Archive for the ‘Technique’ Category
I was reading a Facebook post the other day from a friend and it said something like, there is no secret to success. I paused. I thought about it. Maybe there is no single secret to success. I don’t actually know but something about the statement didn’t sit well with me. That is usually a good thing because when I start to cogitate on something I don’t initially agree with I usually learn something.
Success, especially in photojournalism, is a funky formula of being in the right place, at the right time, with the right equipment, looking in the right direction and having the right vision. There is an old Photo J expression, “f8 and be there,” that comes from the days of the Speed Graphic camera with the big flash bulb. Be there and be ready and get it in focus was the essential message. That is the first and most important part of the success formula. If you are not there you certainly can’t get the picture. Reporters can do big parts of their job on the phone. No such luck for us. We have to be there.
Some folks say that luck is not really some blind set of chances that combine out of the blue rather, luck is the intersection of planning and preparation with a moment. In other words, luck favors the prepared. Sometimes a photo does just drop out of the sky in your lap, so to speak, but those are very rare. Luck is planning and preparation – the right place with the right equipment – and then witnessing and capturing the moment as it unfolds.
These seem to suggest there is more to photography than pushing a button. Indeed! Consistently high quality performance is not something you get from Joe Citizen with his new camera who just happens to be standing in the right spot. Consistently high quality performance is what you get from a seasoned photojournalist who is continually putting himself/herself in the right place at the right time with the right equipment and who is paying attention to what is happening in front of the lens and occasionally behind their backs, off to the sides or behind the tree where no one else is looking.
This suggests something that has not been said. I have a great friend and mentor who passed away on New Year’s Eve. Dave Martin, whom we all affectionately knew as “Mullet,” and who was one of the legends of the Associated Press, once told me something that I will never forget. He said, “Gary, I am not the greatest photographer the AP has but I get great assignments because my bosses know when they send me on a job I will work harder than anyone else.”
Hard work is the last part of the success equation. I remember Mullet showing me a portfolio of images of sports jubilation he was putting together. I was expressing my amazement at the collection of images and that was when Mullet gave me that little secret to success. I know I am not the best photographer in the world but I also know that I can work harder than anyone else and put myself into a position to succeed.
What does hard work for a photojournalist actually look like? I tell people all the time that watching me work is about one step below watching paint dry on the excitement scale. After all, what am I doing; pushing a button? Yeah, that, but what I am really doing is what goes on before I push the button. When I am shooting sports I tend to be very active, not always, but most of the time. I run, literally, from one place to the next to get into a position to shoot something I think might happen. Sometimes I miss. Sometimes it doesn’t happen or doesn’t happen the way I think it will. But more times than not I find myself in the right place at the right time with the right gear and then I push the button.
The same goes for breaking news. You have to be there and you have to be there at the opportune moment. That is where the work comes in. Getting into a position to shoot breaking news can be the biggest challenge. A weather event is tough to predict and tough to get into a position to shoot and still maintain a margin of safety that gets you in and out in one piece. Many times you will have to deal with police barricades, road closures, property issues, personal safety concerns and you still need to get the photo. The hard work comes in getting yourself into the right place to do the job. Then, of course, you have to get the photo or video on the web as soon as humanly possible – or sooner.
How about shooting a portrait, or a standard news feature assignment? What is hard work there? Much of it is mental. It involves imagination and it involves planning and you finally get to execute the photo. Many times I am making my plan on the fly while driving to an assignment. I usually don’t have a tremendous amount of advance time on a job so I have learned to quickly adapt and to minimize gear except in rare circumstances. For instance, there was a portrait I did a few years ago of a couple who reconstructed a log cabin on their property. I wanted to do a portrait at dusk that showed off the cabin and would have them standing on the front porch. I strung together ever light and every pocket wizard I could come up with. I think I had six strobes, maybe it was seven, hanging here and there to get the natural effect I wanted. I love the shot but it took a ton of work to set up and execute. That is the exception. Most of my portrait work for the job is a one light umbrella set up that is light and portable.
What about you now? What will your secret to success be? Whatever it is, please don’t outwork me. That is what keeps me employed!
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.
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.
I purchased a new iPhone a couple weeks ago. My first photo with the iPhone was shot through raindrops on my windshield which I posted on Facebook. I was so shocked at the amazing quality I quickly incorporated it into my daily workflow. This is my very first smart phone and one reason I wanted the iPhone over some of the others was my comfort level with Apple technology and the photo compatibility the phone brings me. Purchasing a phone with the intention to use it to take photos both personally and professionally started me thinking about the partnership between photography and technology.
It has not been too long ago that I was practically married to strobes. That was a byproduct of having to shoot with digital equipment that required a lot of pampering to produce a decent result. Before that, color film had to be heavily strobed in any kind of mixed light, especially if that film was some form of slide film. If you have been shooting long enough to remember the old days of black and white film photography, you will probably remember using a strobe very rarely. You could just make black and white film do what you wanted it to. With each technological evolution, photographers have acquired a new skill set or improved upon an existing skill set.
I have been shooting with a Nikon D4 now for about 9 months. To say the camera is amazing would be short selling it. I shot the Hartselle Christmas Parade last month and it was just dark. They changed the street lights to these funky, old fashioned looking lights that are not especially bright. I figured it was just going to be too dark to work without a strobe. I dialed up ISO 6400 on the Nikon D4 and took a test image. I nearly laughed out loud. It was spectacular! I shot all night at ISO 6400 and was just amazed at the image quality.
I realized I have not shot with the multiple strobe and Pocket Wizard combo I had become so used to in a very long time, weeks in fact. I realized I really don’t use strobes much at all anymore and when I do I don’t hesitate to set one in the hot shoe and bounce it off of something, even something pretty far away. I realized how much the D4 and the D3 before it have freed me and changed the way I shoot. I literally have the confidence to shoot available light on almost any assignment now and it feels good.
In my mind, photojournalism, especially the news reportage part of it, should be shot as close to reality as possible. Adding light to a news situation should either be so subtle that it isn’t noticeable or it should be so pronounced that it is unmistakable. It is a matter of ethics. Either shoot the strobe so it only does the minimalist work of filling in certain shadows that would kill reproduction, say, in a florescent lit room where the awful under eye shadows and overblown foreheads would create an image that is not one the eye saw, or it should be direct, on-camera flash like you might have to shoot in a night time breaking news situation. What I would not wish to do would be to set up strobes in a way that alters the reality of the room and creates a situation that the general public attending the event would not have seen with the eye.
The new cameras are exciting because they have allowed us to take back reality and not set strobes all over the place to shoot news. Of course, when we do now have to strobe something, it can be done with far less power because the high ISO quality is so amazing now. Obviously, when shooting feature jobs like fashion or food or some portraits, this doesn’t apply. But it is absolutely wonderful to be able to shoot with no flash and not have to worry about image quality and press reproduction issues. We can now work faster, carry less gear and actually do a more realistic job of reporting.
One other thing that the new technology is allowing is for us to switch between stills and video on the same camera body. This is a revolution in visual reporting, of course, that has been going on now for several years. The newest DSLR cameras have such excellent image quality, I suppose you could use the video on any platform. The audio still needs some work but, Wow!, how far we have come in a short period of time. I shot video with my new iPhone the other day and was blown away by the image quality. I mean, the thing is shooting 1080 HD video! Amazing.
Of course, all this technology also creates choices we never used to have to make. Just ast week, I found myself photographing police arresting a couple of bank robbery suspects. I pulled out a tripod and shot from the sticks because I knew I had to get both photo and video and I can’t hold an 80-200 steady enough by hand. Shooting this way also caused me to slightly miss focus on what may have been the best image. We don’t have viewing attachments for our LCD so checking focus on the camera back can be a little difficult. I was slightly out shooting some of the video. It wasn’t a big deal on the video, but it was horribly noticeable in my still frames. I switched back without checking focus and the focus had slipped a couple feet behind the subjects.
We are juggling many things including social media. Our newspaper is really stepping up our online efforts using Facebook and Twitter and I am now tweeting. Me, tweeting, smh. Who would have ever thought. Oh well, it is the next evolution. Actually, the next evolution is getting iPads and using a new app that promises to revolutionize deadline visual reporting. We will literally be shooting, pulling an iPad Mini out of my pocket and transmitting without ever leaving the news scene or the sidelines. What a crazy new world. I have literally moved in my career from shooting only black and white film for an all black and white newspaper to very soon shooting an image and transmitting within a couple of minutes to update the website. We used to have one deadline a day, maybe two if there were a special section or something like that. Now, deadline is, well, now. Welcome to the brave new world of high-tech photojournalism.
If you want to follow my social media exploits, (LOL), you can follow me on twitter @garycos8 and you can friend me on Facebook. If we don’t know each other already, send me a message so I know you are a reader here. The times, they are a changing. The video below was shot on my iPhone. Stunning video from a phone but the sound is a bit spotty.
My wife and I celebrated our 25th anniversary last week. We took a trip out of town for the weekend and, among the many pleasurable experiences we had, we visited the Louisville Slugger factory and museum. Holding those wonderful bats in my hands brought back such great memories. I had this amazing Johnny Bench model Louisville Slugger when I was 14 and man, I could hit the daylights out of the ball with that bat. Then I made a terrible mistake. I let another kid on our team use it. He broke the bat in his first swing. I wanted to take that broken bat and just wale on him. That must be why I never made it to the big leagues!
Anyway, I started daydreaming back to the days when I could hit home runs. I remember how, when I would swing the bat and connect and never felt the ball hit the bat but I knew I had nailed it. I would look up and see that ball soaring into the the sky and watch it land outside the fence. Man, what a feeling that was. Hitting a home run was my first true pleasure. The memories of those home runs remain to this day as some of the purest feelings I ever felt. It was like the bat was a perfect extension of my arms and that moment when I knew I nailed it was incomparable.
Photography is a bit of a different animal. Back in the days when we used to shoot film you couldn’t know anything about an image until you saw it in the print tray and knew you had it. You could feel like you got it but you couldn’t know for sure until you saw that print. Digital changed all that. You can chimp an image immediately and know if you got the shot or not. If you are doing a set up shot you can reconfigure on the fly and leave knowing you have one in the bag.
Photojournalism is, by its nature, unpredictable. May times it is like we are swinging at sliders on the outside corner and just trying to make contact. Forget about the sweet spot, just get a shot and get it in on time. But every now and then, just every now and then, you know you got one. That fastball just hangs out there over the middle of the plate and you whack the daylights out of it.
I could teach you how to hit in the sweet spot if we were really talking baseball. It’s all about keeping your hands back, your weight back, staying loaded until the last minute and then blasting the bat through the zone with that nice inside out motion and flicking your wrists through the ball while smoothly moving your weight from the back foot to the front keeping those hips closed until the last possible second and following the pitch with your head perfectly still and just ripping the cover off the ball. But then, we aren’t talking about baseball. This is photojournalism.
Wow, how do I teach you to shoot in the sweet spot? If I had a consistent answer to that question I may have the illusive Pulitzer Prize by now! Instead of having all the answers, let me give you a few suggestions that might increase the probabilities of shooting in the sweet spot.
First, stay on your subject. Shoot through the moment because, as often as not, the shot you really want is either before or after the photo you were assigned to shoot.
Second, stay with your subject as long as you can. Sometimes this is five minutes instead of two minutes. Sometimes it may be five days instead of one day. Most of the time it means hanging around for an hour instead of thirty minutes. The reason being, most people put on a show for the camera as long as they are camera conscious. Once they have become accustomed to you, and this takes a different amount of time for every person you shoot, they kind of forget you are a photographer and treat you like a regular person. That is when you get your sweet moment.
Third, find the flow of the assignment and get into that flow. This can be pretty tough especially on short assignments. How many times have you been assigned something that amounts to a quick portrait, you run in and grab a shot or two and leave and you realize you have only been there a couple of minutes and you are leaving with something less than you would have liked. I have hurried so many jobs over the years. There might have been a shot, there might not have been. One of the best ways to find the flow is to engage the subject early so they will relax around you. Once a person relaxes and knows you are a normal dude (or dudette) they will not look at you as a camera but as a person. When they are in the flow of their life, and not simply posing for your camera, you will find the flow and actually get real photos.
Fourth, work simply. The more photo gear you set up the more uncomfortable the person you are shooting becomes. Of course, if you are doing a set shot on purpose, throw this step out. Pro models are a different story. The everyday Joe you are doing a feature on is going to get a bit uncomfortable if you come in and do a four light set. It will take him a while to settle down so keep it simple as often as possible.
You know, I have to do a post about high ISO bounce flash and how amazingly effective it is with modern digital cameras. You can do so much more with a little strobe than you could have ever done before and the results are simply amazing. Maybe next time.
Fifth, and lets cut this off at five, allow you subject to dictate the photo. (Not what you think.) You may be shooting a photo of someone and be struggling with an idea of how to do it. Ask them to tell you their story. Ask them what they talked to the reporter about. If the reporter is there, listen for a while and get a feel for what they want to tell. Many times, if you listen you will end up with a much better picture than if you go locked into a preconceived idea. Allowing the subject to dictate content is actually a pretty smart way to work. I don’t mean allowing the subject to tell you what to shoot. I mean, listen to the subject and hear what they are really about. In hearing their story you will almost always find a nice photo, a photo that you didn’t expect.
Click on the first slide to see the show in a larger format.
Burningtree Country Club in Decatur hosts the Spirit of America golf tournament annually around the Fourth of July holiday. It is always hot but this year it has been extremely hot. Several days over 100 the last few weeks. Whole lot of sweating going on down on the links this year. Compounding the normal load for shooting the tournament, the demand for video has added a tripod to the load I carried around. It is not a huge tripod and it is indispensible. Have you ever tried hand holding a 400mm lens without shaking? You can get away with it in still photography but not in video!
The other part of the equation is figuring out when and what to shoot video on versus when and what to shoot the photos on. Here is a tip. Pick out a storyline for your video before you start. Listen to what the reporters are thinking and maybe do a video on the person they are featuring. Of course, a video on the tournament leader at the end of his round works fine too. Here is how I handled the balance between stills and video.
I began the day by selecting the video target. I then went onto the course and focused on the video story keeping in mind that I need to get an interview with the subject after his round. Both days I shot things worked out where I could follow my subject for the last few holes of his round and then get my interview immediately after he finished. I am shooting for about a minute and a half of video so my interviews formed the baseline with plenty of cut aways of my guy on the course.
After completing the video stories I headed back onto the course to fill out my photo gallery needs. Obviously, I shot both stills and video of the guy I was targeting for the video and I shot his playing partners as well. This gave me a good start on the photo gallery. I was able to leave the tripod at the media which lightened my load a bit as I returned to the course. A lot of this is psychological. Thinking about, no, grumbling about, shooting the video and the stills at the same assignment is counter productive so you will do yourself a favor by focusing your mind and knocking out both. It takes a lot longer and that is no fun in the heat but if that is what they are paying us for then that is what they are going to get.
One way to expedite your shooting is by paying attention to the course. The great thing about golf courses is they present more opportunities for photographs than any other venue in sports. Most sporting arenas are fairly generic places with fields or courts of all the same, or relatively the same dimensions. Baseball is a little bit of an exception but golf is the exception. No two courses are the same and, if they are holding a tournament at the course, it is probably a good course meaning it is also probably a beautiful place. Ergo, pay attention to the course, pick out some nice spots and then shoot around those spots.
The fourth green at Burningtree is set up especially well with a pond in front of the green that has a fountain in it with trees inf front of and behind the green. It is also situated between two other holes with a pair of close by tee boxes and another green fifty yards or so away. In other words, you can shoot from there and get several different looks very quickly which helps on a multiple assignment day. The one thing to avoid is overshooting the golfer swinging. Not much more boring than that. Look for players working in and around hazards and especially look for player reactions. You don’t always get reactions but some of them can be pretty nice.
You may be able to use your wide lens from time to time but the telephotos will be your bread and butter. Golfers are a sensitive lot and don’t like noise, especially a clicking shutter, while they are in their swing. I usually don’t even start shooting until the down swing is complete and the golfer contacts the ball. I don’t care how good his reflexes are, he can’t screw up a shot by hearing the shutter click during his follow through. That said, you will need to be sensitive to when you shoot. It really is a no-no to shoot during the players back swing. They keep the course quiet while the player is swinging for a reason so be courteous. Other than being an all around nice guy, have some fun on the course and if you are shooting in a hot climate, make sure you stay hydrated unless you just like rides to the hospital in a shiny ambulance with IV bags hanging above you.
Once in a while you shoot an assignment that fires the imagination. The transit of Venus across the sun was just such a job. We had a small gathering of amateur astronomers and a group of enthusiastic observers at Decatur Heritage Christian School and I had the assignment to photograph them sun watching, or Venus watching. I had the good fortune to have a band of clouds move over the sun about a half hour before the transit began and it lasted for more than a half hour into the transit.
How could that be good you ask? It gave me time to shoot both photos and video and we have a big emphasis on video going on. As I have already stated, it is very difficult to do both stills and video and do either one justice unless you have a slow moving event. Even then, you are still sacrificing one for the other or, more accurately, you are sacrificing both for neither but that decision is not one that is in my hands. Since newspapers are, by and large, shrinking, you have no hope of adding staff so you make do and do more with less. That is the unfortunate nature of the beast right now. (As you read this, I have friends in Huntsville, Birmingham and Mobile who are waiting to see if they still have a job. Major layoffs are expected very soon.)
Back to the transit. I used the cloud cover to do interviews which formed the basis for my video. I then shot some “b” roll and added a few still photos during the edit and made a fairly decent video. The fun came as the sun began peeping through the clouds. The kids watching on a video monitor went kind of crazy. You will love them in the video. Just before the sun made a full break from behind the clouds, I got a really good idea.
One of the guys there had a nice telescope that was a little larger than the rest. He said it was not as good as some of the others but it was certainly creating a nice visual. If I got low behind the scope I could shoot up the barrel, past the eye piece and see the sun. Problem was, this created a silhouette of anyone looking in the telescope. I ran to my car and grabbed a couple of light stands and popped SB28′s on them rigged with Pocket Wizards. I set them on about 1/4 power and got them as close as I could to the telescope. This would allow me to overpower the sun just enough to avoid a silhouette and give some definition to the face of the person looking in the telescope.
It worked great! I placed one strobe just to the front of the scope and one just to the rear. That worked really well but my best picture came when the rear flash failed to fire. Only the front flash hit the kids face and it hit it in such a way as to just give a little light right around the eyes. I had a very happy accident and it turned out to be my favorite photo from the event. There were so many good people photos to shoot I didn’t even think to try shooting a photo of the transit with my own camera. I made a picture of the video monitor but never even tried to shoot it myself. Duh! Oh well, I will just shoot the next one. I will only have to wait about a hundred and five years! Yeah, not likely.
I have probably shot less high school basketball this season than at any time in my career. We don’t work fixed shifts but my regular shift puts me on days most of the time and basketball usually happens in the evening. Translation, I have only done a handful of games leading up to the Regional Tournament and tournament time is when I actually enjoy shooting basketball. The emotion, the intensity and the generally high level of competition make for an awesome environment and really good photo opportunities.
Wallace State in Hanceville also boasts just about the best basketball facility in the northern part of the state, maybe the entire state, so it is a pleasure to work there. I shot seven games in the Northwest Regional and enjoyed every one of them. State final four is next week in Birmingham and that will wrap up the hoops season for our staff.
I have done this tournament for most of my 18 years in Decatur. I have shot from every conceivable place in the arena except the overhead catwalks which they don’t give us access to. I am sure, even not being overly fond of heights, I would go hang a remote camera up there if it was open to us. Just as a side note, I am not crazy about overhead remotes. Shots from overhead remotes are like a visit from a long-lost relative. They are cool for a while but pretty soon you have seen as much of them as you want and are ready for them to go back home. I am not too crazy about backboard remotes either. Both can bring a different angle to your coverage but they are really, really overused. Just my opinion whatever that is worth.
Back to the regularly scheduled post. I have shot from everywhere but I have more or less settled on shooting directly under the basket after having shot from the baseline near the corner for years. I never shot basketball with a wide lens early in my career. In fact, the few attempts I made with a wide lens never appealed to me. Over the last few seasons, and especially at tournament time, I have migrated to the basket using wider lenses. The action in the lane is cool and you can make some dramatic, low angle shots using that wide lens. There also seem to be more than a few scrambles for the ball with kids diving on the floor right in the lane and this is the best position I have found to shoot them.
The other benefit to shooting beneath the basket is, when using a long lens, say a 300mm, the action at the other end of the court is squared up, for lack of a better term. I can shoot action around the opposing basket straight on which has a nice look and I can get good defensive shots of the team I am covering. Some of the best action comes from front court defense and full court pressure and you can get nice and tight, especially on presses in the mid-court area.
The other benefit to this shooting position, and it trumps all other benefits, is I no longer have an official standing right in front of me. For whatever reason, they seldom stop directly under the basket. When I shot from the baseline further out from the basket my view was invariably blocked by the ref’s back side. Way too many frames have been ruined by the intervention of a referee in my pictures.
For this tournament I shot my long stuff using a Nikon D3s with an 80-200mm lens with a 1.4 converter. This gave me an effective focal length of about 112-280mm at f4. Given the high ISO ability of the D3s this was not even a challenge. I shot with this combo at ISO 4000, 1/1,000 second at f4 for almost the entire tournament. I also carried my personal camera, a Canon 5D, with a 24-70 f2.8 lens. I normally don’t use my personal camera at work for the obvious reasons but for this tournament I find it invaluable. We do have second bodies but they are the massively deficient D2 series bodies. The image quality is so bad relative to either of the aforementioned cameras they are not worth using in combo with those bodies.
One more week of hoops. Hope at least one of our local teams brings home the big blue state championship trophy!
After writing about check presentations and ribbon cuttings I had an epiphany. People tell me all the time what a great job I have. Most people think my job is great because I get to shoot college football and national championship games. Some might even think it is cool to shoot stuff like fires and tornadoes. What most people don’t realize is those are infrequent events that make up only the smallest percentage of my job.
The bulk of my job is in covering the community, the annual events, the city council or county commission meetings, the school events, plays, birthdays, funerals, retirements, and all the sundry stories on people who have done stuff or are doing stuff. I can’t imagine anyone who thinks my job is cool when they see photos from those events. Lots of people volunteer to carry my gear at Alabama or Auburn games. I have never had a single person say they would like to carry my gear while I cover Depot Days or The Spirit of America Festival.
If you really want to know the truth of the matter the “glamor” assignments are very rare. You may get only a few of them in a year. Some years you don’t get any. So what do you do when, as many of us complain, “these assignments stink!” If you are saying that right now about your photo assignments you need to slap yourself. I would do it but a cyber slap just doesn’t have the impact of a good, old-fashioned, whap across the face.
The reason you get those really good assignments is because you have worked hard on assignments that most of us complain about. Really. I do my fair share of complaining, to be sure, but I don’t let my complaints keep me from giving my best effort on every job I shoot. Believe me, at a community newspaper you are going to shoot a bunch of jobs that have the potential to make a yawner of a photo. It is completely up to you what you do with those jobs. When you do well and bring back a pleasant surprise you get brownie points with the boss. You turn a few sow’s ears into silk purses and before you know it the boss is tossing you some silk to start with.
If you are a young gun right now you are ready to go, ready to get out there and shoot anything. Those of you jaded old dogs, and you know who you are, are busy finding another blog to read. But wait one minute. Have you ever heard the old saying, “Practice makes perfect?” The old saying is not accurate. The correct version of is, “Perfect practice makes perfect.”
The way you work on those boring assignments you have shot a hundred times really determines how well you will do when you get a really good job. Let me throw some Bible at you. Jesus said “He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much…” You prove yourself out there shooting all those festivals, ribbon cuttings, check presentations, community events, 100th birthdays, enterprise features and the miscellany that happens all around us every day. Finding a moment amid the chaos of normality separates a real photojournalist from a person just grabbing snap shots. (By the way, if you value your life don’t tell me I take nice snap shots!)
Now for the concrete stuff that gives you something to build with. Try lighting assignments you would never have lit before. Never let another environmental portrait be “good enough” with room light. Push yourself to be better every time you pick up the camera. Use a telephoto where you would have never used one. Use a wide where you should use a telephoto. Climb a tree, but don’t scrape your knee (Sound of Music ref for those uncultured swine out there (That one is from Toy Story!)). What am I telling you? Push, push, push, push, push, push and don’t stop pushing. Push yourself every single assignment to do something great. It won’t always work. Don’t quit pushing, ever.
The next time you have an assignment that bores you take it as a personal challenge to do anything but bring back a boring image. Go early. Stay late. Lord forbid, try a motion blur. Do A N Y T H I N G different. Before you know it your pictures will be better, you will be motivated, you will be surprising your bosses and your readers and your job happiness rating will be through the roof. Most of all, and this is the most important thing, don’t wait on good assignments to come to you. Turn every assignment you get into a great assignment.
I have walked on both sides of this street, let me tell you, this is the best side! The photos with this post are a collection of images I pulled from last year’s file from your ordinary, every day photo assignments. Hopefully I stretched my envelope just a little bit on each image. Remember, every technique you perfect on “ordinary” jobs makes you that much better when you get one of those extraordinary jobs.