When photographing people, there are about four different kinds of images an average photographer is likely to attempt. The easiest is the “cheese” picture, since it only requires a cue word such as “cheese” or “smile” or “party pic!”, which is met with obedient posing from the subject. Since most people are trained practically from birth to suspend all activity and grin like apes at a camera when given these cue words, the result is not only easy and predictable, it’s boring and unoriginal. As a rule, you will find very few images like this in my portfolio, although in the newspaper business, I sometimes have no choice but to make images like this due to expectations from readers.
Another class of people pictures that fill out a very small percentage of my portfolio is the “formal” portrait. This is because I find carefully lit, classically posed studio images of people nearly as boring as party pics. To me, it’s like a photocopy or a legal document. It describes to the viewer how the subject looked at a certain point in history, but fails to express to us anything about their character or life.
There are many more “pose” type photos in my portfolio because I find this type of image shares more about the subject with the reader than the previous two. In the news business, we sometimes call this type of picture an “environmental portrait” because we take pains to place the subject into some kind of relevant setting. We might pose a man who repairs bicycles in the middle of his shop with dozens of bikes, or we might photograph a welder with his torch and mask. It gives the viewer a sense of context with which to begin to understand who the person being photographed might be. 95% of my favorite images of my wife and me fall into this category.
Lastly is the people picture most commonly seen in my portfolio, the “candid.” This kind of picture is capable of conveying an enormous amount of useful information to the viewer, from the setting and character of those being photographed to the emotions at play in the moment. These are achieved by the photographer when he/she remains as invisible as possible, so that the action of the moment goes on before his camera as naturally as possible. This is, of course, the most difficult type of image to make of people because these moments are complex and fleeting, and the presence of the photographer and his/her camera has the potential to interfere with the moment. Still, this type of image can be seen as something of a goal to which to aspire, since in the longest term, very few people will be moved by the formal portrait or the deer-in-the-headlights cheese photo (except possibly those few very close to the subject), but dozens, or hundreds, or occasionally thousands or millions of people could be moved by a candid photo.