Bob Krist’s assignment from Nikon was to take a COOLPIX P7100, an SB-700 Speedlight, an SU-800 Wireless Commander and a few accessories and shoot people pictures that would demonstrate the camera’s flash versatility. Find the folks; convince them to pose; shoot them. Piece of cake.

I mean, we all know how easy and comfortable it is to approach strangers and take their pictures; not paparazzi shots, but portraits and lifestyle images that tell stories about their interests and activities. Easy as pie.

But Bob is an experienced, resourceful travel photographer who’s photographed people all over the world. And even the timing was right: Bob had been hired by the Carolina Nature Photographers Association to give the keynote address at their convention in Columbia, South Carolina, and after the convention, he and his wife, Peggy, were going to travel around eastern coastal areas, where people are known to be plentiful.

Things started well. During the keynote speech Bob noticed the convention attendee he calls “the big guy”—nature photographer Loy Stroupe. “Great face, great look, and as the keynote speaker I had the perfect introduction,” Bob says. Still, you don’t just walk up and say, “Can I take your picture?”

“You have to share a little of what your mission is,” Bob says. “Pro photographers perhaps have it easier. We can say, ‘I’m on assignment for Nikon or National Geographic.’ I always counsel amateurs to give themselves some sort of mission. Let’s say you’re in Ireland, visiting the villages your relatives came from and you see someone you’d like to photograph. Tell the story of why you’re there: ‘My grandfather’s from here, and I’m doing a slide show about Ireland for my kids, and it would be great if you’d be in a picture for me.’ Always put it that you’re asking for help with your project. So before you travel, have an idea of what your mission is—or could be. If you give yourself an assignment, you’ll have much better pictures because you won’t be aimlessly waiting for inspiration. There’s a saying: inspiration is for amateurs.”

Bob will also often contact tourist boards and ask if there are any interesting people, like historic reenactors or craftspeople, who are known in the area. 
Other times he finds subjects though basic networking, as one contact leads to another.

Or he can simply be a tourist. “I took the tour through a historical building in Charleston, South Carolina. At the end of the tour I told the guide, Phillip Ayers, what I was doing and asked him to pose. In a situation like this, if you’re working with someone who is not a professional model, and who is busy, you want to have an idea of what you want to do and know your gear so you’re not taking time making settings or changing lenses. The whole time on the tour I was thinking about backdrops and lighting, and I had the spot picked out and got a dozen frames in under two minutes. So always have a plan before you approach the person you want to photograph.”

The man playing the flute is Marion May, a street entertainer in Savannah, Georgia. “I was driving, and I heard the flute before I saw him, all in red, a cool looking guy. Street entertainers live off tips, so I’m not going to ask him to take time for me without offering 15 or 20 dollars. We went to the riverfront, and I took a low-angle view to put him against the sky and eliminate most of the background.”

The bassist is Ben Tucker, who plays with his combo at a Savannah hotel. “A friend of a friend suggested him,” Bob says. “The hotel was happy to cooperate by letting us use the space for the 15 minutes it took. His body language was perfect, and that’s something you have to think about when shooting people. The problem is that you’ll get a feeling about how natural they’re going to be in front of the camera only when they’re in front of the camera. Some people relax, others get stiff. What you need to do is get them to lean against something or hold something. People at rest or at leisure don’t stand with their weight evenly distributed on both feet, except when they’re going to be shot.”

Nikon’s Learn & Explore story gets into the technical side of Bob’s COOLPIX flash assignment. Check it out here.