Get out of your seat

Nikon D2X, Sigma 18 – 125mm, ISO 400, ƒ/7.2, 1/200 [4 – Alienbees B1600s full power on catwalk with 50º parabolic reflectors, triggered by Pocketwizards.
The other night I attended a lacrosse match at the local high school. I went as a spectator. This is rare for me to be at a sports event without my camera equipment.
It was interesting to watch the parents photographing the game. A couple of them were on the sidelines, but the majority stayed in their seats in the stands.
Everyone was shooting with digital cameras. From the simplest cameras to most professional equipment they all had similar focal length lenses that would zoom out to about 200 mm (equivalent on a 35 mm camera). 
Nikon D3, 14-24mm, ISO 450, ƒ/4.5, 1/1000
 At this high school lacrosse match the parents were not being kept off the sidelines by anyone. They kept themselves back from the action!
The difference between what each person was able to photograph varied greatly because of where they were in relationship to the action on the field.
If you want better photos of your kids playing sports (or doing almost anything else) get as physically close to the action as you can. Of course, use some common sense and don’t get in the way of the game or the fans and in a safe spot for you as well.
A famous war photographer said something that applies to sports photography just as it does to war photography. “If the pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”
Another key to improving your shots, besides getting out of your seat, is to hold your camera still. The longer the focal length the shakier it can become. Use a monopod. They sell for about $30. I like the Manfrotto Modo 790B Monopod. This will help keep your camera steady and improve the image sharpness. It is easier and faster to use than a tripod.
Most folks stand up when taking pictures. It’s more comfortable than squatting or resting on your knees, but it doesn’t usually give you the best action shots. If you are low to the ground you are shooting up at the athletes. This actually makes them seem more heroic. Shooting from a low angle makes them appear higher off the ground than they are. Staying low on the sidelines is also courteous to the fans in the stands.
Nikon D2X, Sigma 15-30mm, ISO 400, ƒ/5.6, 1/200 [4 – Alienbees B1600s full power in corners bouncing, triggered by Pocketwizards.
Another trick: Be where they are going – not where they are. Get down field and shoot back at the players. Now when the big play happens it is coming to you, not away plus you can see their facial expressions.
Nikon D100, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 with 1.4 converter, ISO 200, 1/2000
If the sport you are covering has a ball keep asking yourself this question: Where’s the ball? Most of the peak action, the strong expressions and the competition will be around the ball. This rule doesn’t apply to all your shots, but it is a good one to keep in mind.
If you were covering football you would be on opposite ends of the field depending on if you are covering the offense or defensive players. You want to see the player’s faces and close as possible. The grimaces will show the intensity of the play.
With digital cameras you can take ten pictures, a hundred pictures or even a thousand pictures for about the same cost. So take lots of photos to capture the best moments.
Your kids will probably play these sports for just a few years. Having good photos, in which they can recognize themselves, will be something they cherish for a lifetime.
So get out of your seat and get close to the action. You (and your kids) will be glad you did.
Nikon D4, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 w/ 1.4 converter, ISO 900, ƒ/5.6, 1/2000
Let’s sum it up:
  • Get closer.
  • Use a monopod. Fuzzy Photos don’t count
  • Get down, and shoot up – make them heroes.
  • Stay ahead of the action.
  • Where’s the ball?
  • Show the faces/capture the emotion.
  • Take more pictures, it improves your odds.
  • Enjoy the photography and your kids.

Stop Selling Nails

When my wife Dorie graduated from seminary our family took an out of the ordinary vacation to Jamaica. We did the all-inclusive package. All we had to do was enjoy the trip. No worrying about when or where to eat or what to do. We just had fun. I cherish these memories.
You’ve probably splurged on something. Maybe you took a special vacation or found a wonderful restaurant. Most of us have done something fun that is outside our normal budget. These extraordinary times can form memories our families will talk about for the rest of our lives.
Workshops and Seminars
 
Each year I attend a few workshops and seminars to keep me up to date and increase my value to my clients. Years ago some friends suggested that I should splurge and invite the speaker I was impressed with out for a meal to some nice restaurant. At first I was worried that these important people would think I was nuts.

The first time I took a speaker out to eat I expressed this worry. She laughed and said, “No man, I was a peon myself once and not that long ago.” I learned more asking questions and listening during this one-on-one time at a meal with a key person than the rest of the entire conference. By the way, that first speaker I became friends and have kept in touch.
I’ve met others, who were struggling and barely had any money for their own food, but they still took a speaker to lunch. Much later on they told me that the investment in that lunch changed their lives and their business. 
Building Supplies
 
Hardware stores and real estate agents sell entirely different things. Hardware stores sell nails and wood and the prices vary little from hardware store to hardware store. Real estate agents sell what a builder did with what he bought in a hardware store and the prices range all over the place depending what was done with the basic materials.

As we talk with a prospective client does the discussions quickly turning to price and the bottom line? 
The Total Package
Let’s think back to those extraordinary vacations or the meals you treated those special speakers to. Price was not the determining factor. The value of what you got for your money prompted you to take that vacation or buy that person a meal.
If the quality of your work is superior and you have consistently treated your customers with honor, dignity and respect then you have established a brand that will draw clients to you.

If you are aware of how your work defines you in the marketplace and you communicate this effectively to potential customers you will do well. You can compare what you do to your competition or you can just point out all the things that you do for your clients and never mention the competition.
If prospective clients are talking price and bottom line then stop selling nails and wood and start talking about the quality of your work and what you will do for them.

It’s Not All About Me, But It All Depends On Me

One of the best things I have learned over the past year about how to grow my business is that it’s not all about ME, but it all depends on ME.

Kenneth H. Blanchard who wrote the famous book The One Minute Manager also wrote Raving Fans. I rediscovered him through my client Chick-fil-A. They embrace his concepts and work hard at creating Raving Fans.


Definition of a Raving Fan: One who uses your services more often; pays full price; and tell others about you.
All businesses want and need Raving Fans. So, how do you get them?

First: Your product or service must be superior. Doing business “Good Enough” will make some clients rave about you, but they will not be FANS. Striving for nothing but the best will create genuine fans.

As a photographer I look for a unique angles; something they are not likely to see themselves. “Good Enough” is giving my client a professional version of something they could have seen and done without my help. My photos must WOW them. That’s my obligation to them as a professional.

Creative use of lighting can move my photography from just “Good Enough” to excellent. I need to explore the subject and find the point of view with the most effective use of light. For example, moving a person so that the light from a window creates the main light on their face rather than fighting the glare of the same window behind the subject. I may need to set-up strobes (flashes) to create my own “window light.”

“Good Enough” is scouting a location after joining my client at the shoot. Much better to shout in advance of the shoot and be able to suggest locations for the best light, composition or unique perspective to make photos that standout from the expected.

Second: To win Raving Fans – go the Second Mile in service. In my business I looked for things to do that were not required, but would be valued by my client.

Something I did from the beginning was to deliver my work to my clients on a professional-looking CD or DVD. I printed my logo and sometimes their logo on the disc as well as the date of the photo shoot and other useful information. “Good Enough” is writing the information on the disk with a Sharpie.

Another unexpected and appreciated extra is a quick turn-around delivering the images. When possible I give the client the disc before I leave the shoot.

By watching other businesses it is possible to discover some of the ways they attract fans. Chick-fil-A, for example, works at making a customer feel like a guest in someone’s home. Little things make this happen. They’ll hold the door for folks, carry the trays to the table, refresh their drinks and even give them food occasionally. 


Seeing what other businesses do and finding ways to apply the concept to my business isn’t always apparent. It is a constant struggle to find ways to be more service oriented. We call those who “do it naturally” Ladies and Gentlemen. (The rest of us gotta work at it.)

I believe the whole key to attracting and keeping Raving Fans is to first be sure to deliver a quality product and do so in a professional way. Only if we are doing this will the Second Mile Service have any real impact. No matter how many nice-little-things we do for a client if they are not happy with our product… The point: You Can’t Go The Second Mile If You Didn’t Go The First Mile FIRST.

I’ve found a great second mile touch is a hand written thank you card. Anything hand written is so rare these days that it has an almost unimaginable positive impact.

Third: Another component of creating Raving Fans is establishing an emotional connection with the client. It’s called Friendship.

When my customer becomes more than a paycheck, when I see them as a valuable person, when I come to care about how they’re doing and I’m concerned about their happiness that’s when I discover the true joy of “doing business.”

When business reaches this level going the second mile only seems natural.


This relationship is not going to form with all our clients, but when it does it was worth the trouble and we’ve made a Raving Fan.

A few months ago I ran into a man I knew when he was a teenager. We were talking when he stopped and said, “Last Sunday my pastor said in his sermon that we should tell people what they have meant to us over the years. Well, I want to tell you that you were a major influence on me when I was a kid and I want to thank you for that.”

I want forget that for a long time. Made me feel great and humble at the same time.

We probably didn’t know our clients when they were kids, but there are things we like and appreciate about them that, given the opportunity, perhaps we should tell them.

An easy way to make a fan and a friend is just to listen to them. Maybe over coffee or a meal, just give them the time of day. A friend, after all, is someone who will listen.

I believe this can all be boiled down to this statement: If you want to grow a business, look for ways to serve your customers.

Give yourself an assignment

I just got back from Hawaii and I’m excited. It was my fifth trip to Hawaii to teach, but photographically this was the best trip by far.

Why so? Well this time I had a couple of assignments.
On the drive over to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park my daughter calls me and says, “Daddy, I need some photos for of the volcano for my class at school. We’re studying the Earth’s crust and I thought the volcano would be a good way to show it.”
Listen, with an extraordinary assignment like that you give it all you got! I knew I needed to do an outstanding job for this client. Besides, this gave me the perfect opportunity to play with my new Nikon D3s.
At the Volcanoes Park I meet this Park Ranger and decide to interview her since she was bound to know more about it than I did (wouldn’t take much).
When I told her about my assignment and the intended audience she knew just what to do. We did the interview in one take. I got the feeling she’d done this before – what a pro.
Here’s what we did from my daughter’s class. You can see it for yourself.
[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/9566709 w=500&h=281]  Hawaii Volcanoes National Park from Stanley Leary on Vimeo.

Here’s another assignment I did while on the island.
I’d been to the luau the Island Breeze produces in Kona. I asked the folks at the school where I was teaching if there was a way we could set-up a shoot with these dancers. Don’t tell me luck has nothing to do with anything. One of the dancers with Island Breeze was actually in my class! Brooke Valle, the student, is also a professional dancer and travels the world full-time dancing.
I was able to photograph the women dancers and one of the guys who is a fire dancer. They were excited. We photographed the women one night at the home of Kamehemeha the Great, the first king to rule all the islands. The next night we photographed the fire dancer on the beach.
I used this as an opportunity to show the students how to silhouette the dancers and expose for the sky at dusk, which makes for a great looking sky, but puts dancers in the dark. Then I showed them how to use remote Nikon TTL flashes to light up the dancers and make them pop.
Here are the examples:
Here the dancers are silhouetted.
They are now revealed with the flash.
One of my favorites showing the king’s palace in the background.
The dancer is silhouetted.
Now he is revealed with the flash.
These self-assignments, well one assigned by my daughter, forced me to pre-plan. The photographs were better than in past trips and it was a lot of fun.

Want better travel photos? Do some research and preplan. You’ll be glad you did.


Here are some of the student’s first attempts working with studio lighting and off-camera flash after a few days in class.

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/9563136 w=500&h=281]  Youth With A Mission Photography School 1 from Stanley Leary on Vimeo.

Finding and Keeping Clients

In February I go to Hawaii to teach in a photography school. We’ll cover Lighting, the heart of photography, and Business Practices in Photography, the lifeblood of the business. Below are some of the points we’ll cover that might work for you in your industry.

Finding Clients
Before you start building a database of names determine your niche. Targeting the specific audience you need to address will make your research and set-up time more productive.
Get Organized

Software programs such as Microsoft Office that has Outlook, Word, Powerpoint and Excel are helpful in organizing your material. Also, these programs are integrated with Microsoft Word and facilitate merging your contacts into a snail mail or emailing.

You write one letter and the software will merge your contact information into each letter personalizing it. You can write one email and personalize it to a long list of contacts. 

It is quite common for me to think of a great tip that might help me get some jobs that I send out to a few hundred or thousands of contacts. Instead of the email coming to them with “To whom it may concern,” it is personalized with their name, like “Dear Steve.” 

What To Do With Collected Contacts
Set-up files in a database for the name of the company, the personal contact’s name, their address and phone numbers, email and website address. Assign each contact to a category.

I specialize in photographing people, but setting up a category for companies who hire photographers that photograph people is too broad. By assigning a contact to a category such as “Education” I can send a promotional piece to only those contacts in the education field. Assigning multiple categories to individual contacts further refines target marketing.

Contact management software has space for making notes. Keep this up-to-date as new information about your client comes to light. Use this field for their Facebook page and other information that don’t fit in any other field.

Time To Party
Parties (some parties) are a good way to build your database. Attend the “after-hours” events many civic and trade organizations sponsor that are designed to promote getting to know people and businesses in the area. Usually held monthly these events are great ways to meet a lot of folks and have fun doing so. It beats sitting at home with a computer.

Work The Room
Be sure you know your two-minute “elevator talk” about your business. Find someone you know. Get them to introduce you to the person to whom they are talking. Exchange business card and ask if you can follow up at another time for coffee or lunch. Be sure to give that person your full attention while you are with them, but move on after about five minutes. Remember, almost everyone in the room is there for the same reason you are, to meet people and find clients.

Be Relevant/Current
I recommend to the students to read industry magazines. Photo District News helps keep photographers informed on happenings in the world of photography. It is filled with the latest trends and techniques, business and legal news and new product reviews.
Contact information for magazines that might be interested in your work can usually be found in the masthead. Many magazines are online today. Read some back issues before contacting them. Offer a story idea to the editor. If you did your homework your idea should reflect the trends that are going on in the industry or plug into the style of that magazine.
Investigate – Dig Deep

Put on your investigative reporter hat and dig around for your niche. Use Google and type in your categories. Combine them with the word “organizations” and you will find many of the trade associations. When you find their websites click on the “About Us” section. It often will help you know the image the company is trying to convey. This is invaluable if you contact them and land an appointment.
Dale Carnegie said it best; “You can close more business in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get people interested in you.”
Qualify Your Lead
I know of a photographer who contacted a designer for a couple years. The photographer sent out beautiful newsletters and promotional material. One day the photographer dropped off a portfolio and met the designer. He asked if he was the person that hired the photographers. He said no, that his boss picked the photographers; he just designed the pieces.

Connecting With A Client
If you find common interests with a prospect, you can establish a business relationship. In a prospect’s office look at: pictures and plaques on the wall; the books on the shelf; anything that shows their interest. Commenting on that interest is a good way to start a conversation. People love to talk about their interest. Try to find common ground for a friendship. People are more likely to buy from a friend than a salesman.
Sales consultant Jeffrey Gitomer says, “If you establish common ground with the other person, they will like you, believe you, begin to trust you, and connect with you on a deeper level; a ‘things-in-common’ level. The best way to win the connection is to first win the person.”
Finding clients is hard work. Keeping them is all-important.

Tips When Hiring a Photographer

Want to know how to get the most for your money out of a photographer? Bring him in early in your planning.

fan
Little girl chases down parachuting cows at the Chick-fil-A Bowl

Use photographers before they shoot

Clients benefit in several ways when they include the photographer as part of their creative team. Not only will the shoot go smother and faster, but more importantly, the photos will be just as you want them to be and your budget will go further.

The sooner the photographer is involved in the planning and preparation for the shoot the better.

After the concept and approach are determined in a planning session the client and I usually scout the locations together, if possible. While on location we determine the best time of day for the shoot based on the lighting. Scouting with the client makes it is easier for us to maximize the time at each location during the shoot.

During the planning session we discuss the feelings the photos need to invoke in the viewer. By working together from the beginning we are both better able to achieve our objective. Preplanning allows everyone to concentrate on the fine details when it truly counts – on the day of shoot.
During the actual shoot priorities can change. Certain shots emerge, as “must have” pictures, while others may become less essential than initially thought. Going for the best shots and dropping or limiting the others can stretch the budget yet still produce outstanding images.
Tip 
 
Here is an example of stretching a photo budget. When working with universities and schools it is more expedient, since most general classrooms look alike, to set-up in only one classroom. The faculty and students rotate through the classroom where all the lights have been placed and the exposure and white balance determined. There is no need to move from building to building. This saves time and money.

Tennesse players celebrate
Tennessee cornerback Janzen Jackson (15)and teammate cornerback Eric Berry (14) celebrate defensive play against Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on December 31, 2009 in Atlanta, Ga.

As you consider your photo needs consider adding me to you creative team, that decision will save time and money and ensure a more productive and creative photo shoot.

I’m here to help, just give me a call.

Learning from the Masters

Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery…
Last week someone said to me, “I love the Rembrandt lighting you used in the portrait of our CEO.” A day or so after that a photographer friend of mine mentioned that she could see Eugene Smith’s influence in my photography.
Well, I don’t mind telling you I felt really good. Those familiar with the work of Eugene Smith know how flattered I felt.
As my interest in photography developed (pardon the pun) I became fascinated with the work of great photographers. I studied their work until I felt I knew why they were considered Greats.
Several years into the profession I was privileged to work with Don Rutledge; an extraordinary photographer. Don had an encyclopedic knowledge of photographers both legendary and contemporary. 
 “Writers,” Don would say, “can talk at length about famous writers, but most photographers don’t know anything about the greats in our field. How can they expect to learn if they don’t study”?
An interest in learning from the masters can turn a trip to an art museum or a stroll through local art galleries into an exhilarating adventure.
What kind lighting did the painter use: Was it midday sun, window light or was it a single candle creating the mood?
Why did the artist choose this moment, that expression, those surroundings? This is a fascinating study and it all comes back to you as you are composing a photo a few days or even years later.
Just studying what was done alone doesn’t help much. It is necessary to learn how to replicate what you’ve learned. This knowledge along with your own way of “seeing” will one day result in your own style.
The best advice I ever received about developing a style of my own was, “Don’t worry about it.” That’s easy for some well-established pro to say to a fledging photographer.
However, he was right. Sure enough, someday someone will say how much they like your style. Don’t say, “Oh wow! I didn’t even know I had a style.” Be cool.
The style we see in other’s work is usually apparent in the way they handle (1) Lighting, (2) Composition and (3) the Moment.
Lighting creates mood. The warm light of an evening campfire sets the mood. What do we include in the photo we are about to make? What do we exclude? Is the girl facing the fire lost in thought when we shoot or is she looking into the shadows the texture of her skin catching the light? Do we wait to see her eyes or capture that tilt of her head that seems to say so much?
I cut my teeth in photography using the available light. It was a good five years before I started experimenting with studio lights. This was a good because I learned to see what is natural and then I learned to duplicate it with artificial lights.
Making a photograph that grabs the attention of the viewer is a good thing, but learning how to hold that attention can take time. Something that holds attention is called “the decisive moment.”
It’s easy to know the decisive moment in sports photography. A basket is made or the pass is caught. Knowing the decisive moment and capturing it with the camera is not exactly the same thing, but the capturing part can be learned.
At first glance a committee sitting around a conference table brings to mind all the excitement and action of a chess match. However, there is action there to capture just as in a sports event albeit more like golf than rugby. Still, there are pivotal moments that tell the story of what is transpiring in the meeting.
Some of the photographers I’ve studied and continue to study are: James Nachtwey, William Albert Allard, Sebastião Salgado, Dave Black, Eugene Smith, Carolyn Cole, Joanna Pinneo and Don Rutledge.

Google these names and check them out yourself. If you know of others whose work you appreciate please send me an email and let me know who they are. I am always looking to improve and grow.

Informative or Just Eye Candy?

Before our children could even read, they could identify restaurants by their logo. Our oldest son was in the back seat singing “… the Simpsons,” when he saw a sky with a lot of cumulus clouds. Most everyone involved in communications understands how the audience is enticed by images.

Sometimes logos conjure up other thoughts. For many folks ATT’s logo is called the “death star.” This is another topic for another time though.

For many people working as communicator for corporations, nonprofits, or in the media they see the visual as the “hook” to their written story. The concept of using visuals as “eye candy” is a way to make you stop and at least start to read the article.

Love her or hate her, Catherine Zeta-Jones helped shape the image of T-Mobile during her first run with the company. To celebrate the launch of their Mobile Makeover advertising campaign, she’s back again. The ads use her as the “eye candy.”

No question this works in advertising, but how does it go over with corporate communications or journalism?

My opinion is that those that use imagery as “eye candy” are like the tabloids or car magazines with women on the hood of the car. This approach must work or these types of media wouldn’t be doing so well financially. However, they are not taken seriously for their content.

You can use the imagery as the message itself and not just a hook. In journalistic example are the photos of the Twin Towers being hit by the airplanes or on fire? Michael Phelps touching the wall first with others still behind him is another example.

In journalistic media we also see visual “hooks.” We see mug shots which accompany an article, but tell us nothing about what the story is about. How is this a hook? On sports pages peak action moments showing the looser looking like they won is a hook.

I’ve learned the best images leave the viewer asking a question. “Why are the Twin Towers on fire?” is the question people asked when they turned on their televisions. It kept us glued to the coverage to understand and help us heal. Is this the photo of Michael Phelps winning the 8th gold medal or what race is it?

We can learn from the “eye candy” photography. If the image is interesting and has visual impact it will hook the reader. You need to surprise your audience. I have talked about this in past e.newsletters. Getting a unique perspective like a worm’s eye view or the bird’s eye view is a great “hook.” Making photos from the standing position straight on all the time is what amateurs do. You can make an informative intriguing image of most content to help tell the story with your images.

I shoot for different audiences. I often shoot for Associated Press, magazines, corporate publications, websites, college recruiting and alumni publications, and many other mediums.

When I shoot for AP, I must tell the story in one photo. I must shoot tight, which means close-up and filling the frame. The users of AP images may run the picture really small and will not want to use the photo if it isn’t close-up. It needs to have impact. They may run it on a front page of a paper to help tell the story, and sell the newspaper.

At an event where an AP photographer is there and I am there shooting for a magazine, I have to take a different approach. By the time a magazine comes out the readers will have seen the AP images of the event. My coverage must be more than one impactful image. I have a variety of angles, from close-up, to medium and overall shots of the story. I will use lighting to help influence the image even more.

http://www.stanleylearystoryteller.com/DaddyDaughter/_files/iframe.html
I am shooting a lot of multimedia packages lately which require 30 – 60 images for a 2-minute piece to run on a website. I need photos like I would do for a magazine, and I need transition photos. I need photos of noises you may hear in the audio to help the audience understand those noises are seagulls in the background near the subject. You still need strong images, but they can help tell the story and compliment the audio.

Most communicators today are using the same content in multiple places. They send out a printed newsletter, post it on a blog, put it on a website, or send out an e.Newsletter . All of the pieces point to the website where more content and images can be placed, than before this existed.

If you do a good job of telling the story using visuals you will now have just started telling your story. That’s right—just started. People like to be in dialogue and comment on your stories on-line. This outlet wasn’t available in print.

In the most recent Scientific American Magazine there was an article on Celiac Disease. When you went to their website the article was there as well, but now will comments like this, “The illustrations in this article delivered to my mailbox today, allow the complexities of the science of gluten intolerance to be easily understood by everyone.” Here is a link for you http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=celiac-disease-insights&page=6.

Is your material getting as many comments as this article? Are your visuals helping your audience to understand the topic? Using visuals effectively and not just as a visual “hook” will improve how your message is communicated.

Stanley is available as a consultant to help you improve your visual communication for your organization. Give him a call or email him to set up a time for him to work with your team.

Do Your Photos Provide Context For Your Subject?


Professional communicators work hard at getting a message across. But first they must get the audience’s attention. There needs to be a “lead” or “hook” to stimulate their interest in the story.

Ted Koppel said that during his 25 years as anchor for Nightline, they spent the majority of their pre-broadcast time on the first 10 seconds of the show.

The hook is all-important. If it doesn’t work no one will hear the message.

A tactic used by writers to grab the attention of readers is to lead with a quote. This is a powerful literary tool for hooking an audience. It is often misused. Quoting out of context is done quite often. There are two known common practices of misusing a quote – the straw man argument and the appeal to authority. Both of these can undermine the message.

Photographers are also guilty of taking photos out of context to create impact for a visual hook.

If a writer or photographer uses the hook appropriately they will deliver context or story within the hook.

Wire service photographers have used impact as a visual hook (to the detriment of the story-telling photo) for so long that we rarely see good examples of photos with any real context. The context has been handed over entirely to the writer.

Extreme close-up photos have extreme impact but, out of context, may lack any story-telling ability. Relating the subject to its surroundings can help tell the story of the subject, but impact is still needed.

A good example of the type of photo that can contain both impact and context is the environmental portrait. The subject is shown in their environment and the surroundings portray the person and help tell their story. A simple headshot shows what someone looks like, but the environment portrait can speak volumes about the person.

I grew up watching missionaries give slide shows in churches. Invariably most of the pictures they showed were tight headshots of some person looking into the camera. A friend of mine characterized these lacking-context-pictures as “People Who Need the Lord” photos. The pictures show what they look like, but tell me nothing about who they are.

Today I am often asked to speak to these missionary groups about how to improve their photography of their mission trips. My chief complaint about mission teams going somewhere and then showing their photos is the lack of environment in their photos. They have many “People Who Need the Lord” photos, which could have been made almost anywhere. Their photos don’t tell a story, they have little context. What does the county look like? How do they live? What do they eat?

I suggest to these groups that they make pictures that tell something about these folks. Show the mother in her kitchen making a meal. Show the man at his job – what does he do to earn a living. Show the children and what they do for play.

Think of the photos as an introduction. How do we in America do introductions? After we exchange our names we usually ask what they do for a living or we ask about their family.

A real advantage of photography is how much story can be told without having to speak a word. True masters of the craft use light and composition to make sense of all the clutter and show how things in the frame relate to one another. When t
he photo includes people expression and body language add even more context to the image.

Here are six simple steps to help bring context to a photograph.

  1. Determine the purpose of the photograph.
  2. What is the mood for the photograph to be?
  3. Determine the subject.
  4. What should be included or excluded around the subject?
    a. Do I include some of the environment in front of the subject?
    b. Am I making an image that is just graphically strong or does the space around the subject give context?
    c. What is in the background?
    d. What is beside or on the same plane as the subject, giving it equal importance?
  5. When do I press the shutter?
    a. Are they interacting with another person?
    b. Do I show a serious or light moment?
  6. What about the light?
    a. Do I use the natural light?
    b. Do I bounce the flash?
    c. Do I use professional lights?

Put your subjects in context when you photograph them and your pictures will truly be worth 10,000 words.