By Jack Ballard
Although most outdoor photographers rank landscapes, flora and wildlife at the top of their lists of favored subjects, from the standpoint of marketability, photos of people engaged in recreational activities often have more value. Whether it’s producing photos for a destination article or bagging images for a stock photo library, capturing engaging photos of people in the outdoors is a sure way to increase your bottom line as a photographer. Of my photos marketed by a national stock agency, the people pictures outsell the nature images at least 5 to 1.
Like many outdoor photographers, I initially avoided taking shots of people. Two things changed that. First, when I began to put more effort into selling article and photo packages, I found it necessary to shoot the obligatory photos of folks fishing for trout, skiing the backcountry, hunting for deer or whatever the subject might be. The second event occurred when I agreed to shoot publicity photos for a St. Labre Indian School whose newsletter and calendar have a higher circulation than many major magazines. Though I reluctantly accepted the assignment, I soon found that capturing compelling photos of children engaged in educational activities was every bit as challenging as creating exquisite images of a bugling bull elk.
Many of the things I’ve learned about photographing people can be summarized in the following tips:
♦ Subjects sell photos.
Choosing models is critical. Humans have a hard-wired affinity for others they deem attractive, a principle that drives photo sales. The best models are those who are physically fit, pleasant to look at, exude exuberance and are spontaneous on camera. If planning to market photos to a specific magazine or genre of publication, also make sure your models fit their age demographic, are dressed in current clothing and are using the latest equipment. For some publications and for stock photos aimed toward textbooks and advertising, ethnic diversity is also a plus. Gender is another aspect to consider. Hunting publications are dominated by photos of Caucasian men, a practice I deem shortsighted, but my opinion won’t change the market. Photos of pretty female anglers occur frequently in fishing publications, often on the cover. No matter what the media, match your models to the market.
♦ Eliciting action.
Photos of an angler battling a brutish bass, a climber’s axe biting into the ice or a hiker swatting at a pesky mosquito are of the type especially prized by editors. While any recreational pursuit has its share of action, it’s up to the photographer to artfully capture it in a photo. Certain activities such as hooking a fish or the arrival of a flock of ducks at a blind can’t be staged. Prepare for these by positioning yourself to catch the action when it happens. Stay on the opposite side of a stream to photograph a fly-fisher setting the hook on a rising trout or shoot over and above the angler’s shoulder for a different perspective.
In most cases, though, action can be manufactured. I often coach my models on what activity I’m trying to capture, and then ask them to repeat it over and over while I shoot from various distances and angles. When instructing models, be specific. Instead of telling someone to cast a fishing rod, give them an aiming point and any other detailed instructions that will facilitate capturing just the right photograph.
♦ Shooting the camera-shy.
On some occasions, I’m forced to work with a model who is very self-conscious on camera, be it a student, hunting guide or fishing partner. These folks are famous for averting their eyes from the camera, cracking the phoniest of smiles and striking postures more suitable for illustrating the effects of rigor mortis on a corpse. When I sense a model’s discomfort, I often pose the subject for the photos, then explain that I need to shoot a few test shots to check lighting. Often, I get the photos I need on the “test shots” while the model is more relaxed. If you have an assistant available, solicit his or her
help in photographing the main subject. Have the assistant engage the subject in conversation or activity while you back off under the pretext of adjusting equipment. Once the assistant gets the model to relax, shoot your photos from a distance, without flash if possible.
♦ Powerful Portraits.
Action photos of people are top-sellers, but portraits that capture emotion or create a mood are a boon to your portfolio as well. You won’t typically have the luxury of studio lighting in the outdoors, but capturing expression and emotion is possible with no more than natural light and fill flash. Before the shoot, think about the human element you’re trying to portray photographically, be it serenity, companionship, happiness, concentration or relaxation. Some emotions, such as happiness or concentration can be coaxed from a model while the photographer snaps the typical head shot or shoulders-up portrait. However, the best portraits in my portfolio are spontaneous creations spawned by recognizing the photograph in a particular moment, then reacting quickly enough to record it. Opportunities for such images often last but seconds, making it necessary to shoot quickly and with enough skill to capture a technically perfect image the first time, without fiddling with camera controls. ◊
Jack Ballard, of Billings, Mont., is a freelance writer and photographer with credits in more than 25 regional and national magazines, and is the author of two books. He joined OWAA in 1998. E-mail him at email@example.com.