Make this picture
A lot of times when photographers are asked how they made a certain picture, or how we did something really good, we tense up. We go into automatic defense-mode and try to redirect all conversations away from specifics. Sometimes we’ll go greatly into depth–if among gearheads–talking in f-stops and ISOs as though it’s common knowledge, but more often than not, we’ll overwhelm people in the general area who aren’t quite familiar with our brand of geek lingo, or just shy away from telling anything at all.
So let’s take a gamble and try something new: I’d like to break down one of my personal favorite photographs. We’ll go through the process from start to finish: from the moment I arrived in the environment to the shots leading up to the photograph itself. Along the way, I’ll explain the steps and techniques that helped bring about it’s capture as well as respond to questions you may have about the shot.
The photograph on trial is “Three children on playset“, photographed on 12/31/06 in Broadhedsville, Pennsylvania at a Eid celebration by the local Muslim community at a huge rec center.
I used a Nikon F100 film SLR slapped onto a Sigma 20-40 f/2.8 lens, loaded with Kodak Tri-x 400. The setting were (according to notes on a paper stained with pizza sauce: f/4 @ 1/80).
On to the first part…
1. The Hunt
I started out by heading towards the areas where a lot of conversation and movement were happening. The women had seated at a table and their children were racing around the playsets doing handstands and cartwheels on the mats.
The rec center had huge rows of fluorescent lights high above the ground. A quick meter reading of a middle tone (anything gray can do) showed a ideal exposure to be around 1/40 at f/2.8. Because I was dealing with a pretty flexible b&w film, I didn’t have to worry much about how my camera’s white balance would respond to the light. Generally, in digital, shooting in RAW can keep you pretty well covered in most situations with a little post help from Uncle Aperture or Lightroom.
I selected 1/100 in hopes of freezing any expressions on the women’s faces as they spoke. I generally enter into every situation with three meter readings in my head: one to freeze action, one to blur it, and one somewhere in between. If you have strong light entering from certain directions, it’s a good idea to add maybe two more exposures (or combine them) to take in for account highlights (in digital, highlights are the first to go) by underexposing a half-stop or full stop. For photojournalists, the general rule of thumb on assignments is wide, medium, tight, and each of those three exposure modes work well with this, since often times you may be working very quickly in fast-changing environments. By having three exposures in your head, you can switch rapidly as new events develop and still capture the feel and vision you have while also garnering a quality image.
My digital body was out of battery power, so I was schlepping around with soupy Tri-x. I didn’t have the ability to change my ISO and so had to rely on a core three exposure settings, which you’ll see in the below contact sheet.
2. Composing Out of Haste
A lot of my work contains what I call haphazard composition: i.e., composition that responds to the alignment of the forms and shapes of what is occurring around me. Since I don’t pose my subjects, I am at both an advantage and disadvantage in many ways. Why advantage? Because I only need be sensitive enough to the moments occurring and respond rather than creatively concoct the ideas of the photograph themselves. There are strengths in both ways of shooting, and by no means am I knocking anyone that does it the other way. Actually, as I tell the fellas at MJR, I’m quite envious of their ability to see things in their own way and capture it on camera.
Okay, enough patting them on the back.
With my exposures in my head, I decided to give the women a break from my shooting and heading to where the kids were chilling out. One of the key things I learned about photographing children, and one that has been spoken by photographers with more mileage than me, is that you must get level with them. Get close, get among them. You have to shoot fast and compose even quicker if you want to capture moments of children at play. And while certain stories may necessitate shooting from low or above, this particular situation had a lot of playsets no higher than 4 feet. So: get personal, people.
In the third frame in from the left, you’ll see a quick shot I made with a mirrors reflection. Heck, I believe you can see me in the bottom left corner, creating my future arthritic prescriptions. With so much movement and so many faces, you have to isolate and track only a few and let them lead you to others. Otherwise, you’ll be swimming in a sea of jumps and leaps and climbs that’ll leave you unsure of where to start.
By watching my subjects and their background, I was able to spot something I hadn’t noticed before: the symmetry of the gym’s walls with a particular playset. Keeping your subjects and their surroundings in your peripheral is crucial: in order to catch a decisive moment, you have to be there and you have to be willing to respond in a split-second and shoot. When I saw the kids in the mirror, I immediately turned around and switched to a second exposure setting that would allow me a bit more light without that much blur (f/4 at 1/100).
I made three frames, one two low and I scrambled to become centered with the playset. Changing position while photographing (foot zoom vs. camera zoom) is probably the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given. Even when things are happening, there must be a sense of sentience in the photographer to change position even when it seems like the last thing you want to do. It’s risky thing and I’ll admit I’ve taken the chance and fumbled the ball, but when you yield the fruits of that risk, it’s well worth it. I also opened up to 1/80.
When the children moved through the playset, their bodies became points of interest. They themselves had become the symmetry I was looking for, and in the instant the first boy put his arms out and the girl peaked through and the boy in the middle steadied himself, it all came together: the decisive moment.
The last frame of the series, of two children playing soccer, was the last on that roll.
3. Quick & Light Editing
I processed this roll myself, using T-max developer at 1+7 dilution. This usually gets the film real grainy, but it’s cheap and quicker than Xtol and HC110. I scanned using Nikon CoolScan and saw the image was still underexposed:
I try to make my work as minimalist as possible, so a simple drag of the Levels and the same in Curves, and viola:
It’s my opinion that the less noticeable your editing, the more your pictures encourages realism and believability in the viewer. Even images that have been dodged and burned can be done in a skilled manner that allows the viewer to have the impact of the photograph without the impact of the photographers skill. But because of the rich and dark nature of the objects, and the need to distinguish the subjects from their playset, I dodged and burned (via Curves) the areas in a way that steered clear of the avenue of over-done Photoshopping. Like anything, PS is a tool and one that should be lightly used for best results (at least, for photojournalism).
In this case, less is more.
So there we have it. From the start to the finish, Three children on playset. I hope explaining how I’ve made this photograph will encourage you to do the same. Feel free to ask any questions.
Keep in mind: the reality is no one has your vision. How you perceive events, how you react to them, what draws your eye, and what areas of photography you’ve chosen to study all culminate in an instant, and effect how you’ll photograph a single scene. By no means am I a master of the decisive moment, but like all difficult tasks, the more you practice, the luckier you get.
The more you photograph and immerse yourself in these dynamic situations, the better you prepare yourself. Yours eyes do more work and your brain does less; your hands move to do what you need and not what you may question you need.
And then, wham, you have it: the disjointed elements coalesce into the decisive moment that raises the amazing above the ordinary. By sharing our successes, we can all climb the rungs in bettering ourselves as photographers.