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.