This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Friday, December 28, 2012

Behind Every Great Picture

            In connection with my day job, I had the opportunity the other day to be present at a professional photo shoot. For years, when I was at the newspaper, I worked alongside professional news photographers and in my work as a writer and publications consultant I still work with freelance professionals. Not as many as I used to, and there’s a worrying trend happening here.
            The proliferation of iPhones and point and shoot cameras has taken some of the mystery out of photography. It’s no longer necessary to worry about such things as the choice of film, the F-stop and shutter speed, and anyone can now take an in-focus photo that’s decently exposed.
            That has led to a trap, however. Too many people are beginning to believe that because they can take a technically competent picture, they can also take a good one. Usually they can’t, and the result is a form of unconscious incompetence — what you get when someone doesn’t know what they’re doing and doesn’t know that he doesn’t know.

It’s Complicated

            The photo shoot referred to earlier was for a publication being done by a local educational organization. They wanted a picture of a group of kids engaged in learning on both the computer and traditional books. To get it, they lined up six kids whose parents signed releases for a photo shoot, and we all met at the library of one of the local schools late one morning.
            Greg Pio, who took the author photo for my book The McHenry Inheritance, was called in to get the picture. He arrived early, checked out the site, and set up some lighting to illuminate a corner where a table was set up in front of shelves of books.
            At 11:30 the kids came in, and Greg sat them down and talked to them, explaining what we were doing and stressing that it was a joint project where he really needed their cooperation. Addressing them as adults, in a matter-of-fact tone, he pulled them into the project right away. He then gave them some specific things to do while he took the photos. Watching from behind, it was clear to me that they were getting into it, and that the shoot was going well.

Creating the Opportunity

            He took a lot of photos, and if you’ve ever shot a family gathering, you’ll know why. Whenever you have more than two people in a picture, the odds that one of them will have closed eyes, be drooling, be making a face, or otherwise inadvertently wrecking the picture are pretty formidable. Because the kids were relaxed and acting out a scene, that was less of an issue here. Greg has told me before that when he sets up a picture like this, he’s creating an opportunity to make the magic happen, then shooting enough pictures to be sure he’s capturing it.
            Sure enough, the results were terrific. There were enough good photos that it was tough to choose among them, but that’s the kind of problem you want. The client picked one and everybody was happy. (I can’t show the photo here because it belongs to the client, not me, so you’ll have to take my word for it.)
            It would have been easy for the client to cheap out and have someone on the staff take a picture, rather than calling in a professional. And odds are, it would have been wrong in a lot of subtle ways that add up to a boring photo. There’s a lot more to getting a great picture than telling everybody to get behind the table and say “Cheese.”