Sean Gallagher advises including people when framing buildings to show the relationship between man and his environment
Raffles City Beijing’s unique architecture provides plenty of photo-worthy opportunities as light plays on different portions of the building; Sean Gallagher advises including people when framing buildings to show the relationship between man and his environment

“Photographers are people-watchers. We watch people to anticipate how they might react in a certain situation, where they might come from, or when they might walk into your frame,” reveals six-time Pulitzer Center grant recipient and National Geographic Creative Photographer, Sean Gallagher.

In truth, the British enviromental photojournalist and documentary film-maker is much more than a just a people-watcher. He is a master story-teller, drawing you into his narrative with every click of the shutter.

His is certainly a compelling story, that of man’s lifelong relationship with his environment. And he tells it beautifully and often, his works appearing in notable publications like The New York Times, National Geographic News, CNN, The Atlantic, and BBC News.

A self-taught photographer, Gallagher shares five photography tips he has gleaned from his many years in the field.

1. Change Your Angle

“Don’t be afraid to experiment,” he says by way of his first piece of advice to aspiring photographers.

“The obvious angle is at eye level. But there are so many different ways you can approach something. Crouch, stand on something, go to the building opposite, shoot from a bridge, get up close - it’s all about using your imagination.”

The man who has a degree in Zoology from England’s University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne shares a story of his experience photographing endangered alligators in Central China.

“I had been looking at them at a low angle as they swam in the water. So, I decided to try and find an elevated place so I could look down on them. I managed to get a shot where the alligators were in focus but the water around them was blurred.”

Of shooting buildings, he says, “The building is not going to move. So you have to find a great angle. Try shooting up at the building to give a sense of scale. Use light at different times of the day. And I like to frame people within the context of the building.”

He adds, “Be in a position where you are ready to capture the moment. Then, it comes down to luck. That’s the interesting thing about photography.”

2. Timing is Everything

With people, Gallagher advises patience. He should know as he often spends months living with a community to document their lives.

“It helps if you can speak a few phrases [of their language]. It breaks down barriers.”

Impressively, Gallagher himself speaks Mandarin, having been based in China for the last seven years. In addition, he is also able to communicate simple greetings in 10 languages including Japanese, Indonesian, and even Mongolian and Tibetan.

“I know how to say the simple phrases like ‘hello’, ‘thank you’, ‘good-bye’,” he shares.

“I try to develop a demeanour of harmlessness. I smile and make people feel comfortable enough that they forget I am there.”

Then, it comes down to timing and the ability to “see things slightly before it happens” or recognising that “decisive moment”.

3. Use Light and Shadow

One of the golden rules of photography is lighting. But Gallagher does not subscribe to the idea of the golden hour (right after sunrise, just before sun set).

“You can take great photos at any time of the day. It just requires creativity and a knowledge of how to use light.”

He prefers the interplay of light and shadow and shares how he was once on his way back from a day-long shoot in Tibet when he chanced on a group of construction workers by the road. On the spur of the moment, he decided to stop and photograph them.

“I made this image in which the crew was at a low angle, thrown into darkness and framed against a blue sky.”

“Sometimes, at that moment when you are ready to finish with the day, the chance might appear and it might be the best shot of day,” he muses.

4. Frame within a Frame

Another thing Gallagher looks out for is an opportunity to shoot a frame within a frame.

“Look out for a window, door or opening which has been created,” he says.

“Or find things that have frames like other photographs or a painting.”

5. Capture Happiness

Asked about capturing something as nebulous as emotions, he talks about the need to have a “sense of place”.

“It’s not just what a place looks like but what it feels like. I often do this by framing people with their environment. I find this an interesting way to communicate feelings,” he explains.

Gallagher is one of the judges of this year’s National Geographic-CapitaLand Limited Building People’ Photography Competition which calls for entries to reflect ‘happiness’ against the backdrop of CapitaLand properties in the Asia Pacific region.

“It’s interesting to see how some of the participants have interpreted happiness. I was looking for the relationship between people expressing happiness and framing that within the context of the building,” he says of the shortlisted photographs.

At the end of the day, photography is about “immersing yourself in situations to get near the story”. Zoom in on his tips and it won’t be long before you will be capturing an image that speaks volumes.

Vote & Win!

Vote for your favourite CapitaLand photo entry online @ or visit the voting booths at the following CapitaLand properties:

  • 18th - 20th July : The Star Vista
  • 21st - 24th July : Twenty Anson and Six Battery Road
  • 25th - 28th July : Bedok Mall and Bugis+
  • 29th - 31st July: Capital Tower
  • 29th July - 3rd August : Funan DigitaLife Mall
  • 1st - 3rd August : Westgate

‘Building People’ Photography Exhibition