Archive for the ‘Photojournalism’ Category
If you shoot for very long, bad things will happen. Sometimes those bad things actually happen to you. Most of the time, the bad things happen to your equipment. You may actually be injured while working or you may get sick on a job. Your flight may be delayed or you car may break down. Your cameras may stop working or you may drop a lens. Hey, stuff happens. A friend at the Associated Press got sick during the Super Bowl and was throwing up under the trophy presentation stand, but he kept on shooting. Something is definitely going to happen and it is going to happen to you so how do you deal with it and still get the assignment done?
I remember shooting a football game in Auburn one night. It was the Auburn vs Virginia game. I was kneeling on the sideline and, when I stood up, My left knee went ballistic. It felt like someone had poured liquid fire into the knee joint and I couldn’t even straighten it out without tremendous pain. I still had a game to shoot but walking was extremely difficult and running was completely out of the question. I did manage, after several minutes, to straighten my leg out and limp around. The monopod took on a new job for the rest of that game. It became my crutch. I limped around using the monopod and managed to finish the game and get pictures. Not my best game ever but I did complete the assignment. The three and a half hour drive home was a different sort of nightmare but I am still alive!
That was a little out of the ordinary but the ordinary comes when you drop a lens or a camera or have light stand crash to the ground and break your strobe. Nothing feels quite so awful as standing there with a $6,000 paper weight in your hand! Sometimes, for no apparent reason, your equipment simply refuses to function or to function properly. I could tell you some stories! While shooting the Veterans Day parade this week, my short zoom decided to no longer function. I didn’t know it had quit stopping down until I reviewed frames and saw nothing but blown out frames. I could only shoot at f2.8 if I wanted to use the lens. I think the spring that causes the lens to stop down and release for each exposure has snapped. Hello Nikon! This solution was fairly easy, if not all that convenient, and it was to shoot the rest of the day at f2.8. At least it was a 17-35 so the problem was not overly apparent when shooting at 17mm. Pretty nearly the whole world looks in focus at that focal length. Shooting video at f2.8 was not much fun.
A couple of weeks ago while shooting a college football game, I noticed my camera was not focus tracking properly. By this I mean, it quit focus tracking unless it just wanted to. That was driving me nuts. I had changed no settings on my camera and it had been working just fine until it suddenly decided not to. I was trying to tweak settings while shooting and trying, hoping, not to miss anything important. Makes you a little crazy. I once accidentally dipped the bottom of a Nikon D1 in the Tennessee River. That didn’t go well but, fortunately, it dried out over the next day and functioned again.
My BCS Championship trips have certainly not been smooth. In Pasadena, my laptop did everything but self-destruct while I was on a tight, tight deadline. In Phoenix, I dropped my 80-200 at half time jamming the AF and rendering the zoom useless and locking the aperture at f2.8. I could use it at 200mm in manual focus but it created a severe handicap in the post-game. In New Orleans, an element came loose in the 80-200 during a press conference rendering it completely useless. My boss found someone coming to the game who brought down a spare. Everything went pretty well in Miami so I guess one out of four ain’t bad!
Those are only a couple of examples of how things can go terribly wrong in the field. Here are some suggestions for how to handle it when things do go wrong. First, don’t panic. As soon as you panic you lose the ability to think clearly and go through any problem solving steps. Check out an old episode of MacGyver. That dude could make a bomb out of almost anything! Keep your head and think logically through the issue. If you have an AF problem, there are only so many things that can affect it and there are only a few things you can do to solve it in the field. Walk through the whole process and find a solution. If all else fails, revert to old school and shoot manual. But think and work the problem until you arrive at a solution or until you have to change your approach which leads us to step two.
Change your approach. This may involve going to a piece of backup gear. It may involve borrowing something from a friendly shooter covering the same event. It may mean scrapping the approach you were using and because you can no longer use the piece of equipment. Seriously, if all else fails, pull out your iPhone and finish the assignment. There are usually solutions even if it means thinking completely out of the box. I would hate to have to finish out a college football game with an iPhone but don’t think I wouldn’t do it if all else failed. Let’s pray that all else does not fail!
Carry tape, duct tape or gaffers tape or even cloth athletic tape, but carry tape. You would be surprised how many problems can be solved with a little, or a lot, of tape. I have even fixed a car using duct tape. The stuff is amazing. Tape can fix many things like broken light stands. I have taped a strobe to a light stand when the mounting fixture on the stand broke. Lens hoods can nearly always be temporarily fixed using tape. It may not be pretty, but it can work and that is the bottom line. Tape can also fix more basic things like shoes and clothes that may be torn or partially destroyed while covering an assignment. Tape can be used to strap garbage bags onto lenses and other gear to create a temporary rain coat for your camera. You can use tape to help shape light modifiers. In fact, tape my the be single most indispensible item you carry apart from your actual camera gear. Carry a few bungee cords too. Those things can be life savers.
Don’t be afraid to tinker with a piece of broken gear. Now I am not talking about stripping down your camera body to its electronic guts here and trying to do a major repair in the field. I am saying, if something is broken you may be able to do a little tinkering, minor stuff, and get it back working enough to finish the job. A loose screw can really mess you up but a couple of twists and you are back in business. When you get back with the photos you need, then send your gear to the manufacturer for repair. I have taken parts off a broken lens and put them back together enough to get a few more shots. I have tweaked around on camera bodies to try and get one or two more frames out of them. If it is broken, it has to be fixed anyway so try a couple of simple fixes to see if you can get the gear to finish the job. Like I said, no major surgery in the field. We, most of us anyway, are not camera engineers.
You know what, there are some seriously great photographers running around the planet. I love seeing stuff from those great shooters. I always loved the work of William Albert Allard who shoots for National Geographic. But I love lots of other photographers as well.
I am not William Albert Allard. I am not Jay Janner. I am not Chip Litherland (where does that guy find that light???). I am not Sebastio Salgado. I am not Walter Iooss Jr.. I am not Jahi Chikwendiu or Michael Williamson or Carol Guzy. I am not Al Diaz. I am not Danese Kenon. You know, I seem to “not” be a lot of people. By the way, I know some of those excellent photojournalists and call them friends. Others I have only admired from afar and they won’t ever know who I am but that was some serious name dropping wasn’t it?
But what is the point there Gary? You guys are a great audience.
Know who you are! It helps. Really!
Here we go then. How do you know who you are? I mean, it is far easier to know who you are not. I am most definitely not Chip Litherland. I mention him specifically because that guy exists in a different plane of light than I do. I shot the BCS Championship down in Miami this year. He shot it too. I did a good, literal, job. I saw Chip’s pictures and my first thought was, “Where did he find that light? I was there. I didn’t see that light!” Dang it! The point is, I can’t be him. I don’t see the world the same way he does; therefore, I have to work within the parameters of my gifting. I do have some suspicions though. I think Nikon made that guy a special set of cameras that capture extra light and color!
That doesn’t mean I can’t stretch the envelope every now and then. See, here is the rub. You work day after day and you are who you are, right? But then, something wonderful happens and you grab a photo that expands you, that causes you to grow. Once you have that little bit of growth you can build an entire new way of seeing into your visual repertoire. How does that happen? Man, if I could answer that question… Well, maybe I can take a stab at it.
Most people I know who are photojournalists are discontent. I don’t mean that on the personal level. I mean they are professionally discontent. No matter how good a job I might do on an assignment, I take a jaded view of it because I know I could have done better. I know there were pictures out there I didn’t get. That dissatisfaction drives me to work harder, try new things, fail, grow, get better and repeat. I won’t ever be any of those guys I mentioned but I can use some of their stuff to motivate me.
Let me tell you about Jahi Chikwendiu. I met Jahi while judging the Kentucky News Photographers annual contest a few years ago. We each gave a presentation after the judging and I was so blown away by Jahi’s stuff. The one thing he said that really stuck with me was that he was an advocate for the underdog. I thought to myself then, “that is not me.” I wasn’t sure I liked that about myself. Was I a front runner? Did I side with the majority? Was I fair to the oppressed? Good questions that have helped me modify my approach to my work. I can’t be Jahi. He works for the Washington Post and he gets some serious opportunities around the world working with oppressed people groups. My opportunities happen around Morgan County but, and here is the key, there are oppressed people all over the place, even in Morgan County, Alabama.
You guys just saw a post on here from Jay Janner who works in Austin, Texas. At the 2009 BCS Championship, I met Jay and several of his colleagues. To a person, they told me Jay was amazing and he got shots they didn’t even see. How is that possible? How can a guy get shots no one else sees in this day of the camera being everywhere? It has to be approach and gifting coming together. I noticed a few visual cues in Jay’s work. I noticed he was getting amazing pictures from situations where he probably had a photo assignment but I was pretty sure what he shot was not exactly what was assigned. He was shooting around the edges of assignments as well as shooting the assignment. In other words, he didn’t quit looking for photos even after he had the “assignment” in the bag. I began thinking how often do I quit looking when I have shot the job assigned and been content with that. I can’t be Jay but I can certainly modify my work behavior to keep my visual eyes open. Of course, some, maybe a big portion, of his gift is simply his gift. I can’t have that but I can draw from it.
And that is the key. You can’t be me. I can’t be you. We can draw from one another. We can push the envelope of our own conventions. Here is one of the great truths in life. A major earthquake happens suddenly but it is preceded by many thousands of small slips and shifts beneath the surface no one sees. Likewise, growth happens in small, incremental steps, not in large shifts. When something “suddenly” happens in your life it is usually because a thousand small changes have been going on beneath the surface. Those small changes will someday cause a “break,” or a major shift that everyone notices but only you will know how and why the major change happened.
Here are a couple of suggestions to take away from this piece. First, look at a lot of work. Find some people you admire and become their disciple. I had a professor once who spent a summer with the great photo essayist W. Eugene Smith. He learned so much from Smith and he especially learned how to make a stunning black and white print. When printing meant something, I could make a stunning black and white print too. Printing was not the primary takeaway for my professor. The primary thing I took away from Professor Combs was the primary thing he took away from Smith and that is the power of visual storytelling.
Second, take what you learned from your visual mentor and blend it into your work. Don’t be a copy cat, adapt and innovate. Take advantage of a lot of different stuff and incorporate what you can. You can expand many parameters of your skill set by adapting techniques you have learned from others. Learning how to learn is the most important knowledge you can have. Once you learn how to learn people will be copying what you do because what you do will be worth copying.
I have been doing this photojournalism thing so long I sometimes don’t think about why I do what I do then someone asks a question and I have to stop and think. I was standing beside Highway 67 with a utility crew replacing a line under the highway and the reporter, a new guy from Troy University, asked me, “How do you know what to shoot?” Interesting. I had not thought about that in years, if I had ever thought about it at all. I used his question in a presentation I did later at Troy University for prospective journalists and it is worth looking at here too.
The first, most important thing to know is what is the story about. I mean, standing out there watching guys replace a water line, the answer is rather obvious; however, within that event there are hundreds of things I could shoot so maybe it is not so obvious after all. I had a preacher once say, “keep the main thing the main thing.” Good advice to photojournalists. Don’t go to a fire and comeback with a picture of a cat sitting on a fence and if you do the cat better be smoking, know what I mean? Your photos must have relevance and to have relevance they must be on point. If your photo order does not give you the point, ask questions until you know the point and then shoot to the point.
I always try to look for detail shots or supporting shots that help tell the story. Back in the day when you were only getting one photo published in the paper for any given story, you had to shoot and edit to precision. In other words, you had to tell as much as you could in one image. With the internet you have much more flexibility and can use multiple images to get the point across. Usually, the print product isn’t going to have more than one or two images from a job even today so you still have to tell the story as well as possible in a single image.
Keep an eye out for good photos, even that cat on the fence at the fire, and shoot them too. We have a daily stand alone photo in our paper, every single day, 365 days a year and it has to be local. That doesn’t sound like too tall an order until you have to go out and find one every day, rain or shine, cold or hot, pleasant or miserable, in sickness and in health from this day forward until death, or retirement, do us part. I was shooting a bridge construction project on a county road back in the late summer and, of course, I arrived at exactly the moment they went on lunch break. I hung around and talked to the guys and then I saw the magic. One of the guys set down to eat his lunch beneath the back-end of a big track hoe. That was my best photo. It was not related to the story but we ran it later as a Behind The Lens feature. The image was not related to the assignment so we couldn’t use it for the story but it made a nice piece for the photo column.
Some people would suggest a machine gun approach to photojournalism. Shoot everything then sort it out later. I guess that will work if you have unlimited time to edit but, in our world, that is seldom true. Be purposeful and specific. Shoot a lot once you have identified what you want to shoot but don’t be random. Back to the pipe laying assignment, All my photos are about the men and the pipe. They did a lot of things to get a long section of pipe in place but all my photos were related to that pipe. Makes the edit easier and it helps keep you on point.
The final thing is to try to get into the flow of the assignment. Everything in life has a flow. Sometimes the flow is like the movements of a glacier, to be sure, but there is still a flow. Other times the flow is like a rushing, mountain river. The idea is to get in rhythm with what you are shooting. This is most apparent during a sports assignment. It is easier to get into the flow of a game you are shooting and it is extremely apparent when you are not in the flow. You miss plays, you are a split second late on plays or you are in the wrong place to get a key play. In most assignments it is less obvious but, even with a portrait session, there is a flow. When you are in sync and in the flow you have a kind of visual rhythm that allows you to make pictures without even thinking. You are anticipating picture opportunities and moving to make them even before they happen.
Finding the flow of the assignment is easy once you know how to do it. I find the best way to get in the flow of a non-sports assignment is to engage the person I am photographing. Opening up the emotional door to a person’s life is like stepping into their personal river. You talk, you engage, you listen and before you know it you are making instinctive images and you are not really thinking about it, you are just doing it. There are times when people will not let you in the flow. That happens. When it does, do your best. What else can you do. Not every assignment is going to be a home run.
In a sports or a breaking news assignment where stuff is really jumping, engaging is much easier. You will know you are out of sync nearly as soon as it happens. Most of the time at a sporting event, a fire or a police action, I find concentration helps more than personal engagement. In fact, sometimes if you are talking to a bunch of people you are missing photos. Focus your mind on the task at hand. Try to predict where the action may go next and get into position based on your decision. I find this moves me away from the pack of photographers fairly often. Packs get the same thing. They don’t pay me to get what the pack gets. Anyone can do that. Be the photographer who gets what the pack doesn’t. This has to do with anticipation and positioning. By the way, if you find you are through the first quarter of a game and what you are doing just isn’t working, change what you are doing! The same is true if you are trying to engage someone on a non-sports assignment. If what you are doing is not working, do something different.
Finding the flow takes a little practice but once you know how to do it you will be doing it without thinking about and you will be making intuitive photos.
Now there is a title worthy of some kind of thesis paper or dissertation or at least a term paper! Really though, anyone who knows me knows I like to pull out a $50 word every now and then when a $5 word would do just fine and this headline is one of those times. I am being intrigued by my iPhone and I am exploring ways to take pictures and use those apps and find excuses to share them in some manner or other. With all that I am also fighting a battle in my internal ethics department (that would be my brain where Jiminy Cricket lives) because those nicely processed images don’t fit within the boundaries of traditional visual reportage.
Since I don’t know the answer to the questions lets look at this together. First of all, allow me to state a very basic visual fact. The public, meaning all those people outside the newsroom, are quite visually sophisticated. They spot a fraud quick but they also understand more about the process then we inside the newsroom give them credit for. After all, they adopted Instagram far sooner than the news world did and they were using the iPhone and other smart phones to produce photos a long time before we were so lets give them some credit here. Additionally, we live in the most visually sophisticated age in world history. Wait, scratch that, instead lets say, we live in the most visually saturated age in world history.
Now, let us proceed. Literal visual reporting has been the bread and butter of the news industry for as long as there have been cameras. Maybe you have noticed, that industry is in dire straits right now and most news outlets are turning to different methods in what could be termed a desperate attempt at survival. I mean, I literally saw a bikini contest photo gallery on al.com today. Really? Are we going to sell our soul to the devil? I digress.
What I am attempting to do is ask a question. Is there a place in this new visual world for non-literal visuals? I am not talking about completely faked photos and I am not talking about altering actual news photos. What I am talking about is stuff like you see with this post. My wife and kids and I went to see the Battle For Decatur reenactment Sunday and I only took my iPhone. I was not working and I thought I might play around a little if they got close enough. The iPhone is fine as long as you can shoot in decent light and as long as you don’t have to zoom. Once you zoom or shoot under poor lighting the image quality takes a deep dive in the toilet! I had a tintype app on my phone and it seemed the perfect place to play around with it.
I shot some photos and processed them using that app which simulates the old tintype which was actually around during the Civil War. It was fun and I enjoyed it and I shared a photo gallery on Facebook. I didn’t get the pictures anywhere near the newspaper or the newspaper web site. But would that have been wrong? I mean, is there a place in feature photography to use stuff like this? Is it a tool we can use to drive traffic to our web sites or draw people into the pages of the newspaper.
Think about it for a minute. Had I taken a literal tintype set up out there and shot these photos there would not even be a question. While it is ancient, the tintype is a valid form of photography and some practitioners can still be found around reenactments. I could have published the tintypes with a note explaining the photographic process and it would have been fine. But what about using an app? Is that cheating? Is it unethical? Is it possible to use this kind of photo in the newspaper world and be on safe ethical ground?
In many ways, the iPhone and the apps have already, irreversibly change photography. For that matter, every new innovation since the first exposure on an bitumen of asphalt emulsion has changed photography. Is this another of those evolutions and will the news industry play ball? I remember seeing a big fuss because someone did a portrait of pro baseball player, Alex Rodriguez I think, that was published on a newspaper section front. People in the industry were very critical. It was a nicely done portrait but it did use an app.
Defining the new ethical boundaries has always been difficult. It usually gets the pioneers castigated in any field. Science has a hard time changing its mind if a new idea comes along even if the new idea is a right one. There are terrible battles between the old guard and the new practitioners until either the old guard dies or they find they new idea is correct or until the new idea is discredited. That happens in many walks of life. Photojournalism is not immune. Are we then looking at a new method of visual storytelling, an evolution if you will, or are we watching a new idea be discredited as unethical?
I was so very impressed with the balanced coverage you presented to the readers of your newspaper during the emotional debate in the state legislature over the vote to heavily restrict abortions. Did you have personal feelings about such an emotionally charged issue and, if so, how did you put them aside to present both sides of the story in such a balanced fashion?
Thank you, Gary. My personal feelings about abortion had nothing to do with how I approached my coverage of this story. It has always been my goal to be fair and truthful with all of my assignments, so it came naturally during the abortion debate to set aside my personal views in an attempt to be as objective as possible. Objectivity is one of the things that differentiates the work of professional photojournalists from that of citizen journalists, public relations workers and activist groups.
As a follow up, in covering religious groups protesting abortion issues over the years, I have run across some fanatical people. The visual coverage of the religious groups was very fair. In fact, the pro-abortion crowd seemed much more radical with the bloody signs and things of that sort. Was this a conscious effort on your part? Were you looking over your take every day and considering this or is this just the way the story unfolded?
There was a conscious effort by my editors each day to publish photos of people on both sides of the abortion debate, and not just one side or the other. While photographing and editing, I was consciously trying to be truthful and fair to both sides. Other than that, I was simply covering the events as they unfolded, and I hope my photos, over the course of the debate, were an accurate portrayal of what happened.
Did you have any people on either side, including the law enforcement officers, who gave you trouble while photographing the events?
It was a chaotic scene moments after the bill finally passed. Department of Public Safety troopers forcibly broke up a sit-in in the hallway outside the Senate, and in the process, one of the abortion rights proponents was injured. As I was photographing the protester lying on the floor in a small pool of blood, a state trooper ordered me to stop taking pictures, and to leave the building. I strongly objected, but finally I relented for fear of getting arrested. However, that was the only time I had any trouble. I never encountered any other resistance from law enforcement officials or protesters from either side of the abortion issue.
Obviously you have covered the Texas legislature before. What are the obstacles to covering the state government in Texas?
Security was definitely tighter than normal due to the intensity of the protests, and it took much longer to get through the security screening process. The crowds were large, and the lines to get into the Capitol were long. But once inside, I didn’t have any trouble doing my job, except for that one time I mentioned previously. It seems trivial, but one obstacle was the Capitol news media dress code. Men are required to wear a coat and tie at all times on the floor of the House and Senate. That was a challenge since I had to cover the action both inside the chambers and outside in the blazing Texas summer heat. One time I left my coat inside the Senate, and was nearly denied access to get back in.
On the other side of that question, do you have people inside the Texas government you can depend on to help you or give you better access or information about things that help you get better shots? If so, how did you foster those relationships?
The House and Senate have their own staff photographers who help me by giving me tips, explaining to me what’s going on, or identifying a legislator if I don’t know their name. These are local photographers I have known for a while. They’re generous with their help and time.
How much time did you invest in the coverage on a daily basis and then how much time do you think you put in totally on the issue?
I covered the abortion debate for five days – not consecutively – between July 1 and July 18. I worked one 14-hour day, a couple of 10-hour days, and a couple of normal days. I’d say I spent about 45 hours total on this story.
I especially like the intense exchanges between legislators. How were you able to get such intense moments?
I was just in the right place at the right time when I caught the moment of Rep. Dawna Dukes getting in a pretty intense argument with Rep. Jeff Leach. You just have to stay focused, and also have a little luck sometimes.
This is a question that people working for smaller newspapers might like to know, how many other assignments did you have to cover on days when you were shooting this story?
One day, I had to leave the Capitol to shoot another assignment at an immigration protest nearby. And on the final day when Gov. Rick Perry signed the bill into law, I first had to photograph a business assignment. On that day I was only the backup photographer anyway. It was my assignment to photograph the protesters outside the room, while my co-worker photographed the actual signing ceremony. Other than those two assignments, I worked exclusively on the abortion debate for those five days.
In the instant media world we live in, were you filing from the state capital as the events unfolded? If so, what equipment were you using to edit and transmit from the field?
I used my laptop to transmit photos from the Capitol throughout the day. I also sent some photos directly from my camera by using Eye-Fi wireless SD cards. That’s the usual way we send photos to our website when speed is critical. It’s very fast and easy, and it allows me to keep shooting without stopping to edit on my laptop. The only drawback is you can’t send a caption or crop and tone the photos.
As a follow up, did you use any special gear like remote cameras or iPhones (not so out of the ordinary but not a regular camera) or anything that you don’t normally carry to cover assignments?
For the first time, I used the Instagram video feature which had debuted just a few days earlier. Using my iPhone and the Instagram app, I recorded several 15-second video clips each day. Of course they were not as good as the real videos produced by the Statesman’s video journalists, but they were immediate and they gave viewers a glimpse of what was happening. My Instagram videos were also posted on statesman.com, and some of them were re-tweeted to the Statesman’s 84,000 twitter followers almost instantly after they were recorded.
Were you also shooting video on these assignments? If so, how did you balance shooting the stills and video?
I was only shooting short Instagram videos. Instagram is very simple to use, so it wasn’t difficult to balance video with stills. My main objective was to shoot stills. My very talented video journalist co-workers produced the real videos for the Statesman.
Jay, please feel free to add any other observations you feel are relevant.
I was 350 miles from Austin on vacation in South Padre Island when Sen. Wendy Davis slipped on her pink running shoes and made her filibuster heard around the country. I was enjoying the beach, but I was disappointed that I missed the biggest news of the year. Then Gov. Rick Perry called a second special session to try again to pass the bill, and I knew it was game on. I’ve never seen that kind of intensity at the Capitol in the ten years I’ve worked here, and longtime Capitol journalists said they have never seen anything quite like it. I’m glad I was able to record it for history.
Jay Janner has been a staff photographer at the Austin American-Statesman since 2003. He was a staff photographer at The Gazette in Colorado Springs 1995-2003, and at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times 1992-1995.
Okay, so I am in a weird mood. My kids have gotten into fishing lately and so I have gotten into fishing lately. We have been to the Tennessee River several times over the last few weeks and I am quite a horrible fisherman. No idea what I am doing but I finally did catch a couple of small bass the other day so now I am an expert! But what, you may be asking, has fishing to do with photojournalism? I have always admired how very perceptive you folks are as evidenced by your exceedingly intelligent questions!
We have fished from a pier on the river every time we have been. Frankly, I am a little bored with the location but the kids love it. When they get bored they can run around and play. When I get bored, well, too bad. But here is the metaphorical part. Fishing requires patience. I mean, literally, I probably fished for ten hours over the course of the last few times we have been before catching a fish. Like I said, I am pretty horrible. The kids catch fish but not me! Patience is a great virtue no matter what you do in life but patience in photography is a very great asset.
If you exhibit a bit of patience on any assignment you generally come back with better pictures. Patience allows you to hear the person you are photographing. Hearing is such an important part of seeing. If you go photograph an old veteran you can make a picture but if you listen to his story before you shoot you will actually know what to shoot. He will tell what is important if you are listening. Your patience will pay off in a wonderful photo.
Sometimes the fish aren’t biting what you are throwing so you have to change lures. We ran out of worms the other night and that had been the only way I had been fishing. I tied on a little swimming shad lure and BANG!, they were biting all over the place. Not a hit on the worms. I caught four on the swimming shad. Tonight, nothing on the swimming shad. Being flexible and willing to experiment as a fisherman means you catch more fish.
Do you ever find yourself coming back with nothing, or almost as bad, coming back with the same old photo time after time? Yeah, it happens. Changing technique, lens, light, location, anything can spice up your work and help you make more pictures. I mean, really, you are casting about in the same “river” all the time, at least most of us in community papers are, so when it gets stale you have to make changes. I have looked at the same three counties now for 19 years. It gets a little mundane, visually stale, unless you do something to spice things up a bit from time to time. If you keep on doing the same thing you can expect the same results.
Equipment kind of matters but not as much as people think. Seriously, I can get blanked fishing from a dock with a twenty dollar rod and reel; however, a pro in his big bass boat with all kinds of special gear and thousands upon thousands of dollars invested can get blanked too. I have seen those guys come in from a full day of tournament fishing and have nothing in the bag. It happens. I see people out on the water all the time fishing with nothing but a cane pole and some worms or catfish bait. And they catch fish.
Photographers are the most gadget happy people on the planet and there are never enough gadgets but, and I mean this seriously, how much equipment do you really need. A fisherman on the Tennessee River doesn’t need a rig to catch sharks. If your gig is portrait photography you probably don’t need a 400mm f2.8 lens. I think the key is to match your gear to your needs.
Tonight, on the way home from the river, I told my children, there is no one else on the planet I would rather spend time with than them. I didn’t catch a fish and only had a few nibbles but it really didn’t matter. We spent a couple of hours in a lovely place with each other and my little girl caught a small bass. We all had fish on at one time or another and couldn’t land them but what difference did it make. We were not fishing for food. We were fishing for fun and we had fun.
Photojournalism can be a fairly solitary job. We work alone, a lot. But we also interact with a huge number of people and if your are a photojournalist you will quickly discover that the job is not about the pictures, it is about the people you photograph. I have some assignments I hate but when I go shoot them I find myself enjoying the people I am shooting. And I still get paid! Frankly, if it were just about making pictures I would probably rather shoot landscapes and stuff like that. The most fascinating thing for me about photojournalism is, and has always been, the people I shoot and the people I work with.
I don’t imagine I will ever be much of a fisherman but I can learn from anything and I hope that everything I do makes me a better person and, along the way, a better photographer too.
In the wonderful J.R.R. Tolkein book, The Hobbit, Gandalf is escorting the dwarves on the road from The Shire to Rivendell. He leaves the company for a time and comes back just in time to rescue them from trolls. Thorin Oakenshield, leader of the dwarves, asks him where he had been. Gandalf says he has been looking ahead. Thorin asks him why he came back. Galdalf replies, because he was looking back!
Saturday, my wife and I along with my colleague Brennen Smith and his wife, spent some time looking back as we received awards from the Alabama APME in Birmingham. That was really nice but as I looked at the photos from across the state flashing across the screen, it reminded me to look ahead. I begin looking ahead by looking back. Not to last year, but to the first half of this year. What did I do well? What did I not do well? Where do I need to improve? What don’t I have?
I am a big advocate of asking yourself questions, and answering those questions. This serves me well in both my natural life and my spiritual life, if the two can be considered separately. One who asks questions finds answers. So about half way through any year I try to ask myself where I am. I don’t mean this because of contests; although, contests do provide a vehicle for the discussion. The real motivator is not finishing first in a contest but being satisfied with my year of work.
My great motivator to this point in the year was my failure in the BCS Championship post game. I had a real nice game. I was happy with my action. I was middling pleased with my pre-game but I was bitterly disappointed with my post-game performance. That has burned in me for six months now and I truly hope I get another shot. Every time I think about that post game, it galls me. How could I have performed so poorly? It literally boils down to one bad choice that caused me to be badly out of position. I learned but will I ever the get the chance to apply the lessons? Who knows?
I am gearing up for the new football season. I already have two big, early season games on my radar. Alabama kicks off the year in Atlanta against Virginia Tech. Two weeks later I get the Alabama at Texas A&M game. I am already gearing up mentally for those challenges. My friend Jay Janner, an A&M grad, tells me there has not been a bigger game in College Station than when Alabama shows up in early September. I get two early chances at redemption.
But the rest of my year has gone really well. Almost as well as any I have had before. I have adequate spot news. (No tornadoes this year so my spot news is rather more of the standard variety!) I have some very nice baseball and softball. I have a couple of decent portraits but nothing to write home about. And I have some fairly good features. I have the Baseball Town photo essay which surpassed my wildest expectations and I have a couple of other essays that are in progress. Overall, things are moving along nicely.
So where do I need to improve this year. Definitely, I want the photo essays. The one that is moving along nicely depends on so many uncontrollable factors but it should all turn out well. I have several other essays that will start in the fall and I am really looking forward to them. Then there is one, one I have waited my entire career to shoot. Will it happen this year? I don’t know. It is the most intimate essay I have ever done and will probably ever do. I don’t even know if I can find someone who will allow me to shoot it but the feelers are out. If that essay comes off and comes off well, I will mark this year down as the most successful ever.
Much, then, hangs in the balance and the probability is it won’t all happen the way I want it to. Some of it may never happen. Or it could all happen in the second half of this year. Basically, as I look back, I have a good start and I know it can be a great year if a few things come together. Now, you see my mental process. What are you doing? Do you know where you are? What are you going to do with the rest of your year?
Here are a few favorites from the first half of the year.
By now anyone in journalism knows the Chicago Sun Times dismissed their entire photo staff in favor of reporters with iPhones and freelances. A small chain of papers in Georgia has done the same thing. They say they are going to focus more on visuals now. Umm, yep, that makes a lot of sense. Let’s can the visual professionals and depend on amateurs and reporters with iPhones to make our product better.
I will spare you the comments on the rather obvious absurdity in this and just say these publishers must be fans of Orwellian doublespeak. The iPhone is a very nice little product and it is not the villain here. iPhones don’t take pictures. People take pictures!
In the hands of a real photographer the iPhone takes its place in the tool kit the pro carries around and it is very useful when used appropriately. In the hands of an amateur it is just like every other point and shoot camera they have been shooting blurry, out of focus pictures with for years.
So what purpose can the iPhone serve in journalism? Actually, the smart phone is going to revolutionize photojournalism. The day is near when the DSLR will incorporate 3G/4G connectivity and will have some sort of small keyboard as well as the ability to use apps. Some products have already hit the market with some mix of these features. In the mean time, we have the iPhone.
The iPhone is a wonderful tool for shooting a quick pic for the web because the apps allow you to file immediately from the scene. Some service plans allow you to tether the phone to a laptop then use it like a wireless modem. Apps allow you to to tone, crop and caption. In fact, the iPhone is a small laptop/camera/phone all rolled into one. That makes it a very valuable tool.
But here is the hitch that is tripping up the bean counters. An iPhone does not make a reporter a photographer any more than a computer keyboard makes a photographer a writer. The fact is, a photographer is a very specially gifted visual communicator with a skill set honed over many years of education and daily practice. A visual journalist is not someone who can be replaced by a product. Visual language is a language learned through much practice, patience and hard work. An hour long training session does not qualify one to speak the visual language.
I am very thankful for the digital age. I have benefited greatly from digital photography and the Internet revolution. I would not want to return to the age of film for love or money. I do hope publishers and editors come to an understanding that their visual journalists are among their most valuable employees in the digital age and not someone who can be replaced by a button pusher.
The simple fact is a great photo can be taken with any camera at any time. An amateur gets lucky every now and then but newspapers have not built a reputation for visual communication on luck. There have been some great breaking news photos taken with an iPhone. The plane crash in the Hudson River comes to mind immediately. The news industry simply can’t rely on chance to put together the product every day.
Here we go then, what exactly is the problem? iPhones are not the problem and, much to the general disbelief of everyone in newsrooms, the bean counters are not the problem. Bean counters are very happy as long as they have beans to count. The problem is one of bean scarcity. In other words, our business is broken. We have gone wrong at every step. We began by giving away the information online we were charging for in print. Bad idea. We began cutting costs, read here, people, which lowered the quality of the product. Bad idea. We decided to downsize the product itself but the cost to the consumer and advertisers actually went up. Bad idea. That is the short list. There is, unfortunately, much more.
Now we have the idea running wild through the industry that we can just slap as much content online as possible to generate web page hits. Damn the quality and full speed ahead! Yet again, bad idea. To summarize, we have run amok. We charge dramatically more for dramatically less produced by fewer and fewer and newer and younger staff members who don’t know what they are doing and we somehow expect this to save the industry.
Do you remember the phone book? You know, it had yellow and white pages in it and sometimes blue ones. Do you remember the post office? That was the place you used to go to stand in long lines to mail your letters. Oh, letters, those were things you wrote and sent to someone far away, you know, kinda like using email except slower and less reliable and more expensive. Yeah, things aren’t looking too good right now and it may well be the industry is about as relevant as the post office or the phone book.
As a working photojournalist, what can I actually do? An editor told me something profound yesterday. Yeah, I know, an editor, right! He said a friend told him all the cuts in the industry have taken away the journalist’s right to complain. There is a nose to the grind stone aspect to the job that we have to embrace as our managers attempt to figure this thing out. Work hard, try your best not to complain, and, most importantly, knock your assignments out of the park. There has never been a more important time to do excellent work. I know some, perhaps many places, are throwing anything against the wall hoping it will stick. It reminds me of all the diet fads. Here is a quick weight loss scheme. No, here is one. NO, HERE IS THE ONE. In actuality, the best weight loss plan is now and has always been to eat less, eat better foods and move your body.
That, in essence is what will save the industry too. Do excellent work, do it consistently and work hard with a good attitude. If your assignments aren’t good then go make some for yourself. If your editors are throwing anything on the wall hoping it will stick, give them work that has glue in it. The glue is excellence. One attitude my dad and mom taught me early in life is if something is worth doing it is worth doing well. Don’t lose your attitude to do quality work just because people all over the place are clamoring for more, more, more.
The photos for this post were shot with my iPhone while on vacation this past couple of weeks. I am falling more and more in love with the iPhone as a camera. The thing is versatile but it has some serious limitations as well. That is a topic for another post. The scenic stuff was shot in and around Tupper Lake in the Adirondacks. I carried my phone and shot photos while running the Boilermaker 15K in Utica, NY.
When I started documenting my son Peter’s first baseball season I had the vague idea I might publish it either here on the blog or, maybe, in The Decatur Daily. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it might end up in ESPN The Magazine but there it is. You already know the story regarding the photographing of Baseball Town but I haven’t written anything here in a while so allow me to give you a quick recap. My ten year old decided he wanted to play baseball this year. It was his first season and our first ball player in the family since our 24 year old was 12.
I had read how professional baseball and sports photographer Brad Mangin had done a book of Instagram photos around the Big Leagues. He said it had refreshed him and I was in a place where some refreshing was in order. I decided to try a version myself. I had always had in my mind a story on baseball through the ages, from the youngest kids all the way to Major League Baseball. Well, lacking an MLB team in our three county coverage area I opted for the journey from the little leagues through high school. My iPhone was presenting me with a new way to see things and I liked the idea of challenging myself to see the way it was capable of seeing.
I never put any pressure on myself to shoot. My whole idea was to be refreshed and enjoy the process. I never even took anyone’s name as I shot. That was almost too laid back! Never the less, I shot for a couple of months and really liked what I was seeing so I showed some proofs to our executive editor and he said we could go for it and publish a story. I went to our advertising folks to secure a double truck so we would have plenty of room to play the photos. I learned a long time ago not to commit the details to anyone else. When I am doing a project, I walk it through every step myself to make sure that the ball does not get dropped by someone who has too much on their mind to think about my project.
I actually had to make proofs when I was all finished shooting and carry them back down to the fields and get names. Not the best option but it worked. We published a beautiful spread in the newspaper and I was very pleased. I posted the photo gallery on my blog and sent a link to ESPN photo editor Jim Surber in the hopes he would like something there and, perhaps, he would remember me with some future assignment. It never entered my mind he would want to publish these particular photos. I figured they were too local for ESPN’s market.
He emailed back and said they coincided with an upcoming youth sports issue and could he publish them either on ESPN.com or in the magazine? I answered that email pretty quick! We went through a few weeks as Jim finished up an issue of the magazine before the youth sports issue then the ball was rolling. He selected 20 images for a gallery and told me there would also be one in the magazine. I would have been dancing if I could dance! Unfortunately, all my rhythm is in my trigger finger. None made it to my feet.
I am delighted and literally couldn’t be happier unless one of them had landed on the cover or something. I think the thing that gives me the most satisfaction is the project was something born in my brain and it exceeded my greatest expectations. Y’all have read enough of my posts to know I am seldom speechless but I don’t have words to express the joy at having this particular project do so well. It is a great, great feeling.
Now, lets do a little soul searching and teaching since that is actually the purpose of the blog. A question: how do you feel about the ethics of using apps to tone photos and give them a particular look? Let me explain. I live in a world of real life photography that should be toned to meet what the eye saw and to translate that onto newsprint or the computer screen, nothing more. In my normal world, adding filters and borders and things like that is taboo. So, how did I squirrel my way around that ethical hurdle? Glad you asked. You all are a very intelligent and perceptive audience.
I wanted this project to have a bit of a nostalgic feel. At least, after I began it as something other than a project for the family album. Once I had the idea I embarked upon a search in the App Store to find something that would give me the look and feel I was after without constraining me to squares. I felt this was an okay approach because I was not attempting to alter the photographic content of the images. I was using the application’s filters to achieve a certain look and feel to the photographs. You may still feel a little uncomfortable with that approach. I will ask if you have ever converted a color image to a black and white. What? Yes! Then drop the stones people, you live in glass houses. I can’t tell you how many people I talk to who love the feel of a black and white image. I do too sometimes. The problem is, we don’t live in a black and white world so when you change that world to black and white you have done exactly what I did in my project.
We could argue over the borders but let me take you back to the old days in the darkroom. I know, some of you children don’t know what a darkroom is and never participated in any of the dark arts that brought beautiful prints into the world. Poor children. Anyway, back in the day, people use to file their negative carriers to create a black border around the print. Some even made or bought special negative carriers so the film edges would show. Hmmm, sounds like my ethical ground is not so shaky after all.
Now, let me bring this back to a rock-solid ethical foundation. This was a feature photo essay, not a documentary project nor hard news reporting. I set out with the idea of allowing the feel of the photos to be a part of the storytelling process. Were I reporting on a fire or an election or a boring city council meeting, I would have shot straight up news images without the faintest hint of alteration. People in the public have a high level of visual sophistication and they don’t need to have their hands held as they walk around our photo ethics. If they see a reportage image, they don’t get bent out of shape if it is reproduced in black and white. They do; however, find obvious image manipulation in news photography hard to swallow. What I am saying here is our photographs are being viewed by the most visually sophisticated generation in human history. They can handle what you throw at them as long as you are honest about it. One thing, keep you hard news reporting as honest and straightforward as you possibly can because the credibility of the the industry depends up it. With features and fun stuff, we can go off the reservation a little without concern.
We have two really big festivals annually in Decatur. The first, The Alabama Jubilee, is far and away the most visual of the two; although, the Spirit of America Festival is the largest. Decatur is probably more well known for the Spirit of America Festival but Alabama Jubilee is eye candy, pure and simple. If you can’t make a picture photographing hot air balloons then you need to hang up the camera and just watch. Seriously.
The only problem is balloonists fly very early in the morning. I am an early riser but these guys make me seem lazy. I had to be to Point Mallard at 6 a.m. Saturday and again at 6:30 on Sunday so they got me up early for my doses of visual sugar. But the icing on the cake was getting to fly Saturday morning. Pilot Kenny Jay from Missouri took me up in his balloon, Mai’Ken Dreams, to fly in the Hare and Hound race.
There is nothing quite like riding in a hot air balloon. If you could walk on a cloud it couldn’t feel any better than riding in a hot air balloon. There are challenges; however, to shooting hot air balloons. Number one: don’t drop that lens. It is a long way to the ground and you might put it in someone’s bed, or swimming pool, as you fly over. Go explain how that happened to your boss! The other problem is technical. You are frequently shooting into the sun. Hot air balloons are large and you can use them to block the sun but it seems an awful lot of images are shot looking directly into the big, yellow disc in the sky.
One of the most beautiful aspects of the Jubilee is the balloon glow Saturday night. About sunset, all the balloonists inflate and give tethered rides. Just after it gets dark, they have a glow. Basically, the balloonists fire their burners and it illuminates the balloon envelopes and the colors are stunning. It is a very beautiful sight. You don’t really need a tripod to shoot; although, a bunch of people bring them and use them. I dial up about ISO 1600 or 3200 and just let it rip. You can meter pretty well off a lit balloon and figure it out. After that it is all about finding a good shooting position. Fun times!
There is not much I can tell you about how to shoot the event. Just lock and load is, I guess, the best advice. Don’t hesitate to burn away. If it is a sunny morning when they launch you will see some of the most beautiful and intense colors filling a high blue sky. You will drool, visually speaking, of course. Hang around all day and shoot the glow and you will have such a complete color experience you will be satiated.
Below are some of my favorite images from the day. Hope y’all enjoy looking.