No Setup Photos

The cry of all the focus groups when they review most educational recruiting pieces seems to always say they want natural looking photos and not setup.

After having spent the last twenty plus years as a photographer shooting pure photojournalism, where you capture what happens in front of the camera to shooting for advertising pieces, where there are stylists arranging everything in a photo; my experience says most focus groups are asking the wrong questions.

“Do you like the photo?” is not as good of a question to see if the photo was successful as a question like “What did you learn from the photo?” You can even have a photo again on a questionnaire from your recruiting materials and ask, “Does the photo help you see what a typical dorm room looks like?” You could even have a follow up question “What could improve the photo to show you a dorm room?”

The reason I have come to this place about evaluating photos is my experience with truly “real” photographs. I have spent many years shooting “photojournalism” for magazines, newspapers and wire services. You do not change a thing in these photos and you do everything you can use composition, lens choices, lighting and timing to communicate the mood and reality of a situation.

Often a photojournalist’s photos are not “pretty” pictures. Photographers will even use their composition to create more conflict to add to the mood of the photo. Having a focus group evaluate war photos with the typical questions we ask “Did you like the photos?” will give you results which would say the photographers were not successful.

How can you know the right moment to take a picture unless you have a fairly clear idea of what the subject means and what you are after? When you are interested in a subject, you want to learn more about it. You dig below the surface values to the truth beneath. That way you get to know it intimately and are able to photograph it understandingly.

Understanding does not necessarily mean a technical knowledge of the subject. Understanding is interest, sympathy, curiosity, the human element of the equation.

While photojournalism will give you “real” photos, sometimes reality for recruiting will keep your institution on the same path rather than to where you would like to be.

This is where what I call the “sitcom” photography works best. We all know the sitcom isn’t real, but it can create such a reality we are all tuning in to see “Who shot JR?”

This is the type of photography where the school has determined where they want to go and then create communications pieces to help them attain the goal. For example if you want to be more diverse in the future, you will need to show diversity. If you keep it real, you would then research to find those situations where diversity exists already. Then you would photograph those situations and play them prominently in your piece.

As one person put it “You don’t want to be the lone raisin in a bowl of milk.” If everyone works to help the school to become more diverse it can be done.

As you can see there are a few ways to communicate your message using photographs. The ideal scenario is to have “reality” photos. If you had a photographer go to everything you did this year—then maybe you would get the reality you need.

Sometimes “reality” isn’t what you want to show. The student wearing another competing schools T-Shirt. A student with major over weight issues or skin problems can detract from the message. This is why so often we re-create reality like the sitcom. If properly planned, you will tune in and want to know more about your school.

Photographs are made of light, mood, texture, form, and line. The value of techniques lies in how they are used. Techniques by themselves are barren. To come alive with meaning, they must be employed interpretively. This is where I come in. Give me a call and let’s make your recruiting photos—REAL.

Sometimes a Detail Tells the Whole Story

Nikon D3S, ISO 6400, f/5.6, 1/2000, 28-300mm also used SU-800 Speedlight Commander to fire SB900 Speedlight off camera.  The RadioPopper PX System are used to be sure the signal for flashes works outside.

We have all seen photographs with too much “stuff” in them. Because the photographer makes no attempt to select one subject, the image fails to communicate. It’s the visual equivalent of a run-on sentence.

A close-up of a detail frequently reveals more of the subject than a picture of the whole subject. So many photographers want to shoot general views because they believe they offer “good composition” or to capture the beautiful light. The detail photograph can have more impact and communicate more because the photographer is forced to be interpretive with the detail. The isolated part can tell more, be more emphatic, and be more quickly appreciated and understood. It tells the story in compressed, sometimes dramatic, fashion by scaling down to point out a specific idea to greatest effect.

Nikon D3S, ISO 3200, f/5.6, 1/4000, 24-120mm, SU800 with SB900 off camera flash

In approaching a subject, decide how much to include in the viewfinder of the camera. Force yourself to look around the subject and look at each of the corners and everything within the frame of the viewfinder. If there is anything that detracts from the theme, move in closer to eliminate it; if there is not enough to tell the story, move back to include more. The key to this process is to know what you want; the details will fall naturally into place and “composition” is achieved.

I have found the following exercise effective with my students at Reinhardt College. First, shoot a large scene, then close in on it and cut it in half. Close in again and again until, finally, you isolate the most important subject and thus make a statement about the main thing in the scene. In this way, you learn that much of what you see in a picture may not really be that important — and how to select the part or parts that are most meaningful.

Nikon D3S, ISO 3200, f/5.6, 1/4000, 24-120mm, SU800 with SB900 off camera flash

Great photographers know that composition is a matter of feeling rather than of rules learned by rote. You will develop this feeling as you gain experience, but you will never really “know it all” because, as you learn more about life, you will put emphasis on different things. Composition, ultimately, is just another way of looking at life.

Nikon D3S, ISO 6400, f/18, 1/60, 14-24mm

How to Take a Good Group Photo in 15 Minutes or Less

Nikon D100, Sigma 15-30mm, ƒ/9.5, 1/30

The key to group photos is planning — and how big you plan to use the photo can make a big difference in your planning. We don’t hang wristwatches on the wall, because their faces are so small you cannot tell time with them. In most family rooms, you could have a three-inch face clock and tell the time. In a classroom, you might need a 10-inch face. The clock face size is a good rule of thumb for determining whether someone will be recognized in a wall print at a normal viewing distance.

Nikon D2X, Sigma 15-30mm, ISO 100, ƒ/11, 1/60–Alienbees used for fill flash

The more you show in a photograph other than people’s faces, the larger the photo needs to be to recognize the people, because their face size will diminish. If your group photo is more for identification, then getting everyone close together where you can see their faces should be the primary goal. Then you can run the photo in a publication and people can tell what everyone looks like.

Nikon D3, 24-120mm, ISO 200, ƒ/8, 1/100–6 Alienbees B1600 shooting through white umbrellas

On the other hand, if your photo is more about creating a mood for a poster of, say, a hip-hop band, then you will shoot much looser and space the people out and let their body language help establish the mood. For these concept/mood photos, I like to spread people out and put people at different heights (relative to their faces). I like to think in triangles. If you were to connect the dots (faces) between people, do they make triangles? Create depth by having some people closer to the camera and others further away. This will give it a more three-dimensional feel.

Nikon D2X, 70-200mm, ISO 400, ƒ/16, 1/200–4 Alienbees B1600s full power lighting the room

If you go to the music store and look at CD covers of music groups, you can see some of the leading work done in the industry. Try copying some of these until you get the hang of it and can come up with your own concepts.

If you pre-plan and have a good idea and have taken into consideration people’s sizes, you will move pretty quickly through the process. If you don’t, it goes slowly and your photo may fall apart — because you will lose the attention and interest of the people in the photo.

In scouting locations in advance, you are not only choosing a location because of the scenery; you are also ensuring you are there at the best time of day for a group photo. Having the sun right behind the group isn’t the best technical photo. Sometimes, a location won’t work simply because the group isn’t available at the right time of day to make the photo.

Nikon D2X, 24-120mm, ISO 100, ƒ/16, 1/200–4 Alienbees shooting through white umbrellas

I have found that if you have done your homework, you can pretty much make any group photo in 10 to 15 minutes. You may get to the location earlier, but the people in the photo should be able to be placed into position immediately — and then you are just looking for good expressions.

One last thing that can make a great impact on the quality of your photo: either have a laptop computer or TV on location to view the images as you shoot. Virtually all digital cameras will plug into a TV and let you see the image big enough to assess the smallest details — enabling you to move people only inches and improve the final product.

To Break the Rules, You Must First Know the Rules

Finding Forrester is one of my favorite films. In the movie, William Forrester, played by Sean Connery, is a reclusive Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who never gave the world a second novel. Forrester befriends a 16-year-old inner-city basketball player named Jamal. Jamal, an aspiring writer, visits Forrester’s apartment to seek the author’s wisdom. In one scene, Forrester and Jamal have a lively discussion about rules of writing, such as “You shouldn’t start a sentence with ‘and’.” They talk about how breaking the rules can create a wonderful impact. If overdone, however, it also can have a devastating impact.

This is so true in photography. Photographers must study and know the rules of good visual composition like writers study and learn the rules of good writing composition. Once you understand the rules, your ability to break them helps you have better impact with your photos.

Breaking the rules can create visual surprises. Tom Kennedy was the director of photography for National Geographic magazine when I showed him my portfolio many moons ago. While at the time my work was professional and of excellent quality, Kennedy’s comment was that he wanted more surprises.

Kennedy had seen just about everything in his role at National Geographic. When Kennedy said he wanted to see more surprises, he wanted — for example — to see shots that weren’t taken from my normal standing height or sitting height. One of the things his critique had me doing right away was looking for the extreme. I started shooting with my camera on the ground, and finding ways to get up high. I also started to shoot extreme close-ups, another change in what I’d been doing.

There comes a point in your photographic journey where you begin to find your own voice. In the movie, Forrester had Jamal use a typewriter to simply copy Forrester’s work. The author began doing this after he set down a typewriter in front of Jamal, and the pupil just sat there waiting for something to come into his head. When Forrester saw Jamal wasn’t typing, he asked Jamal, “What are you doing?”

“I am thinking,” said Jamal.

“No thinking,” Forrester replied. “That comes later.”

To get the juices flowing, Forrester gave him some of his own work to copy. It was through punching the keys and going through the actions that Jamal loosened up and slowly, after copying the work, started to write his own work.

Photographers do the same thing. We copy other people’s work to learn how they did it, and then add the underlying technique to our long-term memory to use later. Most of the arts require the mastery of certain skills before you can create your own original works. This typically takes about five years. You can see this as musicians learn to play an instrument like a piano.

After copying the concepts of other photographers, you soon learn that your work is no better or worse than many others. This is when you realize that to stand out from others, you must do something unique — your surprise.

Forrester had a great quote that made me think; he asked, “Why is it the words we write for ourselves are always so much better than the words we write for others?” As photographers, we don’t always receive assignments that challenge us; there’s only so much you can do with a check presentation, for example. Most of the great photographers I know have a secret to their work — personal projects that sustain their creative juices.

The key to surprising others is to first surprise yourself — to take risks and look through your camera in a different way, not being afraid to break the rules. Stretch your way of looking and see if there is a better perspective than you normally take when making photos. Who knows what you might discover?

Anatomy of a Sports Photography Assignment

Last month, I covered Boston College’s victory over Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Here are a few of my photos from the game, along with some thoughts on my approach to shooting the assignment.

First, when covering a football game, I like to stand behind the end zone so the team I’m focusing on is facing me. That way, I am already where they are trying to go.

There are two types of photos you can get of a team from this vantage point — defense and offense. The great thing is you can see the players’ faces, which for me is very important.

Nikon D2X, Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG EX APO IF HSM, Sigma 2x EX DG APO Autofocus Teleconverter, ISO 1600, ƒ/4, 1/500

In this photo, for example, Boston College wide receiver Kevin Challenger spins loose from Georgia Tech defensive back Avery Roberson, setting up Boston College’s first touchdown. What I like in the photo is you can see Challenger’s face, along with the defensive player he left in the dust and the ball.

In sports with a ball, I am typically looking for three things: (1) peak action, (2) the ball and (3) competition. Sometimes you can’t get all three in a picture, but if one element stands out, the photo will still work.

Nikon D2X, Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG EX APO IF HSM, Sigma 2x EX DG APO Autofocus Teleconverter, ISO 1600, ƒ/4, 1/500

In this photo, BC receiver Rich Gunnell is tackled by Georgia Tech safety Djay Jones and teammate cornerback Pat Clark after a catch. While you cannot see the ball or their faces, the peak action of the players’ feet off the ground communicates the effort.

After one team is ahead in a game, I often begin to focus on the other team to see if there is a play that changes the whole game. When the game is close, this can happen at any moment. With a blowout, the latter part of the game is harder to cover since not much will happen to change the outcome of the game.

After you shoot a game, it’s important not to editorialize in your captions — but to provide concise descriptions of what’s taken place. Concise, but chock-full of information.

Today, databases require the captions to be written so the software can pick keywords from the caption so that editors can find the photos. One thing to remember, for example, is to list both teams in the caption. This way, the editor knows which game the photo is from. It is common for editors to search for a few photos and then put them in a folder, and well-written captions help them with the necessary information.

Nikon D2X, Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG EX APO IF HSM, Sigma 2x EX DG APO Autofocus Teleconverter, ISO 1600, ƒ/4, 1/500

Here’s a caption for the photo above, for example:

Sept 15, 2007; Atlanta, GA, USA; Georgia Tech running back Tashard Choice (22) cuts on Boston College linebacker JoLonn Dunbar (40) during first quarter at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

Getting a great moment in the camera is only part of the story; it is the caption that fills in the rest.

A final note about the picture above; like all of these, it’s taken at night, which is a bit more difficult. But it communicates all three elements: He’s carrying the ball, it contains peak action, and you can sense the competitive pressure he probably feels from the defensive player pursuing him.

Don’t Be Satisfied with Just Showing Up

Fuji X-E2, 18-55mm, ISO 6400, ƒ/2.8, 1/50 [What happens when I leave my camera sitting around]

Many in today’s iGeneration have had a childhood of T-ball, soccer, and dance classes where if they just participated, they were given a trophy. I assume most people know there is more to life than showing up on time – but you’d be surprised how often meeting minimum standards will put you way ahead of the competition.

I just handed in the grades for a class I taught in photojournalism at Reinhardt College. Every project I assigned was designed to give the students a real-world experience. They had three assignments: an environmental portrait, covering an event and a photo story.

The students were asked to turn in their assignments as if they were submitting them to an editor. They needed a cover letter to tell me about what they were submitting. They needed a folder with their selects and another folder with all the images they shot. Each of the photos in the selects needed to have a caption embedded in the IPTC fields. Most editors enjoy being able to send a photo to the designer which already has the caption in the photo.

Some students forgot the captions, some forgot the cover letter and, yes, some were late handing them in. While most had everything done properly, we still had some where the captions were lacking the essential five Ws.

I continue to hear horror stories from clients about photographers who didn’t meet their minimum expectations. I even know of photographers who did the work and never handed in an invoice! It is amazing how just being sure all the elements are done for a project and turning them on time (or early!) will be received with excitement.

One of my favorite creative directors is Tony Messano. He gives sage advice. I can understand why he is asked to judge advertising work all over the world.

Tony expects a photographer to shoot the assignment the way Tony conceives it – but his favorite photographers not only give him what he wants; they go beyond his concept and shoot it their way, too. Often, they will shoot it just as he says and then will push the idea a bit further with lighting composition or another element. They bring something extra to the table.

If you are meeting the expectations of your clients, you are doing better than most others in the industry. To rise to the top, go a little beyond the expectations.

Don’t be satisfied with the trophy everyone gets for just showing up. Be the person singled out for going beyond the call of duty. Never stop looking for a unique approach or something different. The stretching will keep you youthful and nimble in today’s ever-changing marketplace.

Solving the Mystery of the Headless Photograph

Figure 1

My wife Dorie was standing in line at a local drugstore and overheard a customer complain about his photos. He asked, “Why is their head chopped?” The clerk told him that the photo technician was off, but could help him tomorrow.

As I walked up to Dorie, she told the customer that I was a professional photographer and could probably help. Many years ago I managed a one-hour photo lab in Texas, where I was asked this same question almost daily.

Figure 2 – This is an 8×10 crop of Figure 1 photograph

Missing heads (and other disappearing objects) are a common occurrence when making prints. The reason? Digital cameras make pictures that are a particular shape, a ratio of height to width. When we order prints, say a 4 x 6 or an 8 x 10, the shape or ratio is different for each size print.

Unfortunately, the machine that prints the pictures doesn’t know how to crop the images in the best way because it’s a machine — so heads go missing from the edges of our photographs. To overcome this problem, photographers need to understand that parts of our photos will be cropped off, and allow for this when we make the picture.

The relationship of an image’s width to height called an aspect ratio. Digital cameras produce files with an aspect ratio of 4:3 or 2:3 in most cases. But common print sizes have different aspect ratios. For example, a 4 x 6 print has an aspect ratio of 3:2; an 8 x 10 has an aspect ratio of 5:4.

To avoid having an image arbitrarily clipped by your software or photo printing service, you should crop the photo to the correct aspect ratio, the way you want it to look, prior to printing. Most of the newer software will have preset aspect ratios in the crop tool for common photo print sizes.

In Photoshop and Photoshop Elements, for example, you can enter the height and width in the options bar before making a crop selection to crop to a specific aspect ratio — but avoid putting a number in the resolution field if you don’t want the image re-sampled when you crop it.

If you don’t have Photoshop, try using a lab such as PPRPix. Labs of this nature have software you use through your Web browser to crop before you order your prints. This software has a crop-and-preview tool. It allows you to see crops instantly of all photo sizes. Since Photoshop costs more than $600, this free tool can be a great option, particularly for photographers just starting out.

Photojournalism Is a Life of Research Papers

My favorite thing to do when I was in school was the field trip. I remember going to the fire station when I was in kindergarten and getting to sit on the firetruck and see the firemen go down the sliding pole.

I can remember so much from these trips because I could see what I was learning about. Sometimes I even got to sample things — like a hot dog in a meat-packing plant.

As a photographer/photojournalist, I get up each day and go on a new field trip. Each time I learn something new. The excitement I feel while on these adventures is what I hope to capture with the camera. I need to take the readers of publications to places they may never go in their lifetimes, but can experience through photographs to expand their world.

As a photographer you must tune in with your ears and eyes. You must try to understand as much as you can and then capture those things which help not just document what you saw, but grab the excitement you felt when learning about the place.

Assignments also can be a little overwhelming — like trying to write a term paper the day before it is due. In these cases, it helps to have some knowledge of the subject before you arrive. If you have done research in advance, you will be able to use the experience as icing on the cake and not the cake itself.

Doing research before every assignment is not always possible, and this is why it helps to find your niche or expertise. Formal education in a subject can be one of the ways to become an expert.

I studied social work to understand people better. I later did my master’s in communication at a seminary, which helped me in working with people of faith. Another subject I have devoted a lot of time to is sports and, specifically, basketball. I enjoy playing basketball, and this gives me insights into the game that as a spectator alone I would probably not appreciate as much.

In school, we all did research papers. For me, learning to do papers on my hobbies or interests was what made it enjoyable — and also made for a better paper.

This is true for photographers, too. After you have mastered a subject, transfer your skills to a new topic and in time you will have diversified your clientele and turned your passion into a career.

The Integrated Photographer

When the camera merged with the computer to give us digital photography, the skills to be a successful photographer changed dramatically. Prior to digital photography, the professional photographer only had to know how to use a camera.

Almost everyone who was working prior to the computer becoming commonplace has experienced this phenomenon. The computer was integrated into many people’s jobs. Everyone has had to learn how to do word processing and e-mail. Using the computer to maximize your efficiency for work depended on your comfort level with computers.

There were those who didn’t handle this transition well. They always had to ask the office’s resident “computer guy” to help them with everything — mail merge, printing envelopes, attaching documents to e-mails, and so on. Because they didn’t learn, they became less valuable employees, while the computer guy became more valuable.

In 1990, the publication industry took a big hit. I was laid off due to the recession. Many of my friends also lost their jobs since newspapers were dropping like flies; many two-newspaper towns lost one of their publications.

Fortunately for me, I had computer skills to fall back on. These skills helped me to sell computer systems to corporations in Long Island for Tandy Corporation. I used my knowledge to help design networks for clients, and to create databases for mass marketing. I enjoyed the photography forums on CompuServe long before 1993, when the World Wide Web was created. I took a class at Georgia Tech on designing Web sites and created my own Web site back in 1995.

In the early 90’s I was scanning transparencies and film to digitize photos for publication. Once the digital camera surpassed the quality from this process, it was easy for me to make the transition. Today I speak to my peers at conferences and workshops as an expert on digital photography and on how to use the computer to run their businesses.

Ever since I moved from a staff position to a full-time freelancer, I have watched my business average 20 percent annual growth. Many of my friends have been losing their businesses and staff positions during this time. I’ve come to realize that the greatest single factor in my success is the knowledge of computers as it relates to photography. Those who have failed have generally not kept up with technical developments.

The successful photographer today is the integrated photographer. In technology, “integrated” refers to two or more components being merged together into a single system. The integrated photographer is the professional who has merged mastery of the camera with mastery of the computer.

Six Steps to Banish Dust from Your Digital Images

Dust has been a source of frustration for digital SLR users from the beginning. Those little specks are like blood clots in the digital workflow — slowing you down or even ruining your best work. Sure, you can remove imperfections in Photoshop, but when those specks get on your sensor, every single photo will need to be fixed until the problem is addressed.

You’re much better off preparing on the front end, aren’t you? Here are six steps to ensure a dust-free photo shoot:

1. Keep the body cap or a lens on your camera at all times. Having an SLR camera dangling around your neck without a lens is the No. 1 reason that photographers end up spending hours using the cloning tool or healing brush in Photoshop to remove dust from their images.

2. Don’t mess around when changing lenses. Keep the new lens close by and ready to switch out.

3. Clean your camera bag. Any dust in your bag will eventually end up on your SLR, so make sure it’s as clean as you want your images to be.

4. Check your sensor for dust. Your camera is not airtight. Just zooming a lens can create a suction that pulls dust into the camera and onto the sensor. It is inevitable dust will get onto a sensor. Here is how you check it:

  • Attach a telephoto lens or zoom and set it at the longest focal length and smallest aperture.
  • Manually focus on the closest setting on the lens.
  • Using the manual setting, set the exposure to one stop over the normal exposure. Photograph clear sky, white wall or white paper. Camera shake will not affect this at all; it will still reveal the specs of dust.
  • Ingest into your computer and increase the contrast to the highest — it will help reveal the dust.
  • View the image at 100 percent and review the entire image.

5. Use a hand blower to clear out the dust you find. Do not use compressed air as it can damage the sensor or camera. Read your camera manual on how to lock up the mirror and keep the shutter open to reveal the sensor for this. After this step, check your sensor for dust again.

6. Use a brush or swab to remove any remaining specks. If you’re not experienced in cleaning your camera and are unable to remove all the dust with a hand blower, you may wish to turn the job over to a professional at this point. But if you want to clean it yourself, you will need special brushes like those at VisibleDust or Copper Hill Images. Using a swab, which uses methanol, is another way to get rid of stubborn dust; you can find one at Photographic Solutions. The methanol will clean the sensor and not leave streaks like water or other products often do.

If you follow these steps at least every few weeks, you can avoid the computer cloning and healing that can slow your workflow to a crawl. This will help you focus on the subject and not the speck in your camera’s eye.