The Art of Seeing
From a Distance
Plunge into the Story
Keep the Hammer Down
It would be difficult to deny that the most compelling photographic subject matter is the human story. Capturing the social and cultural themes of the human drama makes for great pictures simply because photographers, as humans, identify with the subjects of their photos. You are not just recording glimpses of the life of others, but also revealing something about yourself. It’s recognizing that common bond in the personalities and behaviors of other people, regardless of where they may live in the world and under what conditions that will allow you to create and share unique statements about the human story in general.
Your life is filled with visual opportunities to tell that story everyday. You don’t have to travel to the other side of the world to discover the magic moments when humans unconsciously expose their inner selves, their struggles, their pathos, their triumphs against all odds. The challenge for many photographers is to know how to capture what the subject is revealing. The ultimate goal is to render images that are more than pictures; they become messages and statements about the mysteries of human life that connect not just with the picture taker, but also the viewers.
As with any photographic subject matter, reaching this goal is a matter of technique as well as developing an artistic eye, so you know when an image could add a new chapter to the human story. Consider the following tips to develop your abilities to bring home the photos that will cause awe and wonder.
Many authors have written on the aesthetic and philosophy qualities of the creative mind that sees more than others, and then translates unique visions into paintings, sculptures or photographs. These concepts are too extensive and deep to explore here; however, what is often the greatest barrier to the art of seeing is trying to “see” at the pace of the world around you.
It may be difficult to see excellent visual representations of the human story simply because you are trying to do it at the speed of the rest of your life. In a sense, you must step outside the hustle and bustle and hassles of everyday existence, and observe the human theater as an audience member and not as one of the actors. The practical technique is to spend a few sessions without your camera and use the time simply to watch the human story unfold around you…in your family, neighborhood or the other side of the world. You must find time to slow your mind and the frantic speed of your physical activities to see in the truest light what others are doing and their facial expressions and body postures as they do it.
It may seem like wasting limited time, but this is an excellent technique for travel photography. Don’t arrive with your camera snapping at everything you see. Use that first full half-day, or even all day, to explore the new environment in which you find yourself. You may have seen human-interest photos on the way from the airport to your final destination or as you drove into the area. Those same photos are very likely to be there tomorrow, too, and maybe even better images when you take the time to look for them slowly and carefully instead of whizzing by them at 70mph. Such observation time may reduce the amount of time with your camera, but you’re much more likely to shoot greater photos, and in less time than if you are pointing and clicking at everything that moves, without any forethought.
When you are ready to capture the human story, start by photographing from a distance with a telephoto lens. In practical terms, this is the easiest and quickest way to capture some interesting photos. A telephoto zoom is the best choice, simply because an 18–250 or 70–300 provides you with multiple focal lengths. You won’t have to change lenses until you want to use the alternate approach than shooting from a distance.
That alternate method is to change your lens to a small zoom lens, such as 24–70mm, with both a wide-angle focal length and one good for portraits. Then, move close to your subjects to create an entirely different set of messages about the human story. When you approach someone you’d like to photograph, begin with a polite introduction and spend some time just talking and interacting. As the person becomes more comfortable with you, you can then ask permission to take his or her picture, the activity they are doing or even to pose in front of a specific background. Not everyone will want to participate, but meeting at a human level first results in more people willing to be photographed.
Even with permission to photograph another person at close range, you can’t always control his or her movements, facial expressions, etc. This is the time to take advantage of the technology of your camera and shoot in the burst, or continuous shooting, mode. You may see the image you want to capture, but it has come and gone quicker than you can react with a single push of the shutter button. This may produce a higher-than-average number of “waste” shots, but you are also more likely to have a gem or two, which you would have lost taking one photo at a time. In a sense, you must almost shoot unconsciously, and then switch to your conscious, objective mind later to review your images and select the best that will make your human story in pictures a bestseller.
Photo copyright PhotographyTalk member Val De Visser
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