Perfect your people skills: three professional portrait and documentary photographers share their insights

Photographer Georgina Goodwin, holding her Canon camera, greets a woman in a hospital bed in Kenya.
Former Canon Ambassador Georgina Goodwin with Mary Chemptai, 30, a surgery patient at a nursing home in Kenya. Georgina is known for depicting social issues such as FGM, the plight of refugees, cancer and other serious health conditions through her sensitive photography of people directly involved, which requires building a relationship of trust very quickly. © Georgina Goodwin

There's more to photographing people than having an artistic eye and knowing how to handle a camera. People skills such as good communication, patience, flexibility and empathy are just as important as technical and creative ability for success as a professional photographer. Here, three portrait and documentary photographers share their insights into working with people.

Georgina Goodwin is a documentary photographer based in Nairobi, Kenya. Helen Bartlett is a British family photographer. Marina Karpiy is a wedding and portrait photographer working in Georgia and Ukraine. They work in different kinds of people photography and each brings unique experiences to bear, but the questions apply to every genre: how do you break down barriers and establish a connection with your subjects? How do you put people at ease? How important is it to get to know your subjects, and what difference does this make to your photographs?

Our three pros answer these questions and more, explaining how good people skills can improve your career as well as your images.

Georgina Goodwin: documentary photographer

Nairobi-based documentary photographer Georgina Goodwin is known for her coverage of social issues and conservation in Africa, and works for leading NGOs and the UN. Her approach entails building a strong connection with her subject before shooting. "I think it helps that I’m easy to connect with," she says. "I can read body language well, I speak fluent Kiswahili as well as a few words of various African and European languages, which helps me to bond with the people I photograph."

A woman in a brightly coloured shawl stands amidst animal carcasses in an arid landscape.
Amina Suleiman Gas, 45, stands amidst the carcasses of her dead animals, piled for burning outside the compound where she lives in central Somaliland. After four consecutive seasons of failed rains, the region is in the grip of drought and on the verge of famine. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM) at 1/500 sec, f/14 and ISO400. © Georgina Goodwin/CARE International
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What do you say to subjects within the first five minutes of meeting them?

Georgina: "It's essential to be a human first and a photographer second, so spending five minutes getting to know people bridges a gap. I make eye contact, shake their hand, and quite often give them a hug. I keep my camera visible at all times, so there are no surprises when I pull it out later. I ask questions about their life and family – in many parts of the world, especially in Africa, children are the centre of everything, so talking about their children puts people at ease. I introduce myself and explain that I want to share their stories, so we can all learn from one another."

What challenges do you face when photographing strangers?

Georgina: "Some people resist being photographed, either because they think I'm going to go home and sell their photos for lots of money, or because they're afraid there will be negative repercussions within their community. Subjects can assume I'll just be taking one photo and don't understand the need to shoot different angles or facial expressions, or to find moments when the subject has forgotten I'm there, and they'll suddenly get shy or defensive. Once I explain that more photos mean more choice, they usually allow me to continue. I never know when this might happen, so I work quickly. This is where having the right equipment helps."

An elderly man stands in a field of corn growing taller than him, holding a tomato in one hand.
As well as documenting people in crisis, Georgina puts a human face on ongoing stories such as this group ranch project in southern Kenya, which is responding to climate change by implementing a successful system of communal land management. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III at 1/2000 sec, f/5.6 and ISO500. © Georgina Goodwin

How can your camera choice help you work with people?

Georgina: "My Canon EOS 5D Mark III has a very quiet 'silent' shutter option that lets me be discreet, so the experience is less jarring for the subject. Because I'm drawing less attention to myself, people remain natural and I can move around or even shoot direct portraits more freely.

"I use a fixed pancake lens, a Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM, which is very small, sharp and great in low light conditions. I've found using this is perfect for downscaling the size of the camera in front of my face, which helps keep face-to-face contact with the subject – important when covering sensitive issues."

Photographer Georgina Goodwin, holding a Canon camera, shares a laugh with an elderly Maasai man and his son.
Georgina gets to know Lendele Seko Mamai, 63, and his son Daniel Mamai before photographing them on assignment in north Kenya. © Georgina Goodwin
A smiling groom embraces his bride in a garden as she holds a corsage of flowers. Photo by Marina Karpiy.

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What advice can you give about approaching and working with subjects?

Georgina: "Being flexible and thinking on the ground is essential because the people, the situation and the light change all the time. If I am shooting without previous preparation I'd go first to an elder, a chief or someone in authority to get their permission, build their trust, and ask them to suggest people I might approach.

"In terms of technique, know how your cameras and lenses work. They must be an extension of you, so that you shoot and change between settings without taking the camera away from your face. This way your subject gets used to you with the camera up, and will eventually relax, leaving you free to capture 'real' moments.

"Don't be afraid to be in charge, to design the scene how you need. Your subject will feel safer if you are confident, so work the shot until you've covered everything."

Helen Bartlett: family photographer

London-based family photographer Helen Bartlett specialises in shooting candid black-and-white portraits and intimate portrayals of home life. "No two families are the same and no two photoshoots are the same," she says. "Some photographers like to shoot posed shots, but I prefer real moments and pictures that are relatable. I don't hire spaces or build sets, I work around each client's habits and routines, including their favourite activities, so their pictures reflect who they are and what their children enjoy."

A mother and father with two young girls sit on a log in a garden in winter.
Helen Bartlett does not favour formal studio portraits but always prefers to shoot families in surroundings familiar to them, doing what they enjoy doing. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM lens at 1/640 sec, f/4 and ISO640. © Helen Bartlett

Children are notoriously tricky to work with. What approach do you take?

Helen: "I find that when the door opens, I can see within seconds how the first 20 minutes will go. My priority is always the children, so I greet them first, with a conversation starter about a toy they might be holding or the pattern on their pyjamas. I want the children to know that I am interested in them. How the children respond sets the tone. Some will immediately start a conversation, take my hand and want to show me their toys. I know we are good to go and I'll grab a camera. Others will be shy and unsure about a new person. Then cameras are left in the bag and I'll focus on chatting to the parents for a little while as they get used to me."

How do you maintain control over the shoot, while empowering your subjects?

Helen: "I always let the children know they are in control of the situation, giving them the space to decide when we start to take pictures. When I do start shooting, I talk a lot. I ask questions, tell stories and play games. I've found it's the best way to blend into the background. If I'm silent then I stand out – the photographer following them around with a camera. But if I'm involved, then I become part of the action and so more invisible within it."

 A smiling girl in a frilly skirt bounces on her bed, with a cascade of balls or balloons of varying sizes on the wall beside her.
Helen's unforced portraits of her child subjects reflect the rapport she is able to establish with them. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 1/1250 sec, f/3.2 and ISO4000. © Helen Bartlett

What shooting techniques do you find helpful?

Helen: "I shoot a lot when I'm photographing children. I want to let the energy flow, not constantly stop the action to pose them. Group pictures are popular and an important part of family portraiture, but many of them have an action element, and I find many of the best shots involve games. The Canon EOS-1D X Mark II is my go-to when I'm outside and when the action is fast-moving, as the autofocus is incredibly quick and so useful for photographing children running about or jumping in the air. I rely on the back button focus, the AI Servo mode, and some of Canon's sports modes, which work equally well for children jumping on the bed. I use the burst mode a lot, and find the best images are usually two-thirds through a burst."

A toddler looks curiously into the lens of Helen Bartlett's Canon camera.
To photograph children successfully, says Helen, you need to like children – and it helps to accept that things won't always go according to plan. © Helen Bartlett

What are the greatest lessons you have learned about photographing people?

Helen: "It's hugely important to be yourself when working with people. It's easy to see through someone who is insincere, so being happy and interested in people is key – and you need to like children to photograph children! Most of my photo shoots start at my clients' homes, so there are plenty of visual cues to get a feel for their personalities and offer great starting points for conversations.

"Finally, don't panic. Working with children, things sometimes don't go according to plan. I've found most things can be solved by having a break. Often a story is a good way to recover, or changing location can give a shoot new energy as well as extra variety in your images. Give yourself plenty of time and roll with it – that way you'll be sure to get the pictures, and everyone will have a lovely time along the way."

Marina Karpiy: wedding and portrait photographer

Marina Karpiy is a wedding and portrait photographer based in Georgia and Ukraine, and has also published a book about people affected by AIDS in Ukraine. Like other successful wedding photographers, she has had to learn the skill of relating to her clients quickly. "The most important goal of any shoot for me is to become the person who is trusted," she says. "And the subject opens to me further, and all that remains is to press the button."

A couple kiss in a garden, with the trees behind them seeming to form an arch around them.
Marina Karpiy always takes time to get to know the couples she photographs, like Lyuda and Artem, and aims to reflect what matters to them. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM lens at 1/400 sec, f/1.8 and ISO100. © Marina Karpiy

How do you put couples at ease when you're shooting their wedding?

Marina: "It's very important for me to meet clients before the wedding, not only because I get to know them as individuals and as a couple, but so they can tell me what things and images are important to them. I need to build a relationship with them, so they feel they can trust me during the event. It makes a huge difference to the photographs.

"It's very important to be open and honest with people. Being a photographer is to some extent being a psychologist – you must feel a person, understand how to approach them, how to get them to open up and when to give a compliment. Even if we've only just met, I want people to feel like we are old friends and they can trust me."

A couple walk hand-in-hand in a field, with the sun behind them.
Marina likes to use prime lenses and prefers to shoot at wide apertures to create a light, airy atmosphere with plenty of bokeh. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM lens at 1/8000 sec, f/2.0 and ISO100. © Marina Karpiy

How does your shooting style feed into your relationship with your subjects?

Marina: "The equipment I use also has to uphold that trust. I use the Canon EOS R's burst [Continuous Shooting] mode at the crucial moments to ensure nothing is missed, and I know I will always get a good shot. Likewise, using the silent shutter is essential, especially where silence cannot be broken or the aim is not to attract attention.

"I always have two cameras with two different lenses – a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM and a Canon EF 85 mm f/1.4L IS USM – on me at all times, as I don't want to change lenses, which wastes the couple's time, changes the mood and shows in the photos.

"I try to only use natural light because it's less abrasive and means the couple is more likely to behave naturally. In some venues there isn't as much light as I would like, so I place my, and my couple's, trust in the EOS R's high ISO capabilities, which always produces high quality images."

Photographer Marina Karpiy shows a smiling couple an image on the screen of her Canon camera.
Marina is known for her relaxed, informal style of wedding photography. One key to this, she says, is always involving the wedding couple to collaborate in the process of the shoot. © Marina Karpiy

In the beginning of your career you photographed children in Ukrainian orphanages. How was your approach different back then?

Marina: "There is a psychological factor when you are photographing children with no family or home – you feel a responsibility and compassion for them. I felt a responsibility to take portraits to help these children find homes, which eventually they all did, but before this I had no experience with children, so I felt like a child among them.

"Over my career I've realised that the greatest experience is how you treat people, and so if you apply this to how you take pictures of people, you will get the same attitude in return. So whoever it is, wherever I am, I always photograph as I would like to be photographed myself."

Autor Natalie Denton

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