Portrait Photography: The Circle of Personal Space

Portrait Photography: The Circle of Personal Space

Tourists taking photographs during the Notting Hill Carnival in London.
Why do these tourists allow me to get so near and photograph them without being frightened?
What psychological mechanism is working here?

Published on 2015/10/27 - Text and Pictures by Alberto Mateo, Travel Photographer for The Last Footprint.

One of the lessons that years of experience teach is that unless you’re shooting still life photographs or landscapes, photography is a PSYCHOLOGY game. To succeed in photography you have to try to anticipate the reactions of the people you are going to photograph and try to guess the reasons that move them.  Always try to anticipate the psychological situation your subject is immersed into and you will improve your photography for sure.

Imagine you are in Piazza di San Marco in the always beautiful Venice, one of the most photographed places on Earth. No matter what season or part of the day you are, is it possible to imagine more cameras per square meter in a different Square of the planet?

You have the Bassilica di San Marco on the left. The Palazzo Ducale and the columns of the Lion and San Marco in front of you, the Campanille (Bell Tower) on your right. Hundreds of doves fly around your head while the violins of the terrace of Cafe Florian play Vivaldi in the distance. You can see that the biggest army of tourists the Christianity has ever seen surrounds you. They are doing selfies, feeding the doves, photographing themselves and all the monuments and buildings in the Square.

You think to yourself that you would like to take an enviromental portrait showing people and those spectacular ancient sorroundings. Portrait photography is one of your main prioirites in your trip.


Why don’t you get frightened if you know you are in the viewfinder of many cameras, mobiles and tablets of dozens of people who are photographing in the Piazza? Why don’t you get nervous, even furious, because you are going to appear in the pictures of people who maybe the next day are going to fly back home to Shangai, Toronto or Sao Paulo? Your brain doesn’t send a message to your guard to be up.

Now let us imagine other situation. Imagine it is Sunday, early in the morning, and you walk alone in an empty street in a big city downtown. Everybody still is sleeping, you can hear your footsteps.

You see a person walking towards you at the other extreme of the street. You don’t know her intentions but, why do you get nervous? If you heard her steps behind, you would manage to take a fast and nervous look back: “who is walking behind me?” You get ready to run away if needed. Your brain is sending alarm messages to your consciousness.

Now imagine that, when you are going to cross the other person, he shoots you a photograph ‘in your face’… uh! Your normal reaction would be getting really wary, even frightened!

The Circle of Personal Space can be defined as the sphere around you where you allow unknown people to enter and, maybe, photograph you.

What is the difference between the two situations? It is what is called the Circle of Personal Space, which is a measure of the sense of alarm you feel in a specific situation depending on the people you have around. The Circle of Personal Space can be defined as the sphere around you where you allow unknown people to enter and, maybe, photograph you. Each person has her own Circle and is always in the center. The Radio varies with the situation that person is immersed in, and this Radio is the key for the photographer to get a picture shot from ‘inside the action’ or a distant one.

This psychological Circle might be the result of hundreds of years of evolution, reminiscences of a time when we were hunters… or preys, when we had to have a sense of alarm to protect ourselves from predators.

In a place full of people like a County Fair or Piazza San Marco, you feel safe and stop being alert. Your Circle of Personal Space is big, you allow people to be near you and, in some situations, even photograph you without paying attention. In an empty street of a big city your Personal Circle is small, and if the city is dangerous or unknown, even smaller. You will not allow strangers to get near you without noticing a sense of alarm.

As a photographer you are in the other position: you are the stranger who is ‘haunting’ pictures. If you are shooting street scenes, you have to try to anticipate that circle of the persons you want to photograph and the possible consequences of shooting them.

If you are shooting street scenes, you have to try to anticipate that circle of the persons you want to photograph and the possible consequences of shooting them.

This Radius of this Circle depends on the Personal Experiences of the subject, in the place where she lives (in big cities it’s usually smaller), in cultural aspects (do her religion or society tolerates pictures?) or in personal aspects (is he a wary or trustful person?)

Did I ask a group of young students of photography what photography is about, they would tell me that photography has to do with shutter speeds, f numbers, ISO’s, Megapixels, RAW files… but I can bet that they would never say that it is about PSYCHOLOGY.

Sooner or later you will be photographing human beings who think, relate each other, who have fears and wishes, and your final aim as a photographer is to reflect not only the skin cover we all can see in a person, but also those inner feelings that get reflected in any portrait photograph.

Have you ever had an unpleasant or funny experience shooting pictures?

Have you experienced yourself the Cirle of Personal Space of any of your subjects? Have yoy photographed in Street Carnivals?

NOTE: On the next Post I of this series will examine two different situations with two persons with different Personal Circle.




I needed to 'freeze' their movement. 1/125 would have been enough, but 1/250 was better to be sure no motion blur was going to be registered.


I was using Shutter Speed priority program and the aperture fell at f5.

ISO: 100

This image would have gained nothing with noise... so set the aperture to ISO 100. ISO 200 or 400 would also have worked.


I had to freeze the movement, and everyone was moving fast during that Carnival day. Anything faster than 1/125 would have worked.

LENS USED: Nikon 12-24mm AF at 16mm (24mm in Full Frame Format)

This type of events are better photographed 'from inside', with a wide angle, than 'from far away', with a tele. A wide angle gives the viewer a sense of being inside the scene.


This is a 'fast' picture; I did not have much time to think about how to take it. My priority was to try to freeze the movement so chose a relatively fast speed, 1/250, and allowed the aperture fall wherever it fell, which was f5, enough to get some depth of field with the wide angle I was using.Have you liked this post? If so you can SUBSCRIBE to The Last Footprint to receive the last updates, learn photography and get travel tips. It is FREE and you can unsubscribe whenever you want.


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