Portrait Photography – Rule #1 – Have Fun

     After writing an almost four hundred worder on what I think is the single most important aspect of producing a good photo, focal point, I trashed it and started over. Started another article, almost reaching five hundred words, on focal point again, with some points on the differences between focal point and subject matter infused throughout. Ended up trashing that. Thought about it for a while and the article just didn’t seem right. Sure, focal point is very important, but the fact of the matter is, there are more important factors in producing good photos. Focal point is important, as is subject matter, sharpness, composition, etc, etc, but over and over again, while writing the article, I almost had to “force” the subject. Well, you know what, after I sat back for a while, it finally came to me what is the most important single aspect in producing a good image. For me, it is just plain having fun.

     Think about it, and I’m not talking a paying job photo type shoot. If you’re out all miserable, taking shots here and there, how many photos do you actually like when looking back at them. If photos are about memories, who wants to be reminded of a bad day out. If you’re not enjoying taking the photos, why even bother. The answer to that is, for me, there really is no reason.

          Being an avid “people photography” kind of person, not having fun can really show through in the photos you are taking also. I often find myself in “poorer” (monetarily that is) parts of the world where you don’t see happiness all the time. In my experience though, happiness is always there, in some form or way. You just need to get it to show. This is where having fun can really shine through in your photos.

     When I am having fun, it always seems to come through in the photos. Big, happy smiles on my subjects faces. Bright colors, happy people, laughter. The trick for me is to not only have fun but try to include your subject in the fun. Talk, joke, laugh… Make your subject forget about their situation, and worry maybe just a bit less, for at least a few minutes. Show them the pictures on your LCD. Make them smile. Don’t just run up and take a shot. Sit, communicate and share a little. …and if you haven’t tried, no matter what language you speak, a smile is universal, and goes a long way in communicating with someone who doesn’t speak the same language. If you have a mad tone of voice and a frown on your face, how do think your subject will react to that? Doesn’t work for me, and it usually doesn’t work for people who have not met that particular person, but are just looking at the photograph.

     I have never had a problem with communication with my subject for some reason, whether I’m in India, Nigeria, Mali, Sudan, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Nepal, China or anywhere else on earth. No, maybe I can’t have a conversation with them on world issues or the political state of their country, but I can communicate that I want to take a picture of them, I mean no harm, and I am just trying to have fun.

     So, I’ll talk about focal point, subject matter, communication and whatever else another time. If you’re looking for a more technical type of insight to photography, there are plenty of articles out there written everyday. There are also plenty of people who will argue that sharpness, color, contrast, focal length, and the like are the most important aspects in obtaining a good portrait. It is all opinion, and everyone’s is different, but my opinion is that these people will never truly realize why their portraits aren’t any good, or hold any real connection between the subject and viewer. Sure, they may be sharp, with great color, but there is more to a great photograph than that. Again, not talking about a studio shoot here, but more about “out and about” photography.

     For now, my best advice would be to just have fun, and I would almost bet that your photos will be better and hold dearer memories for you, as well as being a bit more interesting for people looking at those photos. It works for me, so I say go out have some fun. See what happens. Maybe you’ll like the results!!! Sure, there is more to a great photo than just having fun, but it is a great place to start, and you have to start somewhere.

     …and, of course, a few examples of what I’m talking about. A picture is worth a thousand, happy, words. Up above, to the left, a young girl from Chong Kneas in Cambodia, subject of a previous post that can be seen here. That one was easy, as she was looking to have fun and smile. Above, to the right, a girl selling peanuts at one of the temples of Bagan, Myanmar. If you’ve never been, and are saying to yourself “What is she wearing on her face?” …It is thanaka, sometimes called tanaka. Natures sunscreen, made of bark mashed into a paste. Seen on women’s faces throughout Myanmar, spread into any and every design imaginable.

     What do you do with a girl from Debark, Ethiopia, homeless and living on the street, both parents gone…???… Make her forget all that. Make her laugh!!! Have fun.

    Below, a homeless woman on the steps of Jagdish Temple, Udaipur, India. I like to call her Joy. You could tell she wasn’t very well off, and it looked like she could use a laugh. I spent some time sitting on those steps, amid the sadhus, holy men, holy women, the more unfortunate of the town.

      I didn’t just run up, take a shot, and run away. I sat and saw what the people there saw. She made fun of me. I made fun of her. I showed her some pictures I had taken. She showed me her bruises and cuts. I took a shot, she didn’t smile. I smiled as I yelled at her to smile. Showed her what she looked like on my LCD. She fixed her hair, laughed, smiled and forgot about life for a minute or two. Great woman. Both of us had fun. Great memories, not only of Joy herself, and the happiness that some have to just be alive, but of Udaipur and the Indian people themselves. Thinking about it, I could probably write a whole article on Joy herself. Hmmm …maybe I will.


Isolating a Subject – Children in Africa

If anyone knows how, please let me know!!! 🙂

Northern Cameroon.

     …and I am serious. From my experience, when they (the kids) see a camera, they come running …full speed …as close as they can get …as fast as they can. Mouths a smiling, arms a flailing and legs a movin’. I thought of this posting through a few comments I received on my “Why are You Complaining?” post. They were all very good comments with valid questions or ways of interpreting the photo, so I figured before I go any further I would explain any future photos of children.

      On the subject of the “poor and unfortunate” children in Africa, as and often portrayed on those TV commercials and NGO ads as absolutely miserable kids living in total squalor. …that is actually laughable. Those poor, unfortunate, miserable kids are some of the happiest children I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, interacting and playing with. If I do post a photo that makes the children or subject look miserable, I will either tell you a story about why, or I don’t mean the photo to be miserable. Alot of times I choose an angle for a photo based on the background, especially when it comes to portraits and especially when it comes to the children in Africa. The children there (and I am using “Africa” very loosely as I haven’t seen much of it) are probably the toughest lesson in isolationism I have ever had. After trying too a few times I just about gave up and “went with the flow”. If they want to get close than so be it. Use it and make the best of the situation. I do have to say that this is a very good moment in time to decide to interact and learn about the children and forget about the “perfect” photo …probably the best moment that you could decide this. Trying to curve their enthusiasm is probably just about impossible and why would you want to anyway. They are having fun. Join the crowd!!! Figured I would post a bunch of my attempts at “Isolationism” throughout my Africa experiences …some of the best memories I have of the trip. So I guess you could say it was a photographic experience gone bad that has turned into a life experience gone good.

     HA. Poor, unfortunate children… How many three or four year olds do you know in rich western families that care they have money. Truthfully, I don’t know many, if any, that even know what money is. Just a piece of paper to chew on of a shiny thing to play with. The photo above taken in Waza, Northern Cameroon. Everyone wanted their picture taken …but no one had the patience to wait. Go with the Flow!!! Photos below all taken in Waza, Cameroon also. These kids were great. So happy, so energetic, so …whew. Kids are kids, no matter where. Money has nothing to do with it.

     Don’t feel like playing that game. Want a different angle. Well, climb a tree …or lay on the ground …cause you ain’t gonna move these kids without doing something drastic… Waza again below. …it was hot out, and I was tired, so I layed on the ground. The children here are quite concerned, but not too concerned as I was still taking photos. They were probably actually more questioning my insanity than my health.

     Ok, this seems to be turning into a whole lot of Cameroon shots so I’ll list it as Cameroon and keep the rest of the photos out, but believe me, whether it’s Cameroon, Ethiopia, Mali, India, Nepal, United States, or wherever …children are children. The most important thing in a child’s life. Have fun. Sorry, not money, and not worrying about money or anything else for that matter.

     It was tough at first, not getting that “quintessential African child” portrait, but as the days went by, it became easier and easier as the children became much more than just a photo. Start to interact with them, talk to them, play with them, and you forget all about those NGO ads.

     Forget. Heck, you actually start to question those ads. Scratch your head. Ask yourself where the heck did they get those photos and videos from? I actually came home from a trip one time and the next week saw a commercial on TV that was supposedly taken at the place I was just at. Didn’t really look like what I saw, but hey, I wasn’t pushing for money either…

     OK. Another short posting that has turned into a thousand worder. Bottom line is, children are children, no matter where you’re at. I never mean to show them as poor and unfortunate, and I don’t really have anything against NGO’s. There are good ones and there are bad ones. I really don’t think anyone working for them are really trying to do anything but good, and to help. I think it has just come to the point where the bottom line for a lot of people is money. Just remember, especially when, or if, you go a poorer country of the world, that children ARE just children. Often a smile is worth more than anything money can provide. Make them smile. Make them laugh. Make them be children. Sometimes it is all you can do. Sometimes it’s the best anyone can do and it IS the best thing to do. Come home with some great memories and some great photographs, but let your camera come in between you and your subject. Have fun. Have fun with your subject. Make sure your subject is having fun with you, and I can guarantee that almost always your photos will be better and hold a better memories of your trip and of the people you meet.

     Ehhh. Wait a minute. Here are a few more from Cameroon. There is a “resort” type hotel on the southern shore of Lake Lagdo in North-Central Cameroon run by a German couple. It is sort of “falling into disrepair”, but is still an absolutely beautiful place to stay at an absolutely beautiful location. The name of the “resort” is Lagon Bleu. All “bungalow” style rooms with plenty of main meeting areas and even a bar with a huge fireplace. Right on, and overlooking the shores and a beautiful beach on Lake Lagdo. Right out the front gate is an especially gorgeous and animated village amid the rock formations. I arrived on the perfect day and was just in time to watch the local football games the next day…

     The photo in the upper left is actually one of my favorites and most memorable from all of my Africa experiences. Technically, absolute junk, but it’s not always about the technicals. …I walk into the game as the boys are playing. I pull out my camera. One boy sees it. Mass Chaos. Everyone just comes charging over all at once. They all want their pictures taken. They are all screaming “ETO, ETO, ETO” (For those who don’t know, well, here: Eto’o – every Cameroon boys hero). Ok. I tell em’ to go play. Don’t let me stop them. Go. GOOOOOOooo…. So they start playing again, than, a minute later, run over again to check the pictures I have taken on my LCD. They run back and play. Someone scores. They charge me again. Everyone wanting to see the goal. They run back to play. …a minute later they charge me again. Over and over… All fun, but I figured I better leave before I totally ruin the game. Still, one of my fondest memories of Africa. They were having fun, and the fact that they had a spectator made it more fun, and the fact that the spectator had a digital camera made it even more fun… All smiles. Priceless. So, isolating children in Africa. Anyone?

Camera Lenses – What Should I Buy?

Which one is the best? What should I buy? Which one is the sharpest?  

     An argument raging on photography forums all over the internet. My answer almost always is: Depends on what you want to use and buy, and your particular style of photography. I’ll try and keep specific brands and particular lenses out of this and we all know Leica users are pretty much exempt from this article, but I’ve seen these questions asked for just about every other SLR brand. …and why someone would buy a camera like a D3 or a Mark Series Canon and then have to ask this question only leads me to believe that the particular person posting just wasted thousands of dollars on a camera body that they won’t be able to fully use, understand or operate. Now, if you have the money, and are really passionate about photography, than by all means buy the best equipment you can, just realize that you’re going to have a much higher learning curve the more complicated the camera body gets, which isn’t always a good thing and can actually be really frustrating at times and can “test” your passion from time to time. 

     So what should I buy?  These are a few of my opinions, or answers, to a lot of questions I see and hear all the time. I could probably go on endlessly here but will just post a few that are stuck in my head:

     First and Foremost: It’s all opinion
. Realize that every photographer is different. Different needs, different wants, interested in different subjects. You need to buy equipment that YOU like to use and are satisfied with. It doesn’t matter what the guy on the other end of the thread likes or wants, because let’s face it, he/she isn’t putting up the money and they are only suggestion what THEY like to use. 

     Which is the sharpest lens? Who cares? I know, everyone wants the sharpest lens possible, but I do have to say that there aren’t many lenses produced today that aren’t sufficiently sharp. Pentax, Sony, Canon, Nikon, Olympus …all of their kit lenses are relatively great. The best? Absolutely not, but pretty good compared to comparative lenses produced just a few years back most of the time. Again, there is nothing wrong with buying the best, but in this case it comes not only with a monetary price, but also costs in size and weight a lot of the time.

     Sharpness, and most “technicals”, should come into question only after you narrow down your focal length needs and wants. I see too many people buying lenses because they are the sharpest they can find. They will buy it, take a few shots around the house and rave about the sharpness, than go out on a real shoot and find out that the lens is way too large to lug around or that they are actually changing out other gear just to accommodate the lens. Even worse, they get to the location and find out that they actually would have been better with a wider angle or longer tele-photo lens. So sure, question sharpness, but it should not be the most important criteria for buying a lens. 

     Zoom or Prime? Honestly, if you’re asking this, you probably should go zoom. A bad piece of advice, but my opinion, especially if your reading this. Reasoning: one of the single most important reasons to buy a prime is its ability to isolate a subject through the use of large apertures. You could also say the ability to use in lower light situations because of the aperture. If you’re asking the question, you may not know this. Of course there are other arguments and you may buy a prime and absolutely love it, …so back to all opinion. A few arguments I’ve seen going both ways: 

 • Zoom with your feet: There are some major flaws to this theory. Some off the top of my head from personal experience: Boats. Mine Fields. Warzones. Whenever photographing large animals …or poisonous ones. Really crowded areas. “Time Sensitive” shots (where it’s either take the shot before the moment is gone or don’t capture it). Honestly, the more I think about it, the stupider this theory is for me. I’m more of a “capture the moment” type of photographer and zooming with my feet is most often a very big problem. If you’re more into static type subject photography, than zoom with your feet theory could definitely have more bearing on you.

 • Primes are sharper than zooms: well, not always. Again, the sharpness thing. The one thing I like about certain primes is the way they “draw” an image. A combination of a lot of factors usually, not just sharpness. Are most primes sharper than most zooms, sure, but not always.

 • Primes are smaller, lighter and cheaper: These days, again, not always. Take a look at some of Canons and Nikons new offerings. Optically excellent lenses, but not so small, light or cheap. 

     Remember, these are only my opinions based on a few years of travel photography. Everyone is different and has different needs. I don’t like to give out advice, and always say that the guy who is so willing to give out advice is the guy that you should be most suspicious about. That’s why I want to make sure that the reader knows these are my opinions, and just about every other article on the web on this subject is opinion, not fact, and based on the certain individuals experience.

     I would almost say to beginners to just start out with a kit lens, which are almost always zooms, but not always. This way you can see what you like. What focal lengths you use most and what you feel you are missing most. This way you can minimize the cost of lenses through minimizing your period of trial and error. 

     One solid piece of advice I can give you is when you do buy a lens, learn how to use it. Learn its strengths and weaknesses. If you want to become a good photographer than learn technique, light, composition and other aspects of photography. Equipment comes in just about dead last in that learning curve. Any good photographer can create good pictures with just about any equipment. Become a photographer, not an equipment collector. I see way too many equipment collectors these days who tout themselves as having “all-pro” equipment …who can’t take a good picture if their equipment depended on it. 

     There are a lot of choices and they can become quite intimidating to beginners these days, so do the best you can with what you have or can afford. You don’t “need” to have the newest, most expensive equipment to take great photos. Its way more important to understand the equipment you do have. I’ve used zooms and I’ve used primes. Expensive and cheap lenses. Each one has had their uses and their faults. I wouldn’t say any one was better than any other in every situation though. Go out and have fun and don’t worry so much about equipment. A good focal point  will always allow you to create a more interesting, more dynamic and more memorable photo than just having a super sharp lens ever will. When you do decide on a lens, don’t second guess yourself. Don’t worry about what you don’t have or can’t afford. Do the best with what you have. That’s what I do. It works for me and could possibly work for you. My photos are never “the best” or “the sharpest”, but I like them, and at the end of the day, thats what matters most. I also know that I haven’t “broken the bank” buying equipment and that not only allows me to travel more, but allows me to travel more comfortably, not lugging around unwanted pounds (or kilos) of photography equipment …and thats a good thing.

     Any specific questions, or arguments, that you may have are always welcome. Just leave a comment or send me an email and I’ll answer as soon as possible.

Motion in Photography – Use It

Hanoi, Vietnam.

     Sometimes you just have to go with flow. Most photographers usually go for the sharpest most “in focus” type shot they can get. Well, sometimes it’s just not possible so I say use the motion and blur to create the best shot you can. Sure, you can use flash, but alot of times, especially at night, this totally changes the mood and feel of what your looking to record.

     This shot was taken at F/10, 1/2 second, ISO1000, handheld. …sitting at a corner cafe, drinking beer. Part of the reason it works for me is the mix of motion against a fairly sharp background. More than just a “static” no life type of shot, this one is full of life. It may not be the best nighttime motion shot out there, but it really reminds me of that night and of Hanoi’s Old Quarter in general. I can look at this shot and remember the traffic, the crush of people, the noise, the smell, the motion, the nightlife…

     Isn’t that what photography is all about? The memories? My best advice for travel photography would probably be to sit back, have fun, enjoy the trip and enjoy taking the pictures. More times than not, this will increase the amount of good photos, and memories, that you come home with, and for me that is what it is all about.

September 15, 2010