going on with them and it can tell us if there is a photo possibility beyond simply using light and composition.
In the following photo I was looking about and noticed these two ladies sitting and chatting all by themselves. Even though they were a ways away I could tell by they way that they sat, gestured, and looked at each other that they were old friends. There was an intimacy. I knew that the one with the glasses was leading their conversation and that she was going to do something physical that would add to the composition and say something about their relationship. I watched from a distance and noted the way that the conversation was going just from their body language and knew that it was building to something. Seconds later she leaned in to maybe tell a secret or emphasize a point and that's when I got this:
People talk a lot, in case you haven't noticed. So don't just use your eyes when hunting for photos but listen as well to what we are saying. It will often give you insight as to what people are doing, feeling, and thinking so that you can predict their future actions leading to possible moments to capture.
The light was going down, this lady was standing at the edge of a shadow and was on the phone. She was in a great mood and was hearing some sort of funny story from the person on the other end. She giggled a few times and I could tell that it was building up to a punch line of some kind. When the big laugh came I was able to catch her expression because I knew that it was coming.
Wait a Minute
Time is a constant stressor. Often when we are out making photos we seem to be in a hurry to get to the next shot or the next photo opportunity. Slow down and remember that time is actually our friend if we let it work for us. People are always in motion, be they small or large movements, and they will eventually have to move. Try to mentally put yourself in their position. That can help you figure out their most likely next move. Will they turn and walk down the hall giving you a necessary silhouette indicating a mysterious presence in the frame? Will the young couple on the park bench lean in for a kiss? Even if it is a small thing it can transform your composition. But we have to be willing to wait for it to happen.
I saw this scene with all the graphical elements and initially the woman was facing away from me. Her black outfit against the dark of night made her blond hair just a shape and the rest of her disappear. It was by itself an interesting but totally abstract frame. I shot that but knew that in a few seconds she was going to turn around if only to reenter the building. Maybe one minute later she turned and with that the frame went from abstract to person in graphics. If the scene has potential don't just wander past. Wait to see what develops especially if you can predict that the person will do even the simplest thing to better the frame.
Look for Patterns
People and their actions are not as seemingly random as we may believe. We all tend to have repetitive actions both in the course of our day, personal routines, as well as smaller ones that we may not be aware of. Especially if someone is working they will have a specific set of motions that they have to do. If you see something happen twice then you can be certain that it will happen again. The trick is to find something interesting to do with that repeating action. If I see a pattern I want to watch it a few times to get a good idea of not only the various actions within the pattern but also the things that lead up to it, foretelling it beginning so that I can get my timing down. This watching period also gives, hopefully, me time to move about to find interesting angles and possibly specific parts of that series of motions that I want to capture, giving me a plan to work with.
Here I knew that this brewer needed to be in that exact spot at the kettle so I positioned myself to be able to frame him through the port. To get there I had to find way to get my camera in a very particular spot which meant in this case getting a ladder. My framing and timing was off initially but I knew that he would come back in a few minutes so that I could refine my shot. People's action patterns are great to use foreground elements with as you can predict where they will be to get the effect that you want. See my article on dimensional framing for more insights.
Be a Step Ahead
I walk backwards a lot. Really. When I'm working with a subject who is in motion I am usually want to be about five feet in front and facing them. Why? To actually be ahead of where they are going. Being next so someone doesn't let me get their whole face and necessarily a sense of where we are. As a result I am constantly walking backwards and looking over my shoulder so as to not trip over things. Truthfully, I do a lot of circles around my subjects, to get various angles, but I spend most of my time ahead. This gives me a few extra seconds to figure out what they are doing so that I can be in the right spot so that I can set up the shot.
I was working on a shoot in this production facility and was walking about with their shift lead. When he went to a control panel and noted that something was out of spec he quickly walked towards a big tank of stuff. I asked what he was going to do and he said adjust a valve. I wasn't sure where it was but I did my usual follow thing. When he stopped an began to crawl underneath this big thing I ran around and shot him from the other side.
This is all subtle stuff as is everything behavioral. Every photographer will eventually develop their own set of tools to be able to figure out their subjects to help anticipate their actions for better photos. Try these out on your next shoot. I'd love to hear your thoughts on how to know where to be when your subjects do something interesting.