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Getting Close

Portrait of a Hindu girl in Bangladesh

Getting Close


If there is one thing that will almost always help making your photography get better, it is surely getting close. Of course in this article we are talking about travel photography, and more specifically people photography. If you look at my portfolio you can see this is mostly what I do. If you are planning to take photos of lions in Africa, please do not follow this article’s guidelines.


There are many, many reasons why it is best to get close to one’s subject, and I will list 10 of them here, trying to illustrate them with photos. As I mention in my workshops, if you are not happy with your photo, if it looks boring, it is because you are too far. And this is why:


Reason #1:

Getting your subject bigger.

Of course, getting close means your subject will get bigger. Having more details on your subject’s face, so helping the viewer understand more about it. Also giving more sharpness to the subject, and helping emphasis on few or only one element (ear, eye, mouth, hands, etc…)

portrait of a Khmer girl in Angkor



Reason #2:

Controlling the light.

Being close to your subject means you can easily turn around it. If the light is coming from behind the subject, if you use a long lens you are pretty much stuck to be in a backlight situation. If you are close, though, just step on the side and put the light on the side, or behind you, to get a much better exposure through the whole photo, a better contrast and colors.

Burmese girl rowing boat on Inle lake




Reason #3:

Controlling the background.

Same way as the reason #2, being close will allow you to use any background you want. Staying far gives you only one background. When you are close, just step on the side and change the whole background. Move the camera up, use the ground as a background. Move it down, and get a nice blue sky behind the subject.

Old Vietnamese man



Reason #4:

Increasing the Depth of Field.

The closer you get from the subject, the more depth of field you will get. Using a wide aperture and getting close will guarantee a nice depth of field, often pleasant to the eye, and giving more depth to the photo. The depth of field is the best way to make your photo look more three dimensional, real, instead of a flat piece of paper.

black and white photo of Kmu women in Laos



Reason #5:

Telling more about the subject.

Being close will allow the photographer to see more elements on and surrounding the subject, and become creative with the composition to be able to tell a story. The best looking woman (hey, I am a man after all) from far away is just a woman. Would be a pity not to get close!

portrait of Burmese girl with big eyes




Reason #6:

Experiencing the culture of the place one is traveling to.

All right it is about photography, but not only. I often tell my students that it would be a pity traveling to Vietnam/Laos/Burma/Cambodia without experiencing the real culture. That’s why we get off the beaten tracks and we get to meet the locals. When traveling, forget the Lonely Planet. Go to some small villages where there are no tourist attractions, get with the locals and get drunk with all the men. Best way to experience, and learn the language!

Burmese monks



Reason #7:

It is just so much fun.

Has it ever happened to you that you met someone with the idea of taking their photos, but ended just chatting with them and had a great time? People of South East Asia are fun, nice and friendly. If you are scared of the “Hello one dollar” just get out of the touristy areas and meet the real people. You will surely have a great time! Be careful though, it can be very addictive.

showing photo preview to a Burmese woman



Reason #8:

Such a good exercise.

Indeed, when the subject is far away or difficult to reach, it is the photographer’s job to get to it. Laying down on the ground, climbing up the trees, best way to stay in shape!

monks in Luang Prabang



Reason #9:

Just doing something different.

I do live in a place where there are a lot of tourists, reason why I could survive all these years as a beginner photographer.  I do spend a lot of time watching people, and I find that generally, people are scared to get close. They fear the “photo one dollar” so they will take a quick snapshot from far away. You can even hear the camera click when they are already turning away, fearing the subject might see them.

Just play with this! I do not encourage people to give money for photos, but if you are in a very busy tourist area, it has been spoiled for years already, and there is nothing you can do about it. So get into their games: if they want one dollar for a photo, fine, but let’s move in front of that nice wall, or walk back and forth into that tiny alley. After all, one dollar for you to get a postcard is cheap!

old hands holding money in Vietnam



Reason #10:

Creative composition:

I learned photography using only prime lenses, a thing I still do today. It happened to me to be stuck because I had the wrong focal lens, and could not step back to manage to get the whole subject in the photo (mostly when I used an APS-C sensor and a 50mm lens).

Well, what about cutting the subject in half?

I happened to be very creative when the situation got tricky. Or when I forced myself using only one type of lens for the day. Doing a portrait with a macro lens, for example, gets very interesting, being able to get so close and get so many details.

macro portrait of a Burmese girl



Founder of Pics of Asia, Etienne is a teacher with a photography habit.


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