Photographing real people doing real things

by Nick Kelsh

posted Friday, April 17, 2015 at 12:12 PM EDT

Yes, there was a balding, middle-aged photographer putting a camera in her face, but she ignored him, intent on creating something beautiful—a dance. Real people, consumed by their passions, are a photographer's dream.

For people-photographers there will never be a substitute for real people doing real things. I’ve told thousands of people to look into my camera before I pushed the button, but I know the essence or what we do and why we do it will always be found with real people unaware of our cameras.

When I was in college I interned at National Geographic Magazine. At the time I was enamored with the photographs of Richard Avedon. Avedon made a career of photographing people in front of a white background looking into the camera.

At the end of my internship, my work was reviewed by the legendary Director of Photography, Robert Gilka. Mr. Gilka—I can’t stop myself from writing Mr. in front of Gilka—was one of the more intimidating editors in the history of American magazines. People like me loved him but we were scared. Anyway, I made the mistake of showing him a few photographs of people looking into the camera.

He looked at them and grunted, ‘anybody can take pictures of people looking into a camera.’

At the time, I took it as gospel. As the years passed I decided he was wrong. After all, if anybody could do it Richard Avedon wouldn’t be Richard Avedon. But I never forgot what he said and now, when I ask people to look in my camera, I take it very seriously. I always ask myself: Am I cutting corners here and not photographing a real human moment? It’s a question you should ask yourself, too.

"Safety First" is my neighbor, Debbie's, motto. We don't need to see her gutter-cleaning husband, Keith, to feel the Sunday afternoon reality of this situation.

But there’s a more practical application to this approach. Some people are just never going to be comfortable looking into a camera. You may be related to one of them; you may be faced with a lifetime of taking pictures of someone who cringes when you ask them to look in the camera. My suggestion is don’t; let real moments happen. Let real people be real.

At the very least, when someone is lost in whatever they’re doing, you and your camera become far less intimidating.

(An exceptional educator and a world-class photographer, Nick Kelsh is the founder of How To Photograph Your Life, an excellent source of affordable photography training and tips. Nick’s courses can be conducted by yourself in your own time, or with feedback from Nick and your fellow students. If you appreciated this article and want to improve your photography, visit How to Photograph your Life and sign up for a course today!)