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Geisha, KyotoSuccessful head and shoulders portraits demand that the photographer should get involved with the subject. It is not possible to obtain comparable results with a long telephoto lens simply because communication between subject and photographer, a key element of success, will not be evident in the images. However, approaching a complete stranger in a foreign land, and without the benefit of a common language, may for some people be a daunting task. They may lack confidence in themselves or their ability to capture an image reasonably quickly, or they may fear a less than friendly reaction from the subject.

It is best to approach people anywhere with a friendly smile. This is immediately understood worldwide, and demonstrates a desire to communicate. It is quite possible to relate to people, and have a simple conversation, without sharing a single common word. A smile, an appropriate local greeting, and an indication of interest in their house, garden or children is generally sufficient. A nod towards a half-raised camera will be understood as a request to take the person’s photograph, and consent will usually be forthcoming. If permission is refused, smile politely, say thank you and move on.

Most people, but not all, will be flattered by your interest and delighted to cooperate for a few seconds. They are also likely to lose interest, or become self-conscious, very quickly. The photographer must therefore have everything ready before approaching a subject, and be prepared to take just a few shots. In some environments it may be appropriate to offer an instant photograph or a print sent from home, but this can be difficult to keep up with and may result in a queue of unwanted subjects. Experience shows that handing out cash rarely results in worthwhile images.

Portraits are a searching disclosure of personality. An interesting expression with good eye contact, diffused side-lighting, a touch of fill-in flash and a muted and unobtrusive background are the basic prerequisites. Use a short telephoto lens in the range 85 – 135mm to give a natural perspective, and expose for the face of the subject using multi-segment or centre-weighted metering. The shutter speed should be 1/125sec or faster, and the aperture large enough to throw unwanted detail out of focus. Fill-in flash should be underdone rather than overdone. Focus on the eyes and wait for a few seconds for the best expression before releasing the shutter.


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