Sunday, June 24, 2012

What I Keep, What I Delete

I heard a story about a a photographer who maintained a large inventory of stock photographs that were available for publication, for a fee. (In this age of intelectural property disputes, this may sound quaint. But let's skip the legal and moral issues for now.) In his lobby he had a 50 gallon garbage can filled with transparancies (slides) that were not up to his standards. He often joked that if any of his clients could find a usable image, they could have it for free. Such a deal. But when you think about it, what are the chances of finding a "keeper" among the thousands of discarded images? Remember that those images wound up in the junk bin for a reason.

I believe that a photographer should be judged not only by the images he keeps, but also by the images he throws away. I am using this assignment as an example of what I "threw away".

In an earlier post, I showed you some of the 130 images it took to get the one image that I felt best portrayed President Obama at a recent fundraiser. To save you the trouble, here are the numbers: 130 images taken, three images with an outstretched arm, two of them in focus, and only one with a good expression. For podium shots like this one, I usually submit the photograph that has the following qualities:

Hands: Hands (or hand) clearly visible against the background. Since the background was dark, this would be fairly easy. I needed to be sure that the hands didn't overlap the face, where they might get lost.

Eyes: The eyes must obviously be opened. But when a subject is wearing glasses, you also need to take the glare into account.

Facial Features: In this case, this means the smile, or the configuration of the mouth and lips when speaking. In addition, I believe that when my subjects face the viewer's left, the image is more compelling.

On June 14, 2012, I photographed author Luis Rodriguez at a fundraiser for the PCRC in Foster City. The photograph was made with my go-to, black foamie thing utilizing an SB-900 (on camera, zoomed to a 200mm beam spread, manual full power), and a Nikon D7000 with a 2.8 70-200 zoom at an ISO of 1600 and WB set to "flash". Exposure was 1/250 @ F3.5. I have to tell you, the speed light exposure and the fast shutter speed make for a very sharp image, which is to say that there is no subject movement whatsoever. I liked this image, but I could imagine it being better. But by how much?

Now here is almost the entire take from the morning's shoot. It usually takes a while to get a feel for the speaker's timing, so expect some duds at the front end. But once you get a sense of the speaker's rhythm, you can better anticipate when a gesture or expression is about to appear. And there will always be near-misses when one's timing is off enough to completely miss the exact expression you were trying to capture.

Now before you start asking for larger images, consider this: When a photo stands alone with a caption, the photograph is the "bait" to catch the viewer's attention. And when it comes to angling for eyes, I have found two things that almost always work: the color red, and high contrast points of interest. Since there is no red in any of the photos, I am relying on the contrast factor, and a quick scan of these small images will serve just as well.

If you scan the images quickly, you'll probably be drawn to photos where the hands are visually separated from the background. Whenever Rodriguez made hand gestures, they show up well against his suit and the dark background. Hands on the side of the podium? Not as noticeable. Based on hands alone, I might have chosen this shot.

The shallow depth of field make the eyes really stand out. The shot is technically good, but the expression didn't fit his animated speaking style. Eyes and Hands? Yes. Expression? Meah.  Oh yeah, he also appears to be looking at me. I find this a bit unnerving for a candid photo.

This next photograph has some good hands, good eyes, but not the sort of mouth I'm looking for.

I am out of viable, two hand candidates. I'm going for shots showing only one hand. Here, his left hand easily seen against the dark suit.

Now it is "normal" for some teeth to show when the mouth is open. But Mr. Rodriguez appears to have a condition called "under bite", where the teeth in the lower jaw are positioned in front when the jaw is at rest. If the photo was made at eye level, the lower teeth, rather than the uppers, are more likely to show. But when shot from below, the uppers may not appear at all. For that reason, this photo was scrapped. The glasses had a bit of glare, but I could have lived with that.

If you look at my final choice, you'll see it is something of a compromise. The single hand is clearly visible, but not dramatic. The smile is natural looking, as though he were telling a funny story. And the eyes are clear and sharp, relatively free from glare.

It took 48 images to find one that met my needs. This shot was number 43. I will admit it was a compromise of sorts, since I had at least one photo with more expressive hands. But in this final photo, eyes and facial features trumped the hand.

It should be apparent that just getting one good shot of an animated subject can be a hit or miss proposition. Obviously timing is extremely important if you're lucky enough to have the eyes, the hands, and the expression come together for a split second. And if you can react fact enough to press the shutter release at the critical moment, you will have it made.

In the end, it is just a matter of know which shots to keep, and which to delete.

One final note. These were obviously all flash exposures, and while I make it a policy to be as unobtrusive as possible, I was not the first, or only photographer, to use a flash. As a matter of fact, there was a Quantum Flash, with battery pack, mounted on a light stand just 15 feet from the podium. It was pretty obvious that somebody planned to deploy some major flash power, but for some reason, it was never used.

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