Two Reasons People Take Photos

This is an example of the type of photo the grandmother showed me on the plane, except I am closer than she was with her camera.

Sometime back while flying out of Dallas I was sitting by a sweet little grandmother. She had been visiting her grandchildren and was eager to talk about them. She showed me a snapshot of a red dot in the middle of someone’s front yard. The red dot (at least to her) was a compelling photograph of her granddaughter in a little red dress my new friend had made for the child.

All I could see was a red dot, but the grandmother could see, in her mind’s eye, the beautiful little girl and her handmade red dress. If I had made photographs like that one, while I was on my assignment, it would have been the last time I ever worked for that client!

That grandmother held a snapshot that was a memory jogger for her and those who already knew the little girl. A photograph that can communicate to anyone is something else altogether.

If my assignment had included that child I would have needed to show the cute little daughter up close enough for anyone to see for themselves how charming she was and perhaps through body language the child could let the viewer know how proud she was of her new dress.

I believe there are two main reasons people make photos:

  1. People take pictures to please themselves
  2. People take pictures to communicate something to others

Making photos for ourselves is pretty easy. We know right away if the photo was successful. Either we like it or we don’t. If we don’t like it we probably can figure out what would make it better. Photos we take for ourselves belong into the category of snapshots. They are intended for the family photo album to hold memories of vacations, birthdays and other of life’s special events.

One year I decided to help my father transfer the family movies to video. It was a pretty crude setup, but it worked. We projected the movies onto a screen and video taped them while our family watched the old movies. The video camera captured the comments we made as we watched the old films. The funny thing is every time we watch these videos together, the same comments are made by the family and we catch ourselves laughing at how these old pictures always trigger the same responses.

As I think back I realized that the older films, the ones made before I was born, don’t do much for me. You just had to be there for these snapshots to work.

Okay, so if we want our photos to communicate we must consider another person’s point of view. How can we attract and hold the attention of our audience? One way to learn to do this is by studying the work of photographers whose work does just that.

I suggest aiming for the top. If you like sports then open Sports Illustrated and study the photos. Ask yourself and others why these photos work. If you enjoy travel photography study National Geographic, Southern Living or other magazines that do a good job keeping paying audience.

There are some key elements that keep the viewer’s attention. Editorial photographers try to stop the viewer with their photographs. They want the photo to spark curiosity; to make us read the caption under the photo. A good caption will make us want to read the story.

Here I got much closer, simplified the background and all the color tones are in the brown family making for a nice monotone image.

Here are some of the key elements that distinguish a good photo from a snapshot:

Stopping power. The world is full of visuals vying for out attention. There are photos on products, TV, magazines, newspapers, the web… everywhere pictures, pictures and more pictures!

I believe the key is to show our audience something different. Most snapshots are shot from standing height and way too far away. Get down to the ground for a worms eye view or get up on something for a bird’s eye view. Get a lot closer. This will give our photo a little stopping power. It’s out of the ordinary. It’s a surprise.

Communication of purpose. Getting the attention must be followed by good content. People want to be amused, entertained or learn something from a photograph. We need to think about why we are taking a picture. If we aren’t sure, no one else will be either and we’ve made another snapshot.

Emotional impact or mood. Some folks can just tell stories better than others. The same is true with making photos, but we will make better photos if we consider how to bring more drama into them. The key to creating emotional impact is to first experience the emotions we wish to convey. We need to have a genuine interest in the subjects we photograph.

Our photos need to be technically correct, that’s understood, just as a musician is expected to at least play the right notes. But if the photo doesn’t draw the viewer in and move them in some way it’s like listening to a machine perform Chopin. What we choose to include or exclude makes up the graphical elements that can catch the viewer’s attention.

Remember a technically competent photograph often is no more than a technically competent snapshot and quite boring. Of course we must be sure the camera’s settings are correct, but this is only the beginning. We need to look for a new perspective, look for another point of view so that people will want to see more of our pictures rather than looking for ways to get out of enduring more snapshots.

How to Make the Most of a Mentor

Don Rutledge editing a coverage.

“I have three treasures which I hold and keep. The first is mercy, for from mercy comes courage. The second is frugality, from which comes generosity to others. The third is humility, for from it comes leadership.” — Master Po

“Strange treasures. How shall I hold them and keep them? Memory?” — Caine

“No, Grasshopper, not in memory, but in your deeds.” — Master Po

What makes a great mentor is an inquisitive student. I often think of the old TV series Kung Fu, where the main character has flashbacks to his childhood, asking many questions of his master. We do not see the master pressing the boy so much as we see the young boy seeking out the master’s wisdom. If you truly want to learn and are open to criticism, you can learn a great deal from a mentor.

I watched one of my mentors, Don Rutledge, mentor many people. I was privileged to work with Don and down the hall from his office. Don Rutledge was a staff photographer for Black Star and later worked covering missionaries around the world for Christian magazines. He traveled throughout the United States and in more than 150 countries.

Inside the Artic Circle, Alaska, an Eskimo family waits for visitors to arrive at their home. (photo by: Don Rutledge)

I watched, noticing that no matter who came by, Don made the time to sit down with the person and talk. They would bring their portfolios and mostly just want a job doing what he was doing. Most were just using Don; some were so bold as to go to Black Star trying to take his job. Many went on to prosperous careers but never called to thank Don — either for his wise counsel or his generosity in providing industry contacts.

Like everyone else, I sat down with Don and had him review my work. But where I gained the most valuable insight was when Don invited me to come along on some of his shoots. We took trips together where I would just watch him work and occasionally hand him a lens. This is where I was able to learn from a master of the craft.

John Howard Griffin changed his skin color to black for the research for his book Black Like Me. (Photo by: Don Rutledge)

I watched as Don would get out of the car and introduce himself to the subject. He would talk for a while with the person in a casual conversation, which was really an interview. He was listening and learning all he could. What would make a good photograph? What would be good quotes for the story? And by the way — his cameras were either in the car or in his bag during this time.

After each story, during our car ride back I would ask lots of questions and learn even more about what Don was thinking as he was working. When the contact sheets came back from the lab, we would go over the photos again. I only knew of a few photographers who sat down and looked through Don’s contact sheets and learned from him how he worked. Most were only interested in guidance about their own work; they didn’t know what they were missing.

A child in an urban poor area of Ohio confronts us with the realities of his life–his trophy of the streets. (Photo by: Don Rutledge)

When looking for a mentor, find someone who is at the top of the industry and has a personality and work that you admire. Show them your work on a regular basis and ask for advice. Ask if you can watch them work, and ask to help them. Most importantly, become friends with them for a lifetime; don’t just use people for your career development. And finally — give back, by mentoring someone yourself.

Don and his wife Lucy just couple years ago

“But Master, how do I not contend with a man that would contend with me?” — Caine

“In a heart that is one with nature, though the body contends, there is no violence, and in the heart that is not one with nature, though the body be at rest, there is always violence. Be, therefore, like the prow of a boat. It cleaves water, yet it leaves in its wake water unbroken.” — Master Po

How did I learn about Don? My uncle Knolan Benfield worked with him from 1969 to 1979. Knolan told me so much about Don that when I met him I thought I already knew him. Don had impacted Knolan’s work and improved his photography.

My master’s thesis was on Don Rutledge; you can read it here. It will take a minute to load.

What I learned from Don changed my life. Today I teach at colleges and workshops and, like Don, I am willing to help anyone, because Don showed me it was important. Ultimately, I learned why Don had given so much. It was because in giving we receive so much ourselves.

New Venture

I am helping a good friend of mine, Chris Gooley, market his software Photocore. It is an online database for people to store their images and search their images. They can give access to clients and friends through passwords and keep records of who visits their website and what they see and download.

We are in the beta versions of the software now and you can see it by going to my website and clicking on . We hope to have this were you can license your images 24/7 365 days a year while you do your own thing. People can log on agree to a license and pay you for using your images.

Another function will be to order prints online. These two functions will help photographers turn their images which normally sit on their computer or in a drawer into profits.

I am going to be presenting this software to companies and individuals. If you would like a personal demonstration give me a call. Believe me PhotoCore is the most efficient way for photographers and agencies to catalogue and search their images from any where in the world.

Just what’s in the viewfinder

On my last trip abroad to Haiti I realized not knowing the language keeps me focused on just looking for images. This is great in many respects because I am trying to understand what is going on by watching visual cues and listening to the tone in people’s voices.
Since I do not really have language to clue me in about what is taking place, I am really more focused on what I should have been doing for years. I am seeing the situation my viewers will be seeing it. They cannot hear the conversations through the printed pages or on the web.
I spent a lot of time looking for interesting visuals because I had no idea what they were saying. I would smile and nod to those who I made eye contact with. Amazing how close I felt to people when I couldn’t talk to them.
This has helped to remind me the audience cannot hear and pick up on what is going on in a still image. I must really look for those moments which communicate visually intimate moments which bring the viewer closer. Photos get better when I realize I must concentrate on what is in the viewfinder. Sure understanding what is going on can help me anticipate better, but the end results still must be what is in the frame of the viewfinder.

Team Photos

Nikon D2X, Nikon 24-120mm ƒ/3.5-5.6, ISO 100, ƒ/16, 1/200

There are many ways to approach team photos for posters. For Georgia Tech’s football team the theme for the 2006 year is “Take Your Best Shot.” We made the photos at a boxing gym. What really made the photo was the players getting into the concept.

I have always thought people look their best with pleasant expressions or smiles in portraits. However, getting male athletes to smile has proven difficult in the past years. They all want to look tough and having an attitude like we see on MTV.

We embraced their attitude and what they want to portray about themselves in this photo. I think it works because it is a peak into their dreams.

Nikon D2X, Nikon 24-120mm ƒ/3.5-5.6, ISO 100, ƒ/14, 1/8

Women athletes smile much more than their male counterparts. They enjoy being the princess or queen for the day. Here they are on top of Atlanta with the Skyline behind them. It is like the last photo of the Disney movies where the Prince and Princess ride off into their kingdom. Their kingdom is Atlanta in this photo.

Cades Cove – Personal Retreat

Knolan Benfield, my uncle and professional photographer, and I took a few days to do what we love to do—photograph wildlife in Cades Cove.
“It is great to take time like this to put all those years of honing your craft to make a living and then spend some time shooting for yourself like this,” Knolan commented just before we finished our time in the Great Smoky National Park this past week.
When I first picked up the camera I shot for myself and it was a lot of fun. I then pursued this as a career. Over the years I knew I could do a better job, so I continued to go the workshops, seminars, read books and did a lot of self assignment tests to sharpen my skills.
It had been a while since I spent time photographing nature like this—back when all I shot was film. I would shoot and then look at the back of the camera, evaluating the image. I would pull up the histogram and look to see if it could be improved. We played with different white balance settings to see the outcomes of our efforts.
We just had fun.
Only another photographer would put up with all of our long shoots with 1 deer and a tripod. Most of our friends would think “haven’t you got enough already?”
What I noticed the most was the memories in my mind of conversations, bears we saw that turned and went in the woods before we could get our camera up and funny moments rejuvenate the soul.
I hope I do not take as long between this adventure and the next time I just shoot for myself.

Group Photos

Every once in a while you just have enough good things come together to turn a standard photo like a head shot or group photo in this case into something pretty good.

I was pleased with the result. The two key leaders of the design firm are out front leading their team at this Victorian home in Marietta, Georgia.

I really enjoy spreading out group photos where you can see everyone. You may have to use a larger photo to see everyone, but it is a much more interesting photo.

The strength in the photo to me is each person is an individual portrait all put together for the group photo. For me this makes me want to look at the photo longer and see each person.


Nikon D4, AF-S NIKKOR 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR, ISO 28735, ƒ/5.3, 1/100

Romans 8:26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.

Christians everywhere study prayer for many different reasons. Some want to harness the power of the prayer in Matthew 16:20:

He replied, “Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

We want control. We want to be able and talk to God and for him to respond to our needs. We also see so many situations which we believe we know what is best.

I am sure you can think of many other reasons we pray. What struck me about the topic of prayer is how much we study prayer to be able to control it.

Nikon D2X, Sigma 18-125mm f/3.8-5.6 DC OS HSM, ISO 1600, ƒ/5.6, 1/80

Debra Williams, D.D. did a study called “Scientific Research of Prayer: Can the Power of Prayer Be Proven?” Here is a link to the study Her research does show us even when people do not know they are being prayed for there still is an impact. Who wouldn’t want to tap into this healing power?

If our friends all got together and compared their notes on how to communicate to us in order to get what they want—how would this make us feel?

Is the purpose of prayer to get what we want or is it really about the relationship with God?
This is why I really like what is said in Romans 8:26 (see above). It paints the picture to me of a relationship which is so good and intimate it may resemble a couple who have been married for years and are in retirement and their movements with each other resemble a dance. Words are not always said, but they know each other so well as to not step on each others toes.

Isaiah 56:7
“these I will bring to my holy mountain
and give them joy in my house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house will be called
a house of prayer for all nations.”

Christians in Photojournalism’s strength is in our prayer life. While individual prayer is our first priority, it is often when we are with those who are on a similar path in this life that we can learn from each other.

Matthew 18:20 “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”

Complete Acceptance

This is the season of weddings. Weddings are one of the highlight events of our time here on earth. Jesus’ first miracle was at a wedding and he used the wedding as a metaphor in his parables.

John 3 29The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete.

There are very few people who can interrupt whatever I am doing and have my full attention. Each of these people is what I call my closest friends.

You can even know when someone else is interacting with a close friend. The mood changes and you are seeing a glimpse of the joy in their hearts when they interact with their friend.

Jesus talked about what friends will do for one another.

1 John 3 16This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.

What is so special about friendships that we stop what we are doing and give our full attention to these relationships?

Forgiveness is at the core of friendship. Tom Peters says corporations should actually reward people for failure, because failure means risk; and without risk there can be no success. In Laura Beth Jones book, Jesus CEO she relates a story:

I was once in a self-discovery group where people were not mincing words. One man, sitting very stiffly and quietly, was a candidate for promotion within his organization. His body language was a picture of caution and fear. Finally, a woman gave him this sound advice: “You just need to fail a few times. Then you will understand that people are going to love you even when you are not perfect.”

We have all taken risks with people in the past and for many of us we have been sorely disappointed. We found out who wasn’t our friend for sure. Most of us then learned to take fewer risks so we would not feel the pain of the disappointment.

God did not rest until he created mankind in the Garden of Eden. He wanted relationships. Being his workmanship we were created in his likeness to desire relationships as well.

As we read through the Bible each story centers on the character’s relationship to others and to God. God allowed Job to be tested because he knew how strong the relationship was to begin with.

James 2 23And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,”[a] and he was called God’s friend.

The footnote in my Bible for “God’s friend” says, “This designation (see 2Ch 20:7) further describes Abraham’s relationship to God as one of complete acceptance.

It has been said to have a friend you must be a friend.

The Review

2 Peter 1:10 (Contemporary English Version)

10My friends, you must do all you can to show that God has really chosen and selected you. If you keep on doing this, you won’t stumble and fall.

The portfolio review is one of the tensest times for most photographers. Most everyone we show our work to is someone we would like to work with and therefore anything less than I would like to use you is disappointing on some level. You are exposing your soul for review.

Some photographers have devised great presentations which help package their portfolio’s so the editor can see the images, know the skill of the photographer, how they see and have little trouble visualizing how it would look in their publication.

In photography there are generally stages of development. At Southwestern Photojournalism Conference Gary Fong and Jeanie Adams-Smith reviewed on stage three different photographers: student, pro with less than five years of experience and pro with more than five years of experience.

Gary asked how long they had been shooting and with the student he said this is good for your experience, if you had been shooting another year, not so good. With the seasoned professional photojournalist Gary and Jeanie both agreed the work was professional and technically superb. They wanted to see more intimacy in seasoned photographers work. They pointed to one photo which was a slice of life where the viewer feels like they are part of the experience and how much superior this was to the rest of his work.

At some point for the Christian photojournalist the shaft of God’s light shines brightly on you and reveals how your portfolio is a reflection of you. Are you personable? Do you get your hands dirty and into others lives? Jeanie Adams-Smith talked to one of the photographers how their photos showed their ability to get dirty.

My mentor Don Rutledge had two skills which I admired about his photography. The photo makes you feel like you are in the room with the subjects. The other skill was how Don could make the most cluttered environment coherent and beautiful. While these are excellent they were only framework for the content of most all of his photos—love. You would see straight into the subject’s situations and feel compassion for them or joy from what they were doing.

Our portfolios must “show God has really chosen and selected” us. We must do everything technically the best it can be and then we need to have our father’s eyes. We need to pray God will help us see his children as he sees them.

Photojournalism at its best is about relationships. It shows mankind interacting with one another. By doing this at our best then the world will begin to see the world as God desires and the world will know you are his disciple.

John 13:34-35 (Contemporary English Version)

34But I am giving you a new command. You must love each other, just as I have loved you. 35If you love each other, everyone will know that you are my disciples.

John 17:21 (Contemporary English Version)

21I want all of them to be one with each other, just as I am one with you and you are one with me. I also want them to be one with us. Then the people of this world will believe that you sent me.