How to Take Better People Pictures: Get Close
"If your pictures aren’t good enough you are not close enough." Robert Capa
When I first became a photographer I realized that many of my photographs were wider shots. I liked adding elements of the environment to tell the story but I was lacking a sense of intimacy in my images. My subjects were getting lost. I then discovered my love for prime lenses. Prime lenses have a fixed focal length and do not zoom in or out. You become the zoom. If you want to get closer to your subjects, you are forced to step closer — and, in turn, interact with them. When you interact with your subjects, you can capture more emotions.
Whenever possible I always zoom with my feet rather than my lens. My favorite prime lens is the 50mm 1.2. With this lens I am able to get close to my subjects without getting from a wider lens such as the 28mm. Shooting close also eliminates from your image. Sometimes adding in natural elements to the image can be a good thing but there are times when you want to focus solely on your subject. Filling the frame with your subject lets new details come into play and it leaves no doubt about the intended subject of the photograph.
Don't off body parts to fill the frame, off a little of the head allows you to really fill the frame with your subject. Just don't slide off your subject at a joint like the feet or elbows.
By getting close to my subjects I am able to really interact with them which is especially important with children. When kids are playing they are having fun — and when kids are having fun you will get true and genuine reactions. I can be right there talking playing or even tickling them with my feet to get the type of interaction I want. If I want a child to look into the camera it’s much easier to get them to cooperate if I am close to them. If I am too far away the child can get easily, and I won't be able to capture that interaction.
It is also easier to capture details when shooting close. I love focusing on every element of children — their eyelashes, feet, and baby curls — things that you know are going to change in the blink of an eye. When you get close, really close, and fill the frame with those details, the image will have an artistic impact.
I am definitely not anti-zoom lens. I love my telephoto lenses for shooting my children playing sports and documenting their school activities. There will be many times when zooming with your feet will just not be possible.
But for capturing the everyday moments of my children I prefer to zoom with my feet to get close. And you don't necessarily even need to have a prime lens to do this too. In fact you don't even need to have a DSLR. You can use your point and shoot or a camera phone. I challenge you to pick one focal length on your lens that allows you to get close to your subject and only shoot with that particular focal length for one day. Remember: once you pick your focal length do not touch the zoom! Notice that when you aren't able to rely on your zoom you have to change your perspective which will challenge you artistically. You will see things and interact with your subjects in ways that you didn't before!