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.

Macro Photography: The Magic of Nuance

I remember the moment clearly. I had just finished playing Haydn’s Concerto In E-Flat Major For Trumpet for the first time without any mistakes.

“Now you are ready to start working on it,” my music teacher said.

I was so disappointed; I thought I had nailed the piece and was ready to move on to something else. But while I had played each note on the page correctly, I was being taught an important lesson: only by mastering the nuances could I avoid sounding like a robot on the instrument.

Artists look at things differently than nonartists do. We notice detail; we appreciate nuance and beauty. Artists respond differently to things than nonartists do. We tend to be more sensitive.

Nothing can sharpen your understanding about the nuances of photography more than macro photography. This is where you photograph objects extremely close, where the image projected on the “film plane” (i.e., film or a digital sensor) is close to the same size as the subject. We would say the image is a 1:1 ratio.

There are a few ways to get this close to the subject with a camera. You can buy a macro lens, which gives you 1:1 or even closer. You can buy a set of close-up filters that you screw onto the front of your lens that let you get closer. There are also extension tubes that go between your lens and camera to let you get closer. Another tool is a bellows that acts like a zooming extension tube. The last way to get closer is using a teleconverter. These teleconverters increase the magnification of the lens and come in 1.4 or 2.0 powers. They go between the lens and the camera to work.

Once you choose the way you want to do macro photography you will soon discover the closer you get to the subject the less depth-of-field you have. This is to say the amount of area that is sharp in front of the point you choose to focus on to the space behind that point is quite shallow. You typically will need a ƒ/number of ƒ/11, ƒ/16 or even greater for just the subject to look like it is in focus.

Since you will be working with such a small aperture (ƒ/number), you will need a lot of light or a good tripod to keep the camera from moving while taking the photo.

Today’s flashes, which you can buy for your camera, are so advanced that they can make this a lot of fun. Before you had to be a physicist to understand all the math to make a good exposure. Now just buy the flash with TTL feature and the camera and flash together will give you the perfect amount of light to make your photo.

I recommend buying the extension cord, which lets you take the flash off the camera and put it where you need the light — right in front of the lens.

Once you have all the equipment you will be at the place I was when I finally learned how to play all the notes of Haydn’s trumpet concerto — ready unleash the artist within by discovering the nuances of a subject.

The Beauty of the Slideshow — Now Available to Everyone

Even before the Internet, I appreciated the slideshow. I created presentations with multiple projectors and audio, and I was always impressed with what the combined media could communicate. Even compared to video — where you move right through a moment so quickly you can miss the subtlety of it — the slideshow has its unique charms.

The problem, in the old days, was that you had to have the audience present to deliver the program; it was a lot of work for a small number of people. The printed page reached a much larger audience.

Today, with the Web becoming the leader in delivering the news, we are no longer limited to printed words and still images on the page. Rather than publishing a quote, we can deliver audio of the interviews and the experience, giving a story authenticity in a way that we couldn’t achieve before. We can create slideshows for everyone — to watch whenever they choose.

Those in radio, like NPR, are increasingly the keynote speakers at today’s journalism conferences. They are teaching their print-media brethren how to gather audio to improve the multimedia content on their Web sites.

For a while now, I have been working on gathering audio. I learned very quickly you need a good digital recorder and an excellent microphone. It also didn’t take long to realize if you don’t have your headphones on when you are recording, you will be surprised later at what you picked up or didn’t pick up.

I did one of my multimedia projects at a petting farm; my goal was to capture everything naturally. It was fun capturing the sounds of the animals and hearing Farmer Sue talk to her guests.

Later, I decided I wanted to put together a slideshow that helped to communicate what I do best — capturing the moment. Here’s that presentation.

Most recently, I have been in the Yucatan photographing the mission projects my church has been working on for the past 12 years. A small handful of members — electricians, plumbers and other skilled workers — work side by side with the locals to build churches, camps and water wells. Here you can see and hear the results of this project.

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.