Photographing Craftspeople


Nothing captures a local culture like a photo of a person making something with their hands.  They could be carving a wood sculpture, making a straw mat or stringing together beads.  Putting a local person in a scene making something homemade tells a lot about the working life of the people.  Here are a few tips to make the most out of this type of shot.


1. Include their tools


Including tools in the picture helps to show what is used to make the item their way.  It speaks to the culture.  So, if they are carving, include a few chisels in the picture in addition to the one in their hand.  Move their tools into the picture if you need to.


2. Choose one person


Make one person the focal point of your image.  Other people can be in the background if that doesn’t make the background busy but choose one person to focus on.  Find the one person that you feel is the most photogenic.  Many times it is an old person that has been plying their craft for many years.


3. Pay attention to their clothes


Craftspeople are artists and they tend to wear what they like when they work.  Make sure you like it too.  Sometimes modern logo wear distracts from the focal point you want.  If you want to show how western culture is creeping into remote regions of the world, then maybe the New York Yankees hat works.  But if your goal is to portray an ancient craft that is still going on today, then the straw hat may look better.


4. Find or make a clean background


If you are focused on a single craftsperson you should be able to move around to get the best background.  If you can’t get a clean background with your movement, ask the craftsperson to move.  Pick up trash and remove distractions like plastic water bottles from the scene.


5. Consider different vantage points


Craftspeople often work on or near the ground so a standing shot will be looking down at them.  If you can’t see their eyes, you might want to get down lower to shoot the picture.  If looking up seems natural to what they are doing, a higher vantage point may work better.  As long as you can see their eyes, choose the vantage point that gives you the composition and background that you want.


6. Follow the rule of thirds


In this type of shot, the rule of thirds is important.  If the person is facing right, put him or her in the left third of the picture.  If they are facing left, position them in the right third.  Try to put the person’s hands in the left or right third as well.  Your goal is to have the viewer’s eyes drawn first to the craftperson’s eyes and then to what is being made.


7. Focus on the eyes


When photographing people, especially when photographing a single person, you need to focus on their eyes to make sure the eyes are sharp.  The depth of field that you choose will determine how much of the photo can be sharp but the eyes should always be sharp.  The viewer’s eyes will be drawn to what is sharp.


8. Choose the right depth of field


You usually want the eyes and the hands sharp at a minimum.  You may want the entire scene sharp if the background is not busy.  But, if the background is busy, you may want to blur it keeping only the intended subject in focus.


9. Get close


Places where craftspeople work are often cluttered.  You can minimize the clutter by getting close to your subject and filling the frame with them and the item they are working on.


10. Choose the best lighting


Craftspeople are often working in the shade or indoors so you need to think about lighting.  Ask yourself how you can get enough light on their face to see it clearly.  You may need to use a camera flash or a reflector.  Or you may need to move the craftsperson to an area with better light.  Don’t be afraid to ask them to turn on more lights for a few minutes either.


When you travel, I recommend that you actively seek out craftspeople in order to better depict the culture of the area.  Just ask people what is made locally and where.  They are usually proud of their craft industries and are happy to show it to you.


May your travel and your photography both be rewarding!


      Roger Nelson