Sunday, January 26, 2014

Martin Luther King Day 2014

Photo #1

I was back at the Martin Luther King Center in San Mateo to photograph the winners of a writing contest to pick the poem and essay that best captured the spirit of Dr. King’s work. The young writers included students from Grades 1 through 12, and their presentations were well written and warmly received. 

I had contacted the coordinators at the King Center to let them know I was coming. For better or for worse, I had already decided that I would try for a podium shot that captured the spirit of the presenter and the essay or poem. This is easier said than done, since few students, unless carefully coached, look up from their notes when speaking in public. For me, the hardest part is trying to anticipate exactly when the speaker would look up at the audience, and somehow trip the shutter at that exact moment.

Positioning Yourself: While I avoid moving about when I photograph, I always try to find a “sweet spot”, one where the subject is reasonably well lit and has a no foreground or background distractions. Once a suitable vantage point is found, the color temperature of the light must be considered. In this case, there was north-light coming from camera left, and incandescent accent lights coming from above. Not a ghastly combination, but one where the white balance would vary, depending on where the speaker was standing. I admit I was flummoxed by the white balance, so I set my cameras to “Auto” and hoped for the best. I was only going to submit a single shot, so it was practical for me to make the corrections during post-processing.  I am required to send only one shot, so selection, not processing was the more time consuming task.

Photo #2
I was photographing from the subject’s left side, which for reasons discussed here allows for an unobstructed view of the subject’s face should he or she decide to punctuate their presentation with a hand gesture (Photo #2). As it turned out, most of the speakers were too short to stand at the podium, so they held the microphone was hand held, and fortunately for me, nearly all were right handed. My time was spent trying to capture an expressive moment, something that didn’t come easily to these young orators.

Photo #3
Slow Reflexes, Fast Cameras: Photographing this young singer was somewhat more difficult than somebody simply delivering a speech (Photo #3). Many singers like to hold the microphone resulting in a certain percentage of shots where the mike partially hides the singer's mouth.  In addition, the shape of the mouth is different when singing, so your subject may not look "natural". 

Photo #4
This second shot show much more of the singer's smile, and resulted in a more pleasing image (Photo #4). Neither one was submitted for the simple reason that there were no references to Martin Luther King. There is a graphic illustration of Dr. King on the podium, but if I included it, the singer's head would have been too small. I decided to leave well enough alone, and would eventually send a digital copy of this image to the King Center for use in their newsletters.

Photo #5
If you look at Photo #5, you can see how small the speaker becomes when the Dr. King portrait is included. This adds to the photo context, but since most of the speakers chose to stand to the side of the podium, it became a moot point.

I would take nearly 200 podium shots, try to get good expressions and a sense of the event. I opted to rely on the caption to carry the context, and hoped the photos would be interesting enough to encourage to viewer to read them. 

Photo #6
I submitted a photo from each end of the age range. My First Grader (Photo #6) was photographed reacting to the audience’s applause, perhaps the first time his work had been so recognized. My High School Student (Photo #7) was the picture of dignity, certainly the picture of a young man who understood the power and depth of his own words. I sent them both, leaving it to my editor to make the final selection, something that she would have preferred that I had done. Still, I am comfortable that the spirit of the photo was different in each case, and that the editor should have a choice.  As it turned out, I had chosen the youngest and the oldest winner, so the paper opted to run both, and had wisely included a list of all of the winners.

Photo #7
Aspect Ratio: The aspect ratio for these two shots was 1.5, or 8X12 inches. I do this so that the editors will have some leeway in cropping should it be needed.

The Big Group. I had decided that I wouldn’t submit a single, large group shot. My reasoning was that a large group would translate into many small faces that won’t reproduce well on newsprint. In addition, getting all their names would be a nightmare, especially with so many excited children. The group shot would be made available to the King Center for their use, and any parent wish a digital copy could get one from the Center, or from me. Since I knew it was very likely that I’d be asked to make such a shot, I scouted out a location in advance, and selected a painted background in a courtyard adjacent to where the presentations were being made. This would give me a good background and some even, overhead lighting. I used an on-camera speedlight to provide a tiny bit of fill. Once I made some test exposures, I was ready.
Photo #8

As soon as the announcement was made that a group shot would be made, the young speakers started to file in, a combination of excitement and youthful detachment. As soon as the approached, I started arranging them by height for obvious reasons, but also to signal that there was somebody in charge and there was actually a plan.

Kibitzers. I was just preparing to make the shot when I noticed I was surrounded by nearly a dozen family members, each armed with a Smart Phone or camera, trying to grab a shot. This was a problem because each child was now looking around around, trying to find the parent he or she was supposed to smile for, or at. I knew I had to get control, so in my "Big Boy" voice, I said: 

"I know you're all very proud of your children, but I'd like to get a shot where everybody is looking directly at me. I wouldn't want your child to be the only one looking in the wrong direction. After I get my shot, you can take as many as you want."

True poetry. All of the adults put their camera phones down, and let me get my shots. I also made sure to tell them the I'd be taking five shots, and did my best to keep their attention on me. When I was finished, I thanked them all, leaving behind a mishegas of squirmy children and anxious parents.

In retrospect, I could have submitted this photo if I had recorded the names of all of the winners. On first glance, this would have been a daunting task, one that would take more time than it was worth, since I had already "chosen" the shots I was going to submit. Perhaps if there weren't so many anxious parents waiting for their personal photo op, I would thought to move up close and photograph the children in groups of two or three so I could read their names off of the certificates they were holding. 

Opening Photo: I included the opening photo (Photo #1) as a reminder of how much a background could enhance a photo. I liked the way the light was falling on this woman's face. What I didn't see was that there was a Martin Luther King poster in the background. Had I framed the shot to include the poster, I might has had a shot that might have had some "legs", although not to the same extent as the speakers who stood beside the podium, reminding us through essay and poem that we are making this long journey together, inspired by the noble words of Dr. King.