Cheré Coen
Freelance writer and photographer Cheré Coen.

My entrepreneur father gave me one of the best pieces of career advice — and it had nothing to do with business.

“The secret to great photos is to get in really close,” he told me.

Sticking a camera in a person’s face used to intimidate me, but he was right. The greatest shots happen when we trespass others’ personal space and capture the unique beauty of the human personality.

Think about the times you’ve struggled to squeeze your family into a selfie, unable to move your arm far enough away to include everyone. Then a friendly person arrives and offers to help. You hand him the camera and gather the family together, smiling for all the world, while the kind person walks backwards toward China. Invariably, you end up with a family photo, but can hardly make out the faces.

So, when people entrust me with their cameras and phones, I let them get comfortable, then move forward quickly and snap the shot before they have time to object. They usually fuss at this point so I take the standard head-to-toe, lots of boring background-included shot.

It’s the same in my job as a travel writer and journalist. The best photographs are not the tiny people standing before the Eiffel Tower but the couple romancing beneath its shadow or the college students’ exuberant smiles as they take in their first trip to Paris. Feeling the joy of both situations can only happen if the photo has been shot up close.

But how do you take personal photographs in these times of social distancing?

I defer to my son, a professional photographer in Los Angeles, California, who obviously inherited the family film-craft genes.

lens for camera
Joshua Coen uses Cannon’s 18-135 mm lens to get close pictures from a safe distance.

“The best way to photograph people up close while still keeping your distance is to use a zoom lens,” explained Joshua Coen, who teaches photography at the United Cerebral Palsy of Los Angeles and exhibits his art. During the COVID-19 crisis, he’s been traveling through the city taking portraits of clients in their facilities.

“It’s what I’ve been using on my drive-by photo shoots,” he said. “It allows me to stay at least 6 feet in distance and still get pretty close.”

There are many kinds of zoom lens to choose from, Josh said, but he prefers an 18-135mm zoom lens.

Purchasing a zoom lens can also serve as an educational experience.

“This is a great chance to familiarize yourself with millimeter ranges,” Josh said. “The higher the second number, the more range you have and the closer you can get to photograph your target. Compare that with your other lens and see how the numbers affect your range.”

[Nikon provides a handy article explaining focal lengths.]

If you’re shooting with your phone, use the camera’s zoom features or purchase lens attachments to clip on to the phone camera’s viewfinder.

“Some lenses extend the range and reach and can help you get closer to a subject that’s farther away,” Josh said.

Of course, photographers should always wear protective gear such as face masks and gloves.

Virus or no virus, don’t be shy to get in people’s faces. It’s where the real beauty lies.

Cheré Coen is a food and travel writer and photographer living in Lafayette, Louisiana. She writes for Louisiana Country and Along These Lines, bi-monthly publications published by the Association of Louisiana Electric Cooperatives in partnership with Pioneer Utility Resources.