Friday, August 28, 2009

Directing subjects

It's a pleasure when people share news about their work with images. Igor Berger pinged me yesterday that he had gotten a new camera and used it on a trip to Japan. Good for him! He uploaded several examples to Flickr and asked about adding them to articles. So this post is for Igor and others like him who want to take better photographs and help the encyclopedia.

The Walter Johnson/Calvin Coolidge handshake is provided again as an example where the photographer did not direct the subjects. The most obvious problem is that President Coolidge stands behind a barrier. Most amateur models have no idea where to stand for a camera. Yes, this includes famous baseball players and presidents. So ideally the photographer would move three paces to the right in order to get that barrier out of the way. That might not have been possible: the type of camera needed a tripod and there may have been stairs to the right, or perhaps other photographers had already taken the best positions for the publicity shot. So suppose you were operating that camera and couldn't move, but you could talk to the subjects. That would sound like this.

"Excuse me, Mr. President? The photograph would look better if you took three steps forward. Mr. Johnson, would you step to the side three paces with him? Yes, very good. Excuse me sir, in the pale suit? Would you make room for these two gentlemen please? Yes, and face toward them. Everybody! All eyes on the President and Mr. Johnson please. Pretend I'm not here. May we have a round of applause? A big round of applause for our great pitcher! Wonderful." (snap) "Great, let's try another..."

Whether you're shooting a birthday party or a presidential visit, it always helps to shoot more more photographs. Don't be shy. If you sound like you know what you're doing people cooperate. This used to be expensive in the days of film photography; not anymore. Memory chips are cheap (and you don't have to pay a developer). Best of all, you can preview the shots and delete the obvious duds. Take advantage of that; experiment with different ideas.

Before the photography actually begins, look over the location and decide which parts would make the best settings. You'd be surprised how many people go to a picnic and line up to pose in front of the dumpster instead of beside the flowers. Take charge of that situation. Your subjects will thank you.

The one exception to that rule is vacation photography. I've never understood the logic of plopping Uncle Joe in front of the Grand Canyon. What's the purpose? Are people afraid they'll be accused of faking the trip, so they document that they really did drag Joe past Barstow over to that big gorge in the desert? Might as well hand him the day's newspaper so he can hold that up too and prove when you were there. Great scenery looks better without family obstructing it, no matter how much you love them. Ansel Adams didn't drag his mother in front of Yosemite; he knew what he was doing. When you want to shoot a portrait, shoot a portrait. Half Dome looks a lot better without Mom in the way.

And please don't make them say 'cheese'. Teeth may appear but nobody really looks happy like that. Most amateur models have been taught to put on a big fake frozen grin when they get in front of the camera. Here's one of my secrets: to capture a good expression, talk to your subject and fiddle with the camera. Have the shot all set up as you start a conversation on another topic (something interesting and fun) and pretend to fine tune the controls. The aim is to distract them into a genuine expression--at the point where that 'cheese' smile finally drops away and they're really reacting, then snap the shutter. You may have to dodge for cover under the wrath of "But I wasn't ready!" Used to be, I'd lay low for days until the prints were in hand. Now things are easier: there's a preview screen. Most people aren't aware they look better when they aren't frozen in pose until they actually see the result; the appreciation afterward makes the risk worthwhile.

1 comment:

Joshua said...

When people take pictures with family members in them they generally are doing so because they care about remembering the experience with the family members. They aren't trying to make photos of the locations to benefit people. That's a side thing. I think people who are trying to make photos of locations know not to have people in them.

The observation about how to get good photos is a good one that I'll need to remember for future use.