Be creative but purposeful when photographing people.
Decide in advance what the purpose of the photo is. Are you looking for the best portrait? Is your main focus the monument but with the person as foreground? Are you just looking for proof that the person was there? You do not have to agree with me, but my personal preference is to either photograph the person or not. What do I mean by this? If I want a nice portrait, I take a shot up close (chest up), often with a blurred background (technique explained below). I pick a background that adds texture and that conveys the mood and memories of Paris, but that is not too colorful or unbalanced so as to distract from the subject. If, on the other hand, I want to tell a story about that person, I may stand back to capture more of the person’s environment in the scene. But that environment should be relevant to the person and to the story and not overly busy. Finally, if my goal is to photograph a monument or a typical Parisian scene, I do not have a person pose in the corner. I believe this confuses the viewer about the message you are trying to convey.
A photo that tells the story of our day in Paris
Portraits of friends & family
- When shooting at sunset, be sure the sun is behind you (though not directly behind you such that your shadow falls in the photo), so the soft light highlights the faces of your subjects. The bridges are great spots for sunset shots: Pont des Arts between the 6th and the Louvre in the 1st, Pont Alexandre III between the Grand Palais in the 8th and Les Invalides in the 7th, Pont Neuf at the tip of Ile de la Cité.
- Avoid centering the people in the photo. Instead, leave space on one side to show a bit of Paris behind them. If photographing one individual, have him or her gaze slightly towards the open space, as the viewer will see the subject of the photo, then follow the gaze of that subject.
- If you can manually control your camera, set a large aperture (f/5.6 or f/8 for example) to blur the background slightly. Be sure the person’s eyes are in focus.
- Take a few natural shots, not just posed shots. If you can make the person spontaneously laugh, that will often be your best photo.
Sometimes the unposed shots carry the best memories
- Experiment a bit. Just don’t drop the camera! I enjoyed playing with self-portraits using Notre Dame in the background, as the façade makes for a pattern that does not draw away from the focal point of the photo, but at the same time it is still recognizable as Notre Dame, even with blurred a bit from using a large aperture.
Experimenting with self-portraits
- Note that France has stricter privacy protections than the U.S. relating to photographing individuals. If you wish to take identifiable photos of people on the street or photos in someone’s shop, be sure to ask permission first. And don’t take it personally when the first 10 people say “non”.
- One option when photographing strangers is to use a slow shutter speed to blur the action a bit. You capture a mood and tell a story, but you do not take the same risk invading someone’s privacy. For some of the best shots of the hustle and bustle of the city, go to one of the open-air markets such as Marché d’Aligre in the 12th.