Robert Capa was a war photographer who was well known for always being right in the middle of the action. He was killed by a landmine while photographing the First Indochina War, on May 25, 1954. His quote above is a reminder for us to get physically closer and become more intimate with those we are photographing. Capa did not accomplish this through the use of long lenses (not in common use prior to 1954), but through proximity.
Getting closer accomplishes a few things:
It lets us understand what is going on and lets our subjects get used to us being around and having a camera. If you stand on the edges of the action and use a long lens to capture images, this will often draw attention and even suspicion. If you are comfortable and involved, people will start to forget about the camera and you can document truly candid moments. Photographing your own family makes this really easy, you are a supposed to be there, all you have done is add a camera to the mix.
Getting closer and using a wide angle lens will allow you to incorporate background into an otherwise intimate photograph. This gives the image a sense of place and tells the viewer what was going on at the time the picture was captured. This type of picture is often called an environmental portrait.
If you get close while using a normal or short telephoto lens (the max I routinely use is an 85mm) you are able to remove much of the background or turn it into a pleasing blur. This focuses the viewers attention on your main subject and can make for a powerful photograph.
Getting close and being involved with your subjects gives you far more options in terms of lighting and background/foreground elements. If you are standing back and shooting with a long lens, you are pretty much stuck with whatever light direction and elements happen to line up in your frame at the time the shutter is tripped. If your subjects are comfortable with you, and you can move in among them, you can position yourself so there is attractive light, a cool foreground element in the frame, or nice tones/colors in the background. The choice is yours, it is not being dictated by your location or your long lens.
Finally, a note on cropping. As you can see in the image above, you do not always have to show a person’s whole head in a close up portrait. In this portrait, I was really interested in Emma’s wavy hair and the flower pattern in her shirt. I came in close with a 50mm lens (equal to an 85mm on 35mm film) and only shot the right side of her face and included her hair and her shoulder. What did this technique accomplish? It brought attention to the elements that I was interested in documenting, it excluded the dark shadows on the left side of her face, and it created a pleasing off center composition. Also, the distracting background was reduced to a soft blur.
I hope you find these tips helpful, give them a try and let me know what you think.
Sigma 50mm f2.8 Macro
1/350 sec, f/3.5, ISO 100
Converted to B&W in Adobe Camera Raw