Camera strategies for honest images



I take literally thousands of pictures every year, usually around ten thousand, in fact.  Very few of these are posed or staged because I'm just not artistic like that.  I don't have a lot of advice on ISO settings or which variety of lenses to use, but if you're trying to capture real life quickly and effectively, these are some strategies that have worked for me.

Cinema verité is best shot through a long lens.  If you want your subjects to behave like they aren't being watched, get farther away.  Shoot from a distance you can zoom out to.  At the ren fair, for instance, I shoot over the shoulders of nearby folks at patrons being themselves (or their anachronistic alter egos) across a distant field unawares.

Time rhythmic movements to minimize motion blur.  If you're working without a flash (for reasons of distance or simply to avoid being a distraction), you can often find moments where there is a pause in your subjects' motion, and thus you can minimize the blur.  Musicians provide these at the apogee of rocking motions or when hitting a punctuating note in a solo.  Don't just watch.  Listen.

Catch the periphery.  Give shots context by catching people at the edges of a scene.  Spectators often give reactions that are less posed, and so the image is more honest.  Unless a shot is staged, elements of the setting should be included to ground the scene in both the place and time these things convey.

Autofocus requires light.  This is obvious, but if you want to maximize your speed (and therefore capture a scene as it happens), move to a position where the light is sufficient from your vantage that you don't have to coddle your autofocus into noticing your subjects.  Getting in a spot where there's something at the same focal distance that you can always lock on helps as well, even if you don't capture that in the shot.

Switch to manual focus.  An alternative strategy to the above is to get the camera focused and then switch it to manual so that it will not automatically re-adjust.  This only works so long as you and your subject(s) are fixed with respect to the focal length.

Get shots no one else is getting.  Find wide shots from the distance no other photographers are doing.  For example, at a friend's wedding, the professionals were on and around the altar.  Their shots were portrait-scale, waist-up images.  I went to the back of the church so that I would be less distracting, and I took a series of wide-angle, longer exposure shots during the quieter moments in the ceremony.  They were among the best taken at the wedding.

No flash around crowds.  The more people who are present, the more the flash is likely to attract attention and thus you get folks looking at the camera rather than at the subjects.

Kids ought to be shot.  I mean that in both senses.  They're difficult to catch without motion blur (if you have inadequate lighting and are avoiding the flash) because they're unpredictable.  On the other hand, their unpredictability makes them great for candid, unposed shots.  It's worth shooting twice as many pics (in rapid succession, ideally) of them being silly for the few that actually come out decent.

Get good coverage at the start.  If you're at an event such as a concert, try to get as many varied shots as you can within the first few minutes the subjects present themselves.  Switch lenses and get wide and close-up, with flash and in natural light, and so on (as appropriate).  The rest of the time can be devoted to filling in the gaps if you have much of what you need before things really begin to unfold.

Shoot things, not just people.  At events, the focus is on the hosts and guests, but the work that went into the event is often missing.  I shoot the cupcakes and the place settings, the balloons and the presents as well because the context deserves to be documented.

Only take pictures during applause.  Any SLR camera is going to make noise and be a distraction, which is especially bad around music.  Mask the sound of your shutter by waiting for applause.

Shoot the in-between moments.  Events are the core, but the moments between, say, the toast and the first dance, those are full of poignancy that is missed if all you're focused on are the requisite shots of the glasses raised.


Copyright 2009 Alexplorer.
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