If I were just curious, it would be very hard to say to someone, “I want to come to your house and have you talk to me and tell me the story of your life.” I mean, people are going to say, “You’re crazy.” Plus, they’re going to keep mighty gaurded. But the camera is a kind of license. A lot of people, they want to be paid that much attention and that’s a reasonable kind of attention to be paid.
Too many un-posed family snapshots end up in the wastebasket instead of albums, and what a pity! The trials of trying to get 7 children posed and perfect on the stairs for a portrait presents a much more interesting story than the final portrait likely does. Some say Diane Arbus used to stand with her camera in front of her subject for a few minutes, until the posed smiles faded and her subjects started to forget she was standing there with her camera, and only then would she release the shutter, in an effort to document her subject as best she could. Perhaps the photojournalist in my grandmother thought along similar lines, and saved the photos she took when no one was aware because she saw the potential intrigue in the types of snapshots most don’t seem to save.
I wasn’t ever going to write a post about practical advice on taking photographs, but, like all rules I set up for myself, I’m breaking it. There are a few golden rules in photography that I have learned over the years…the rule of thirds, flat lighting in studio portraits can sometimes be more effective than dramatic lighting, the sharper the pin = the sharper the image, match your equipment to your subject (ie- a pinhole camera at a sporting event may not be the best choice…) and “look at something differently” (ie- flip the camera vertical, get on eye level with your subject, climb a tree and see what something looks like from above, etc), are just a few I have rattled off to myself and anyone else that would listen through the years. Yes, rules are meant to be broken, and I have broken every single photography rule I have ever learned, at one point or another, sometimes to find a little magic, and sometime to encounter a disaster. But there are a few tips… errr… I mean “rules” that I should probably just have tattooed on my arm so I don’t forget them, as every time I ignore them I am never satisfied with my shots. Here they are:
If it’s Not Good Enough, You’re not Close Enough!
This is actually a lot harder than one might think, but it’s also a universal truth of “good” photography. Often, the subject we want to show in a photograph is so small and surrounded by unnecessary visual information that what we, as the photographer, wanted to show, just ends up getting lost. But in order to get close to a subject, you have to break down your barriers and step outside your comfort zone. Diane Arbus never got a compelling portrait of a circus performer from the sidelines, and you probably won’t either. Sometimes it takes getting to know people you may not have otherwise talked t, and sometimes it might take jumping a fence, but the results are usually worth it. Oh, also, I do not mean slap a telephoto lens on your camera and get close that way, especially if you are photographing a person. If you are uncomfortable with your subject, the viewer most likely will be as well. If your subject isn’t even aware you are taking their picture, well, the audience will know that as well and the voyeurism will shine through. But don’t take my word for it...
Don’t Shoot! (…unless you have a reason)
In the era of digital cameras, everyone has gone trigger happy. Why not? I mean, it’s not like it costs anything more if you shoot one frame or one thousand. There’s nothing wrong with shooting this way, but you still gotta remember to pay attention to what you are shooting and have a reason for snapping the shutter in the first place, otherwise you’ll probably just end up deleting the photo from the card and sending it into cyber oblivion anyway. For those of us stuck in the analog era, unless we feel like spending gobs of cash getting shitty pictures developed (and yes, I am speaking from experience) we’d do right to only shoot when we have a reason. P.S., while “it was pretty” and “I had to use up the roll of film because I really wanted to see those first few frames I shot” are reasons in themselves, they are reason’s that most of the time won’t provide a decent picture. So slow down, breathe, meditate on the subject, the perspective, and the reason you want to photograph something. I tell myself this all the time and still forget, but the best results come when I slow down enough to practice my own advice.
Oh yeah, and one last thing, if you like your photograph (or writing, or painting, or what ever else it is that you do) I promise someone else out there will too. There’s too many people on this planet for no one to have the same taste as you.