Photography Basics: Does Your Subject Have To Look Into The Camera? :: Digital Photo Secrets

Photography Basics: Does Your Subject Have To Look Into The Camera?

by David Peterson 2 comments

People are such chameleons. We’re usually quite candid and real around one another, but once someone takes out the camera, it’s all over. At this moment, most people look straight at the camera and smile. While this isn’t such a bad thing (in fact it’s quite good most of the time), it isn’t particularly creative. You can usually make a much more interesting picture when your subject isn’t looking directly into the camera.

In the above photo, the guy isn’t even looking at the camera. He’s too preoccupied with something else on the horizon. The fact that you can’t see what’s catching his interest makes this picture stand out even more. It engages your curiosity.

You Get To Tell A Story

What do I mean? Well, everybody knows what’s going on when your subject is looking straight into the camera. Your subject is telling your viewers that she is being photographed, and that’s about it. Photos like this tend to tell your viewers that your subject is having a good time, but it mostly means your subject is focused on getting his picture taken.

When your subject looks somewhere else, the story immediately changes. Suddenly, the camera is no longer the center of attention. Your subject is concerned about something else. If your subject is looking at a point outside of the frame, your viewer will always be curious about what’s catching your subject’s interest (just like the image above).

But if your subject is looking at something inside of the frame, you have a chance to tell a story about the person, place, or thing your subject is interested in. When you’re taking the picture, think about why your subject should care about what he/she is looking at. Give your subject some extra advice on how to better play the role. This is a posed shot, after all. You might as well get the emotions right.

You probably wouldn’t try to get these kids to pose, but the above photo is a good example of telling a story with two subjects who aren’t looking directly at the camera. The two kids are focused on playing with another, not on the fact that someone is taking their picture. The story is about them, not you.

When Looking Away Creates Tension

Sometimes you can use someone’s gaze to tell a story about a difficult situation. The image to the right does just that. The two people aren’t looking away from the camera because they’re interested in something outside of the frame. They’re looking away from one another because they’re angry.

There are so many more emotions you can capture, and this is just one of them. Consider trying excitement, frustration, sadness, and anything else to spice up your photography.

One Important Rule For Framing Your Images

Whenever your subject isn’t looking directly at the camera, you need to do one extra thing. You have to create a space for your subject to look into. If your subject is looking to the right, add some more space to the right. If your subject is looking to the left, make sure he isn’t pressed up against the left side of the frame.

The photo of the frustrated couple is a good example of this rule. The photographer left some space on both sides, so you get a sense of where each person is looking. If the photographer were to leave this out, the photo would feel cramped, and it wouldn’t adequately convey the feeling of marital distrust.

Looking Away From The Camera = Much More Interesting

Start taking more pictures like the ones I’ve shown you. They’re much more interesting than your run-of-the-mill party photos. With images like these, you get a chance to tell a story and convey emotions. That’s much more powerful than what happens when you simply tell your friends to say “cheese.”

So what’s your story? How have you used this technique to improve your portraits? Upload your photo to the gallery (uploading instructions). I’d love to see it!

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  1. George Jenner says:

    This has really made me think and will have a dramatic impact on my approach, David.Thank you so much.

  2. Doug Van Duzen says:

    Thanks Dave,
    I wish I had seen some of your tutorials earlier because they would have helped me out when I had to do all of my grand daughters basketball games for their web site. I normally like to spend time shooting landscapes so that was a task for me to tune up on trying to shoot 12 12-13 year olds girls in a gym running with a basketball . Had to take about 125 shots each game that would leave me around 30-50 keepers . At times I was running at 6.4K ISO to get those shots. Well I wasn't too excited about the results but the parents always liked them. Most of the time I tried to stay at 1/160 sec. to get some effects on action but 6 out of 10 were useless due to the panning involved. Thanks again Dave for teaching showing us different ways to better ourselves in the field of photography.

    Doug V.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.