How to Photograph Joyful People

My trip to Dublin marked the first time I’d be traveling with a National Geographic photographer and I was hoping to pick up a few tips. But I had no idea that the whole experience would be an immersive lesson in how to fall in love with the world and people through the lens of Catherine Karnow’s rampant, joyful spirit and unmatched talent.

Dublin is a delightfully photogenic city, a place that breathes exuberance and laughter and people who invite you into their circles. But as I watched Catherine work, I saw what an incredible amount of work went into each photograph, and how much her subjects were unaware of it–the mark of a true professional.

Over dinner at Dunne & Crescenzi, we talked about how she finds incredible, intimate moments and turns them into photographs that capture the joy of a city’s people, and reflect real trust and rapport between photographer and subject. During our trip, three photos especially touched me–of a jolly group in easy camaraderie at Grogan’s Pub; a graceful shop owner, Regina Fallon, from Queen of Tarts; and two beautiful Irish girls in coastal Dublin.

Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at how she was able to capture these memorable pictures:

Annie Fitzsimmons: What drew you to these people at Grogan’s Pub, and how did you go about photographing them?

Catherine Karnow: When photographing people, you have to emit a positive energy as you approach them–you want them to agree to be photographed.

Outside Grogan’s this group caught my eye, although I can’t explain exactly why. Perhaps it was simply their happy spirit. Plus they were a good-looking bunch. It didn’t hurt that the wall behind them was bright red.

As I am approaching them to ask permission, I am also thinking about the composition. It’s a tight space; how can I get everybody into this frame? I don’t want to rearrange or move people. I want to keep things the way they are.

AF: What else do you look for when you’re sizing up a situation?

CK: I look for elements that tell you where you are. Are there details that say “Dublin”? In this shot there is a framed piece on the wall with an old photo of Powerscourt, a former stately home across the street from the pub. I was happy that there was a lot of Guinness on the table because, of course, that is Dublin.

AF: What do you do next once you have the shot set up in your head?

CK: For this type of shot, I want to be a part of their lively conversation. They’re curious about me, I’m curious about them. I’m sitting right there inches away from the woman on my right; it doesn’t make sense that I would be silent and say, “Oh, just pretend I’m not here.”

Though I appear easy going to them, I am starting to think hard about the technical challenges. The light is low; the wide angle might distort on the edges…

I am scrutinizing everything. I notice that the guy on the far left of my frame looks stiff. I’m trying to figure out how to loosen him up. I notice that he has an intimacy with the woman to his left because from time to time, she leans over and puts her head on his shoulder and when she does that, he relaxes.

When I see that, I’m not afraid to say something like, “I love when you put your head on his shoulder, that’s sweet, you guys are old friends obviously.”

I shoot a lot of frames. I am watching everyone’s every movement–snapping at the right moments, especially when they are still for a split second in the middle of a movement, or there is a gesture, or an outburst of laughter.

AF: What technical aspects were you thinking about?

CK: Photography is a science and the camera is a tool, so you have to understand the technical stuff especially when you’re dealing with a low light situation. It was pretty dark; my Transitions lenses had adapted back to being completely clear.

When it’s dark, shooting is tricky when there’s movement. In low light, you need a high ISO (International Organization of Standardization) so your shutter speed is not too slow. You don’t want blurred hands and blurred faces. In the Grogan’s shot, you’ll notice that one person’s hand is blurred, but that’s acceptable because it’s minor, and everyone else is sharp enough.

One might ask: Why don’t I use a flash? You could. But a flash would change the quality of the light. I simply prefer to keep the light natural and work with the technical challenges.

For this kind of shot, I use a tripod. One, to keep the frame–the composition–where it is so I don’t have to think about that every time I raise the camera to shoot. Plus I can shoot without “hiding” my face behind the camera, and so continue to be present with the group. And two, because of the slow shutter speed.

AF: What if someone isn’t thrilled about being photographed?

CK: If I feel that in any way that I might be disturbing somebody, I have to acknowledge that. I’m very clear and honest about what I’m doing.

One fellow not pictured in this shot didn’t want to be photographed, but was quite happy to sit outside the frame. I was apologetic and made sure several times he was cool with it.

In general, my approach is one of unbridled enthusiasm. It is really important to me that everyone is having fun.

AF: What if you’re not on assignment for National Geographic? Is it more difficult?

CK: There’s no doubt that being on assignment gets you better access. If you’re photographing a business or shop like Queen of Tarts and it’s for National Geographic, they see it could help their business and so they will be more receptive.

But this only gets you in the door. It does not guarantee a winning shot. It won’t give you a warm beautiful expression on someone’s face. Only you, you as a caring, gentle human being, will get you that expression.

AF: I was amazed at how comfortable you made people and how you gained access to moments without invading them. This seems tough to teach. What was your game plan at the Queen of Tarts?

CK: The bottom line is that I really love people. I have a deep desire to connect with people everywhere around the world. I love the way photography is an excuse to let me approach somebody and make friends with them. I hope that my photography of love encourages people to portray their deepest positive essence.

For the Queen of Tarts, I thought it would be lively if I snapped away as she interacted with other people. So in some frames she’s looking at me and in some frames she’s looking at my assistant, Timothy. I ask people around me to engage because I know that will keep up the positive energy.

AF: I saw this often while we were out on the town. But in the shot of the schoolgirls and their dogs, I noticed that you’re not afraid to be silly if the situation calls for it. You barked!

CK: It’s true, I do bark when there are dogs involved. Growling and yapping gets the dog’s attention and hopefully amuses the people. I want them to have as good a time as I’m having.

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When I spotted those two from across the street: so Irish looking with that fabulous red hair, ruddy cheeks, and one with the school uniform, plus two dogs, I just had to run over and ask: “Can I just take a really quick shot? Really quick? Five seconds!” Who can say no to five seconds?

It was fun to be silly with them. Yet, interestingly, the shot doesn’t look silly at all; it looks like a warm moment in time. So I guess my manner is really just to put people at ease.

As a photographer, I’m a mirror. So however I am, is how they’re going to be. With these two girls and their cute dogs, I was bringing out the natural mirth I sensed.

AF: Do you have any parting advice for photographers out there who want to follow your lead?

CK: Dublin is not a difficult place to meet and photograph people. I would say, enjoy yourself with them and take the time if necessary.

Dubliners have a good sense of humor and a dry wit. Engage. You don’t want to miss out on hearing their stories. Don’t shoot across the street with a long lens.

Use a wide angle and get close. Stop, talk, listen. This is the National Geographic approach.

Annie Fitzsimmons is National Geographic Travel’s Urban Insider, exploring the cities of the world with style. Follow her adventures on the Urban Insider blog, Twitter @anniefitz, and Instagram @anniefitzsimmons.

Catherine Karnow is a contributing photographer at Traveler magazine known for her vibrant, emotional, and sensitive style of photographing people and places. Connect with her on Instagram @catherinekarnow and Facebook.

> More from Annie and Catherine’s Trip:

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