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People at Work
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People at Work

Photographing people at work provides an intimate glimpse into what real life is like in different parts of the world. Often, pictures of people at work identify destinations better than landmarks or scenery. Nothing describes life on Cape Cod better than a picture of a lobsterman unloading his day's catch, or identifies London like a shot of a bobby up to his neck in evening traffic.

While it's possible (and sometimes preferable) to photograph people at work candidly, it's usually better to ask their permission. Photographer Boyd Norton, who travels extensively around the world, says that asking your subjects about their work is an excellent way to build a photographic rapport: "Most people are proud of their accomplishments and soon lose themselves in talking about—and demonstrating—their skill. By then they've forgotten about your camera. . . ." Incidentally, Norton has learned to ask his subjects' permission in no less than eight languages, including Swahili and Navajo. Even if you don't speak the language, a smile and a simple nod at your camera will usually get you permission.

One advantage of photographing people working is that you have built-in props. Holding a tool or a product makes people less self-conscious and solves the problem of what to do with their hands—a basket weaver can display a work in progress, for example. Use a normal lens to isolate your subject and the work, or if an interesting or exotic background warrants, use a wide-angle lens to include it as well; a telephoto will let you zoom in on a craftsperson's hands and tools.

With your ISO set to higher speeds, such as 800 or 1000, you can photograph people in surprisingly dim conditions—even by candlelight. Just be aware that at higher ISO speeds you may experience some digital noise (a granular-like pattern of random colors spots).

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