Set Yourself Free!
As I write this, a gorgeous day in Wisconsin reminds me that spring is
around the corner. Spring means better weather, longer days, better light
— and, to photographers, photography.
Post-PMA, the 'Net is simply awash in exciting news of a technical and
product-oriented nature. You can sure learn a lot about digital photography
— it seems like a whole world of knowledge in and of itself,
sometimes. But when Spring comes and the light turns nice, it's good to
remember that the purpose of it all is taking pictures.
There are many reasons why enthusiasts take pictures. Perhaps the most
obvious is to get nice pictures, but this isn't the only one. Some people do
it for memories, or for sharing their lives with loved ones; some people do
it because they find the doing fun; some for self-expression; and some
people even do it because they just adore all the gear, the cameras,
programs, printing, and so forth. Their hobby is the "stuff," and the stuff
just incidentally gets exercised once in a while.
For many non-professional photographers, one aspect of shooting is that it's
not always easy. It can be intimidating, in fact. First of all, subject
matter doesn't always present itself. What are you going to take pictures
of? Second, it can be frustrating to have good gear but not get good
pictures. Despite deep knowledge of the inner workings of your image sensor
and a complicated, carefully worked-out position in the Canon vs. Nikon
debate, you may find your own pictures not living up to your own standards.
And third, it can seem embarrassing. You may admire life caught on the fly,
but, once you get outdoors, it's not exactly easy to poke your camera in
strangers' faces. You may even feel awkward and self-conscious just having
people watch you while you shoot.
Get yourself free
So how do you get yourself feeling comfortable, loose, free? Here are a
couple of tips, in no particular order. One or another might help apply some
grease to your winter-stiffened creative joints.
- If you live in a small municipality with a local newspaper or a
"suburb edition" of a nearby city's paper, ask the photo editor if you can
be a "stringer." A stringer is just somebody who submits a few pictures
every now and then for consideration, and sometimes might draw the odd
assignment for something within their bailiwick. You won't earn any money
for this, but you'd be surprised how much it helps to be able to say, when
you're out shooting, "Hi! I'm from the Sentinel-Ledger. Mind
if I snap a few pictures?"
- Make an appointment. Lots of people and organizations aren't
averse to being photographed, especially if they have an interest in
publicity for some reason or another. Whatever it is you're interested in
photographing, call, and ask. At the very least, get a name, so when you get
hassled you can say you talked to so-and-so.
- Shoot a roll before you start, or, if you shoot digital, a
quick 50 frames. You may think such a thing is a waste of a roll of film or
card space, but au contraire, mon frére. A rusty
photographer is like an antique car with an engine that starts with a crank,
or an early aircraft that needs some manual help to unstick the propeller.
Getting going is sometimes greatly helped by, well, getting going. You'll
find that after the 36th frame or 50th exposure, you're warmed up and
rolling, and it no longer feels awkward to you to be firing away.
- Go where there are crowds. People let their guards down in a
carnival atmosphere, and they feel anonymous in a crowd. It's expected that
some people are going to be snapping pictures; people don't have an
expectation of privacy. Ergo, it's easier to shoot.
- Stand still. Huh? What does this mean? Well, people in public
have a natural interest in anything novel. In many public places or spaces,
you can show up almost anywhere, start shooting away, and draw all kinds of
attention, most of it of the unwelcome kind. But if you go to that same
place and just hang around, not doing much of anything, what you'll find is
that you "disappear" after a while — people stop noticing you.
If you are alert and ready while appearing to be bored and daydreaming,
you'll find you can shoot pictures without being noticed. It doesn't work
everywhere, of course, but in some situations it's just the ticket.
- Shoot more to get less. Let's say you want a picture of
something specific--say, a cop guarding something, or a taxicab driver, or
some poor sap by the side of the road dressed as a giant hamburger. Well, if
you go up to that person, ask his or her permission, receive it, then fire
off one quick frame — feeling flustered and rushed as you do so
— you can't be too surprised if it doesn't result in a
masterpiece. On the other hand, if you asked permission to accompany the
person for an hour and promise to send him or her a copy of the best shot,
you might be able to take six rolls or a whole CF card of that person
working. This is extra work, of course, on both ends — in the
editing, because you are then faced with the task of finding that one "best"
shot out of all the shots you took. But it's unlikely that the picture you
end up with won't be one heck of a lot better than that one awkward grab
shot. Most amateur photographers will go somewhere for five minutes and take
three shots. The pro or artist understands that she won't start to get good
shots till she's been there an hour and has shot two rolls' worth.
- Pay somebody to enliven a scene. I often think that
photographers find great scenes that would have made great backgrounds for a
great picture — only they took the scene with nothing in it. Let
me ask you, do you think Cartier-Bresson's great picture "Siphnos, Greece,
1961" (above) would have been as good a shot without the running girl? Yet
this is just the sort of shot that the average photographer would have been
happy taking as a static architectural picture. Often, if you ask somebody
nearby if they want to make five bucks for ten minutes' work, it's a case of
voila, instant model.
- Demand more of yourself. Don't be satisfied with a simple
snapshot or yet another landscape, or some cliché you've seen a thousand
times. Be more creative with how you hunt down your shots. There are a great
many ways to find and get those elusive good shots.
And when that first lovely spring day comes around, don't forget that before
you can shoot at all, you've got to get out of the house.
— Mike Johnston
If you appreciate this free weekly column, please make a
A special thanks to Frances P., who donated last week. Frances, I tried to
write you a thank-you note, but I couldn't send you an e-mail —
the message got kicked back to me. I really appreciate your generosity! As I
appreciate the others who have kicked in their support, monetary and/or
Mike Johnston writes and publishes an old-fashioned, entertaining quarterly
ink-on-paper newsletter called The 37th Frame (
www.37thframe.com). He has a
B.F.A. in Photography from the Corcoran College of Art and Design in
Washington, D.C., where he was a student of the late Steve Szabo and of Joe
He was East Coast Editor of Camera & Darkroom magazine from 1988 to 1994 and
Editor-in-Chief of PHOTO Techniques magazine from 1994-2000, where his
editorial column "The 37th Frame" was a popular feature and where he
presented, among other things, a set of three articles on "bokeh" by John
Kennerdell, Oren Grad, and Harold Merklinger that were subsequently widely
discussed among photographers.
His critical and technical writings have appeared in various publications
and newsletters such as The Washington Review and D-Max. A number of his
articles written under the pseudonym "L. T. Gray" (el Tigre) appeared in the
English magazine Darkroom User.