Move in Closer – YES, Closer!

First of a 4-part series by guest contributor & National Geographic Photographer, Joanna B. Pinneo

For 36 years, in 66 countries,  Joanna Pinneo has photographed unforgettable moments for numerous magazines and books. Her photograph of a child sleeping with its mother in Mali, West Africa is included in the 50 Greatest Photographs of National Geographic. The photograph graced the cover of National Geographic Magazine in May of 1998.


Robert Capa, one of the greatest war photographers, famously said, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Capa covered the landing of American troops on Omaha Beach on D-Day and the iconic photograph of a Loyalist soldier just fatally wounded in the Spanish Civil War.


We’ve all seen the vacation pictures of our friends who tell us, “If you squint and look over there you’ll see Charlie next to that fourth tree from the right.” Okay right. By the end, your eyes hurt from straining and you are not sure you ever want to go to Bora-Bora.

When I talk about moving in closer first I mean with your feet. Move! Neither a sense of intimacy nor getting to know your subject is accomplished by standing off at a distance and changing your zoom lens. Don’t be afraid to approach your subject and get closer.  I love to photograph people so I might start with photographing a friend in a variety of ways to practice and start to get comfortable getting closer.

By moving in close to your subject you bring a sense of intimacy to the viewer and they are drawn into the photograph. They feel as if they are there with you experiencing the same things you are. When you move closer in to your subject your photograph becomes more intimate.

I start by talking with my subjects and helping them to feel comfortable with me. I begin to take photographs and little by little I move in closer. Since I am easing in I am not alarming anyone. I smile a lot, which always helps.

There are times when it does work better to use a telephoto lens to isolate a subject. Generally, I don’t use a long lens as a way to take someone’s photograph when they are unaware but rather to improve the framing. Sometimes you do see an interesting person and you need to take a picture before you have a chance to talk with them or ask permission and a long lens does help in that circumstance.

Not moving in close enough is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome as a new photographer, especially when photographing people. Making dynamic photographs that people remember and are moved by is often simply a process of moving in closer.

I remember a quote from a National Geographer photographer that I read years ago. It was next to a stunning photograph of a person in the country where they were working.  It went something like this – “It takes about four seconds for someone to realize you are taking their picture. Four seconds is a long time.”

Foofie, Sun City Arizona for National Geographic MagazineThis photograph of Foofie was taken for a National Geographic story on the Sonoran Desert in Mexico and Arizona. Foofie was part of the Sun City POMS a group of cheerleaders at the retirement community in Arizona. She was a fit seventy-nine and had no problem standing on her head when the POMS came out to show me their stuff. I took a variety of images, some of the entire group and some closer up. It was this closer image of Foofie that won the day! Joanna Pinneo ©


ngm199305_116-7While on assignment in Croatia for National Geographic we met Dragica, a Serbian refugee during the conflict in former Yugoslavia. She told us her story of losing her family during the Second World War and she felt like it was happening all over again. She was worried about her children and her home. While she spoke to a representative from the United Nations for refugees I quietly stepped back and took some photographs of her with a long lens. We had been talking with her for a while and she wanted to tell us her story and see if we could help. A closer view of her face brings us into her world and with the background out of focus she is isolated from the background. Joanna Pinneo ©


Kartik Singh plays with his daughter. Kartik is a rickshaw driver in Calcutta.

I spent three weeks working in Calcutta, on a black and white project in the city. One of the pleasures for me was meeting this family, Kartik Singh and his wife Kamala. Kartik was a rickshaw driver and lived in a tent on the street. They had two children a boy and a girl, both still quite young. It was not an easy life but they found moments of joy like this scene where Kartik is playing with his baby girl. He had just gotten home from work and he picked her up and bounced her up and down to her delight. Coming in close with a 100mm lens captured the moment as Kartik threw his head back to laugh. Again I used a shallow depth of field to isolate Kartik and his daughter and the background was the plain cloth of their tent. Joanna Pinneo ©


13-20130207jbp_04044I had the privilege of meeting Minara, a 9-year-old girl, her mother Rahima and her little baby sister Sakehna on assignment in Bangladesh.  They beg for a living and live in one small room in a crowded slum. They welcomed me into their home, their lives and offered me generous and gentle hospitality. There is a love and connection between this mother and daughter that reminded me of the relationship I had with my mother. In this photograph, they are coming home after a long day in a middle-class business district begging and were exhausted. As we sat together on the ride home I wanted to focus this particular picture on Minara. I used a normal focal length lens (48mm) to isolate her and her baby sister from the rest of her surroundings. I took a number of photographs, each a bit different but I like this one as she seems lost in a world of her own. Moving in close with this normal lens adds to the sense of intimacy and gives the feeling that we are traveling with her after this long and tiring day. Joanna Pinneo ©


joanna_pinneo_croppedPinneo is a current Ted Scripps Fellow at CU Boulder in the Center for Environmental Journalism. She’s working on a project about the effect of cooking over open fires in the developing world and how the use of clean cookstoves impact the lives of women and children, deforestation, air quality and poverty. Learn more about Joanna here.

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