Seeing Eye to Eye Isn’t Always Best

In Psychology 101 we learn the value of relating to others at eye level. Many books on photography discuss unusual angles such as a worm’s eye or a bird’s eye view. Such perspectives can create interesting photos, but there is much more to the choice of the angle of view than just making a nice picture. Indeed, the angle from which you photograph a person sends a message to the viewer about that person. Do you know what message you’re sending?

The three letters in the illustrations below stand for Parent, Adult and Child. If you photograph another adult at their eye level the camera (audience) is, of course, on the same level with your subject. This adds dignity to the subject.

On the other hand, if you shoot down at the subject you place the audience above or over the subject much the same way a parent is above or over a child. This makes the audience feel responsible for the subject. We often see photos of starving children in Africa photographed this way.

Lower the camera angle and you reverse the camera (audience) to the subject relationship. This “shot from below” adds prominence to the subject. It increases the stature of the subject and makes them more authoritative. (Don’t use flash from below a face unless you want to create the look of a monster.)

To carry the audience back to their childhood, place the camera on the floor and crawl around photographing a child at the child’s eye level.

When photographing an expert, like a research scientist, keep the camera at eye level, not below. The eyeball-to-eyeball angle helps to humanize or “warm up” the expert.

Photographing people using this simple PAC principle allows you to make statements about who they are, not just what they look like.

Like everything else in photography, knowing more than ƒ-stops and shutter speeds will make you a better photographer. And remember, seeing eye-to-eye isn’t always best.

How much do you cost?

Fuji X-E2, FUJINON XF 55-200mm, ISO 500, ƒ/6.4, 1/500
My stepson looked at his first paycheck and asked, “Who is FICA?” This was his first hard lesson about where the money goes – the cost of doing business.

A lot of the money we pay for a service doesn’t stay with the service provider.

According to Dun & Bradstreet, “Businesses with fewer than 20 employees have only a 37% chance of surviving four years (of business) and only a 9% chance of surviving 10 years.” Of these failed businesses, only 10% of them close involuntarily due to bankruptcy and the remaining 90% close because the business was not successful, did not provide the level of income desired or was too much work for their efforts.”

So many good photographers I know have to turn to other ways to make a living not due to any lack of photographic skills, but because of poor business practices.

Nikon P7000, ISO 100, ƒ/6.3, 1/1000
Two things caused their businesses to fail: 1st – they didn’t know their real cost of doing business and 2nd – they failed to promote themselves.

In 2001, I left a staff position and started full-time freelancing. My business has averaged a 20% growth rate each year for the past six years. Many of my colleagues ask me how I do it.

This coming week I go to Hawaii to teach business practices for the third year in a row at the University of Nations in Kona. First, I require the students to calculate how much it costs them to live for a year. I’ve found that even the older students who have been on their own for a time typically do not know what it costs them to live.

Nikon D4, AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED, ISO 200, ƒ/22, 1/15
No matter the profession, if you do not know your cost you cannot estimate what you are worth in the market place.

Once you’ve know your cost and decided how much net income you want to earn it is easy to determine what to charge for each project in order to reach that goal.

Take a moment and think of everything needed to do your job. Here are some categories from the National Press Photographer’s Association list I use just substitute your terms for similar categories to figure your annual cost of doing business.

  • Office or Studio
  • Phone
  • Photo Equipment
  • Repairs
  • Computers (Hardware & Software)
  • Internet (Broadband, Web site & email)
  • Auto Expenses (Lease, Insurance & Maintenance)
  • Office Supplies
  • Photography Supplies
  • Postage
  • Professional Development
  • Advertising and Promotion
  • Subscriptions & dues
  • Business Insurance
  • Health Insurance
  • Legal & Accounting Services
  • Taxes & Licenses
  • Office Assistant
  • Utilities
  • Retirement Fund
  • Travel
  • Entertainment (meals with clients)
Add your desired net income to your annual business expenses, divide that total by the number of projects you reasonably expect to do in a year. The answer gives you the average per project you must charge clients so you can pay those bills, stay in business and live the way you want to live.
Now you must find out if the market place will sustain this charge.

Let’s say you need to charge on average $1,000 for per project to reach your goal. If the services you provide are what people can get anywhere then they will shop for price. If the going rate in your community is $1,200 then you are in good shape. If the going rate is $900 then you need to look at cutting your overhead—your hoped for income or business expenses or both.

The key to earning what you want comes down to service. You must be able to demonstrate to potential clients that you offer something more if you want/need to charge more than other photographers do.

I have found that I need to know about the subjects I cover more than other photographers do. In addition, I deliver my images a good deal faster than most others do. I also listen carefully to what clients say they want and try to, not only meet their needs, but to go beyond their expectations.
When I first determined my cost and income goals, it was a revelation just as my stepson’s response to FICA and other deductions from his pay were for him.

I do my best to keep my overhead low, but even so close to 50% of my gross goes to business expenses. It was quite shocking for me to see what I must charge to pay the bills. This knowledge was the fire I needed to get me to put the time and effort into finding ways to make me more valuable to clients and to find those clients by seriously marketing myself.
Do you know what you cost?

Guidelines for Portraits, Headshots and Mug shots

Good Example
With LinkedIn, Facebook and other social media websites, the importance of a good headshot could not be more important.
There are a few do’s and don’ts, which if you know them can help you look your best the next time you have your photo taken.

When you are having a head and shoulders photo made the photo is suppose to be about the person and not the clothes. I doubt seriously a clothing manufacturer wants a headshot of the model to sell their shirts—they want to see the clothing predominately.

The reverse of this is what will help you look your best—the photo is about you and not your clothes and/or jewelry. So here are a few guidelines about how to keep the attention on you and not the clothes.

Example of pattern

Solid Colors—Avoid Patterns
Keeps the viewer from looking first at the clothing due to the design over the face

Darker clothing is preferable
Your eye will go to the lighter area of the photo, which will be the eyes. White shirts are difficult for printers to hold together and makes your head look like it is floating on the page without a shirt sometimes.

Example of Solid Color

Avoid herringbone jackets
On the web and television you will get a moiré effect.

Classic over trendy clothing
The classic look tend to stay fresh looking without going out of date as quickly as some of the fashion trends of the day and makes the photo look more current longer.

Simple or no Jewelry
One strand of pearls and matching earrings verses pendants and large earrings help keep the attention on you.

White Clothing & Jewelry

Do you wear casual or a suit for the photo? If you are using the photos for business—it is always best to have the suit in addition to a casual dress if you choose to use as your primary photo a casual dress. The reason for the backup suit photo is we often need a more serious tone at times. If your company is going through a merger—the suit photo would probably be a better choice to send out with the PR packet.

As you plan for portraits in the future it is always best to follow these guidelines and always bring two or more outfits to change into. If you are part of the executive team of the company you want to look your best so the company will benefit. Having a few different portraits with different outfits to pick from gives you the ability to choose the best option—and this is what most executives do each day—make choices.

Moiré Effect from Herringbone Jacket

If you need additional help in planning your next portrait session—give me a call and I will be glad to answer any additional questions you might have.

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.

This little boy shepherd is part of the Fulani tribe which is known for being herdsmen and is working in the village of Soubakamedougou, Burkina Faso on October 15, 2005. The Marlboro company gives hats to the young boy cowboys to promote their product in Burkina Faso.
[NIKON D2X, 18.0-125.0 mm f/3.3-5.6, ISO 100, ƒ/5.6, 1/90, Focal Length = 187]
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.

These boys are enjoying the stream just outside the village of Konadouga, Burkina Faso. They were a little surprised at seeing the white man with the camera taking their photo. In just ten miles we went through 30 different languages spoken by the tribes in the area. (Photo By: Stanley Leary)
[NIKON D2X, AF Zoom 18-50mm f/2.8G, ISO 100, ƒ/6.3, 1/90, Focal Length = 27]
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.