Sunday, July 15, 2012

Some Rules To Shoot By

The back story to this photo is unremarkable, but the result gave me something to think about.

A local fitness center was sponsoring a 4-hour basketball "camp" featuring three members of the world famous Harlem Globetrotters. Needless to say it was wall-to-wall kids in the indoor basketball court. I had allocated myself only one hour to make an image, and as (bad) luck would have it, the session started 20 minutes late. I didn't have a particularly goal in mind. but thought the shot should include a globe trotter and a CK (cute kid) or two. I had taken dozens of shots of kids dribbling and doing passing drills under the watchful eyes of the Globetrotters. But photographing a six-foot plus adult along with a seven year old child was a bit of a challenge, and the tight schedule didn't allow for many compact, well-composed, Kodak moments.

One thing I did notice were the skylights that allowed light to spill onto the court in specific locations. As luck would have it, young A. J., holding a basketball, was lining up, getting ready to take a shot while standing in the "sweet spot". I grabbed the shot, hoping for the best. I didn't realize the ball had "Harlem Globetrotter" written on the side until after I got back to my office.

It turns out that Julio Lara, a staff writer for the Journal, noticed me shooting. He was working on a story, and had interviewed A.J.'s mother in great detail. He asked if he could run one of my shots with his story on summertime sports camps, so I sent him this one, along with some others. The staff and he must have like it, as it ran across 3 columns on a 4 column spread. In other words, it ran huge.

In retrospect, I was very lucky to have been given a shot as nice as this one, joined to an article that provided the necessary context. Just then I realized that there are several axioms we should embrace, along with some others that could benefit from some "airing out". So here's to A.J.'s shot, and others like it, and the mantras we should chant to encourage a few more just like it coming our way. 

Axiom #1: Every photograph is a gift. Sometimes you get exactly what you want, sometimes not. Just smile, say "Thank You", and move on.
As a photographer, there are times when  you can do no wrong. Other times, you can do no right. Most of the time, we're somewhere in the middle. Whenever you work with real people, you are at risk of having something go wrong. The grandmother who looks away at the last moment, the lovely foreground with the incongruous background, the list goes on and on. Photography is like golf. You play the shots were they land.

Axiom #2: You must give before you can receive.
When working the "social desk" you are bound to run into the same publicists over and over again. These are the people who can make sure that your needs are taken care of, that you have a seat near the front, or make sure that all of your questions are answered. When times get tough, nothing beats the cell phone number of somebody who has the authority and the ability to help you on location. To this end, I enter their cell phone numbers to my contact list, and greet them by name should they call me. And when the event is over, I'll make my images available for their use. This may sound like blasphemy to some, since I'm giving something away that might have monetary value. But for me, the good will is far more important the any money I might receive for a copy of a print. And in a day when Facebook has replaced the scrapbook, most people only want a JPEG for their "walls". Incidentally, I am identified as the photographer in all released images.

Axiom #3: Mistakes will help you grow only if you address them.
Okay, okay. There are some mistakes I keep making over and over again. So many things I forget to tell my subjects. Don't make a fist. Don't spread your fingers. Don't point your hands directly at me. All people with glasses should move to the same side. If you're wearing glasses turn your head slightly. Use your commander as a fill light. Choose an aperture that keeps everyone in sharp focus. Use your loupe to check your final image before you let your subjects go. The embarrassment of a re-shoot the same day is not as bad as the humiliation of asking for it a week later.

That's a pretty long list. But you should have seen it last year. At least I'm making some progress. You should too.

Axiom #4: Scoff not the other person's camera. It may contain the photographs you should have taken.
I don't remember the exact wording, but this catches the essence of the truism. This came from Simon Nathan, a photographer and feature writer for Popular Photography. His column, "Simon Sez", spoke directly to the experiences of a working field photographer, one who relied heavily on 35mm cameras and available light. His earliest writing extolled the virtues of the Nikon S2, a rangefinder camera that was a cross between the German Contax and the Leica. He, along with David Douglas Duncan, did much to popularize Japanese cameras among working photojournalists.

Axiom #5: A good picture today is better than a great picture tomorrow.
This advice came from Bambi Cantrell, via Neil van Niekerk's column. She, along with other photographers like Bill Stockwell, Rocky Gunn and Monte Zucker, helped re-defined how weddings were photographed, and as a group promoted the "wedding story" as a new photographic genre.

There will always be "woulda, coulda, shoulda" moments. But the shot that you've stored on your card is something you can bank on. This doesn't mean that you can't attempt to clean up subsequent shots. Just don't bet on being able to improve a shot on a second take. Sometimes, it gets worse.

I'll add more axioms in time. But if you remember to chant these axioms while you're meditating, your images will be better for the effort.