“There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.” - Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Simple put, the decisive moment is when a photographer decides to press the shutter button and take a picture. It’s not always easy to do. Capturing a fraction of a second of time, takes skill and skill take practice.
Mood is the primary factor in the decisive moment. A photographer must decide what mood he or she is trying to capture. When photographing family and friends, a shooter usually wants flattering or happy photos, especially when subjects are children.
Other than smiley photos of people who are close, I feel that a photographer is the director of his or her subject(s) and must take control of expressions and posing, but not always in a formal manner. With rare exceptions, a photographer should never blame the subject for anything.
As a photojournalist, I’m obligated to create a photo that matches the accompanying story or article. That isn’t always easy because even when dealing with a tragedy, expressions of those involved sometimes run the gamut from tears to smiles to laughter.
I find it bizarre on social media to see people gathered around a hospital bed and smiling for the camera when a sleeping, unconscious, or dead person is on the bed.
Often, when I’m photographing someone, I tell them what expression I want and how to sit, stand, or lean, and I’m always mindful that they appear comfortable and not awkward.
I recently covered a talk by a man who was in an airliner that crashed in the everglades in Miami on Dec. 29, 1972. Although Ron Infantino was severely injured, he was one of 85 survivors; however, his new bride was killed along with 100 other passengers.
I shot a lot of pictures trying to capture an image that would work with his detailed tragic story. He didn’t shed a tear but if he had, I would have gotten it. He smiled briefly at times when relating a humorous incident in the hospital during his extended recovery period.
I didn’t want to wait until afterward to get a standup pose or shots with other people. So, I kept working it and I think the included photo works best for the story.
The room was large with light colored walls and floor tile, and lighted (possibly over-lit) with fluorescent lights. The lighting was overall even and I didn’t want to use a flash, so I jacked my ISO up to 1600 and set my camera on P (Program). I used a software program to darken the projected image on the wall. It worked.
For people (especially men) who refuse to read instructions but want to become a great photographer quickly. Ha!
Take a head and shoulders picture of a person outside in the shade, or on an overcast day, or backlit by the sun with an 18-55mm lens, (or any lens) Set your camera on P (Program), ISO 400, with the flash popped up.
Note: When a professional photographer says he or she is going to shoot a “head shot” or “head and shoulders shot,” it’s not meant literally. The shooter doesn’t mean a straight-on image like those on a driver’s license, passport, or mug shot. The image maker means a close photo of a person cropped approximately at the lower chest, or somewhere below the bust area.
Reasons why that’s the first assignment:
Everyone has to start somewhere. It’s the same in learning every type of skill from playing a musical instrument to cooking to riding a motorcycle. No matter if you can afford the best equipment or tools, you must learn how to properly use them.
When it comes to learning how to take better pictures, no matter what style you want to eventually master, your road will be smoother if you’re able to create good photos in a short amount of time.
Relate that concept to learning how to play a musical instrument. If you can play a tune in a relatively short amount of time, it’s both satisfying and motivating. The same is true if you’re able to cook a delicious meal on your first try or stay safely upright during your initial foray on two wheels.
Iconic painters didn’t begin by throwing globs of paint at a canvas or painting dripping timepieces or creating masterpieces with a few strokes of black paint. No matter their eventual style, each could paint a portrait.
While most art instructors begin with a subject such as a bowl of fruit, flower arrangement, or well-known paining to copy; my first photography lesson is to create a portrait of a human. Not a formal portrait, but a casual head and shoulders photo of a person…shot outside.
Finding a person to photograph is much easier and more convenient than finding a sunset, waterfall, flower, animal, or rainbow. Everyone knows someone.
Photographing a person will teach you about exposure, lighting, camera angles, composition, flash fill, and more. Plus, you’ll impress people, possibly more than showing them a scenic or any photo without a human.
It’s a fact that most people photograph people – kids and other loved ones, coworkers, friends and neighbors, etc. That’s because after a scenic or nature photographer comes home from the wilds, there’s usually people. People on special days and holidays, at parties and other functions, and a true photographer will whip out a camera and shoot a few.
When a family must flee its home in the wake of a natural disaster, one of the most treasured possession to take is the family photo album. These days it might be an external drive loaded with photographic images. Everything can be replaced except for moments in time that will never happen again.
Give the first lesson a shot.
I don’t like to explain my photographic style, but when compelled, I say I’m a people shooter and a street photographer. I shoot “environmental portraits,” people wherever they are. (I’m also a photojournalist.)
I’m not a photographic snob – I appreciate all types and styles of photography. I’m also not a purest – thinking old methods are the only way.
I consider photography to be an artform, and I think of myself as a photographic artist, However, like most artists, I often must do something other than art photography to pay the bills. I don’t consider that whoring by any measure.
Although I prefer having a human element in my photos, I’ll shoot scenes or anything else I find interesting. Not that everything works but I’m a compulsive shooter.
I was driving down a country highway on an ominously cloudy day and noticed the church, so I stopped and walked around the area, including the graveyard behind the church. There wasn’t a soul around,
I found my shot when I walked across the street and saw the memorial. “Daddy” became my human element. I shot with an 18-55mm lens and my camera was set on P (Program) and ISO 400. The lighting was flat and even without hot areas.
When editing the photo, I did some adjusting with an app – sepia toning the shot and enriching the clouds. It’s not a sunset or waterfall, but it’s my style of scenic.
While searching for photos in a small town, I met 14-year-old McKenzie who was eating ice cream with her dad and younger brother. Dad and I talked about photography and I asked to photograph the family and then McKenzie.
She was tall and lean, naturally lovely without makeup, personable, and comfortably in front of the camera. It was late afternoon on a sunny day and we shot in an alley off Main Street.
I assume some idiot thought we looked suspicious and called police because two large officers ambled down the alley. They were veterans and professional enough to not ask what we were doing because it was obvious. The cops explained their tools of the trade and chatted with the kids. I took pictures of the officers with and without the kids and later sent photos to the cops.
I shot countless photos of the extremely photogenic McKenzie. My favorite is the shot of her sitting on steps in front of an historic building that once was the police department. Strangely, the pose made her look almost half her age.
McK was lit by the setting sun and that’s why her eyes are closed. I used an 18-55mm lens from about six-feet away and my camera was set on P (Program).
An extremely important factor is that I kept the lines straight. Except for certain styles in some genres, photo-psychology dictates that the human mind is more accepting and attracted to symmetrical artwork.
I avoid using the word “luck” in photography. I rationalize that if I have my camera with me and intentionally take a picture, it wasn’t luck. I prefer using the word “happenstance,” meaning unexpected elements allow me to capture exceptional images…sometimes.
The assignment was to photograph an airplane that was being moved from the main airport to an aviation school across one of the busiest streets in the county. The main thoroughfare was closed for several blocks at 2 a.m. and traffic was detoured for the major undertaking.
Although I had brought a powerful attachable flash unit, I knew it wasn’t strong enough to illuminate an airplane at night from at least 150-feet away. Fortunately, the delicate operation was flooded with lighting from every direction.
I made several test shots and found that I could use my camera on P (Program) at ISO 400. I was somewhat amazed that the settings allowed me to capture a once-in-a-lifetime image. Nevertheless, it wasn’t luck.
When composing a full-length or three-quarter length photo of a person, including small children, your camera should be level with, and pointed at, mid-body, and parallel to the subject to avoid distortion. Since I'm 6' 1", depending of the height of the subject, I often hunch over, bend, kneel, squat, or sit on the floor when shooting.
Brianna was photographed in the doorway of an old deserted farmhouse. On my camera was an 18-55mm zoom lens leveled with her midsection from about six-feet away. The camera was set on P (Program), ISO 400, and the flash was popped up. The brightness outside blew-out the detail in the yard, which was what I wanted.
I rarely photograph a person straight-on because having the subject turn their body 3/4 away from the camera creates pleasing lines. I cropped the image to be narrow to compliment her lean and lanky figure, and used an app to sepia tone the photo and add a border.
When traveling, I mostly patronize local businesses in small towns. I never eat fast food. (And I rarely do at home.) I prefer diners, joints and eateries, where food doesn’t taste like it was manufactured to a strict formula.
When it comes to craving a jolt of coffee, I never go to a major chain because there’s too much chrome, Formica, and corporate structure. I prefer more humanness.
Independent coffee shops are rare, but I usually find one. The indies attract a casual clientele – mostly young adults, high school and college students. musicians, artists, and wannabes in every genre.
Baristas, (a term I dislike, almost as much as I dislike the terms food server and executive assistant), are usually young and adorned with a tattoo or several, and/or piercings. Most coffee slingers smile, not because it’s mandated by corporate rules, but because they’re genuinely friendly people. I’ve met the nicest photographic subjects at coffee houses.
Janna was slinging coffee at Sweetwater Coffeehouse in a small vintage wooden building of indeterminate age in Sautee-Nachoochee, Georgia. I wouldn’t call it a city, town, or village. It was merely a community with a population of 362 in 2010, within 1.5 square miles. (Google.)
I was greeted with a smile from Janna that felt like a warm fuzzy hug, and her eyes sparkled like stars in a cloudless midnight sky. Service was efficient, and although I’m not a java connoisseur by any measure, the coffee was the best I’d ever had. She also warmed the chocolate chip cookies I ordered and brought them to the table. “I made them myself,” she said proudly and beamed.
She was the type of employee that every business owner should hire. I’ll go back to Sautee-Nacoochee just for a cup of coffee…and maybe take more pictures.
When I create an environmental portrait, (people wherever they are), I rarely give directions. I usually say, “Look at me.” Sometimes I add, “And smile.”
The photo of Janna was shot with my camera set on P (Program) at ISO 400, with the flash popped up. I realize the window light behind her was blown-out by the outside brightness, but I feel the subject is strong and unaffected.
Unexpected group shot –
My favorite subjects are children, from toddlers to teenagers. Not formal portraits, but photos of youngsters having fun, making their world a happier place. A recent assignment took me to an elementary school for a special program. I’ve shot similar events countless times. The toughest part is that I have no idea what each class is going to do or where they’re going to do it, so I must be extremely mobile.
I briefly shot standing in front of the stage, and kneeling or sitting on the floor. I moved from left to right and backed up the middle aisle. At the finale, I didn’t have time to change to a wider lens or add an external flash, so I moved back as far as possible and shot several photos.
I used an 18 – 55mm lens with my camera set on P (Program), ISO 400 and the built-in flash popped up.
Note: The camera flash is not powerful enough to light the entire group from that distance, so I credit the lighting boost to stage lighting and available light from the cafetorium.
Little cutie –
There was cuteness overload at the elementary school assignment and I had no problem capturing a camera full of cute. I just moved close and shot this little singer with my camera set on P (Program), ISO 400 and with the flash popped-up.
However, there are other contributing factors involved.
McKenna is one of my favorite subjects. She’s not a professional model but she’s comfortable in front of the camera and requires little or no directing, meaning, she’s a natural.
I chose a public park and time of day, mid-afternoon, because I wanted the sun on an angle.
* I told my subject in advance to wear casual clothes, but nothing white or printed with words, a logo, or artwork.
* My subject never wears harsh or garish makeup and that’s what I wanted.
* I had McK sit on a slightly elevated rock, so the sun would backlight her hair. I had her turn her head and shoulders slightly away from me.
* Her look was natural and perfect, so I didn’t ask for a big smile.
* I shot several photos, adjusted her pose and my distance to her to include more of her body. When I exhausted the location and pose, we move on.
When I got back to my studio, I immediately downloaded the photos. I never wait because I want to see my creations immediately. I always say there are no bad picture of McKenna, but some are incrementally better than others. The example I chose jumped out.
I cropped the shot, did a minor blip of retouching and it was finished. I could have used any name brand camera and the shot would have looked the same.
Of course, there are several other things I could have done but it’s my photo and I only had to please me. Other professionals, photos snobs, and purists can rag on me, but no one can deny that it’s a good picture, and that was my goal.
The following different style photos were recently taken with my camera set on the same exposure.
Quick and easy outdoor portrait
Jeff stopped by and we chatted a bit on the front porch. As he was leaving I asked to take his picture and he said yes. I’m always ready to shoot and my camera is always handy and set on my most used settings. All I had to do was flip it on.
I told Jeff where to stand and to turn his body slightly away from me at a three-quarter angle, look at my camera, and not smile. I used an 80 – 200 mm zoom lens and took four exposures with my camera set on P (Program), ISO 400, and with the built-in flash popped up.
I choose front porch shade because it was a sunny day and shooting in the sun would have created harsh shadows and caused my subject to squint. Brightness reflected off the white wall a few feet to my left and added extra highlights to the man’s eyes. I moved in close and flipped the camera horizontal because I found the design on his T-shirt to be distracting. That’s it.