Friday, March 25, 2011


We photographers tend to see our surroundings in framed segments. When we're on, we're automatically scanning the scene for a picture—the picture. Beyond simply documenting "went here, did this," we ask ourselves which parts, large or small, make an interesting composition. Are there juxtapositions of things and people that raise a question or tell a story? Is there something here that, a hundred years from now, someone might find interesting or informative?

For large-scale events—a landscape, a sunset, a crowd—I always ask myself, "Is it really the whole expansive scene that will come closest to capturing the scope, the energy, the wonder of this moment, or is there a detail that might do so more elegantly? What's the smallest part of the whole that's telling enough to convey some kind of meaning?"

There are many advantages to seeing this way. Perhaps the most valuable is that, if you're looking for wonderful, beautiful things, there's a good chance you'll find them. As lecturer and former National Geographic photographer Dewitt Jones has so aptly put it, "You've got to believe it to see it."

Though it's the photographer's job to make his or her influence invisible, it's clearly a huge factor in what the camera sees.

There's also one considerable problem: when you're the photographer, you, almost by definition, separate yourself from the event you're shooting. In other words, if you're behind the camera, you're not in the picture. This is more than a physical distinction; it's a psychological one too. If you're an "in the moment," non-multi-tasker as I am, the part of yourself you give to the process of taking a good picture is a only rarely a part of you that's available to the experience itself or to the spontaneous interaction of any people involved.

So, which is more important to you, taking pictures or taking part? Or can one do both?

PHOTO: Brian Festi

This conundrum's a little different when it comes to people shots. In portraits, for example, there's often no situation involved, no dynamic other than the relationship between photographer and subject. In this case, though it's the photographer's job to make his or her influence invisible, it's clearly a huge factor in what the camera sees. And very few do it well. You know what I mean: those rare images where even the spiniest character is disarmed. Where the subject seems utterly unaware of the camera, looking out of the print at you as comfortably as if you were a good old friend.

Yes, he was behind the camera, but he was also inside the heads of those kids.

Here, the question isn't so much which side of the lens you prefer; it's whether you can be on both sides at the same time.

That is a gift I do not possess. But I've worked with a few photographers who do. One, who was still using a film camera at the time, told me his secret for capturing the wonderful, candid shots he did for me of young students in the classroom: He'd come into the room, introduced himself and started shooting. He tried every angle; he indulged every self-conscious antic the kids could muster; he clicked the shutter a hundred times or more. Eventually, the kids tired of hamming it up and got down to their normal routine. Then he loaded his first roll of film.

Yes, he was behind the camera, but he was also inside the heads of those kids. I've always admired that wisdom. And I've never looked at photography—or any kind of seeing—the same way since.


Unknown said...

You are the camera; you are always on both sides of the lens. It's an affair we smitten photographers get to enjoy as long as we have an eye. Cheers to your picture making.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hi Gerry -- I know you, of all people, have that rare ability. I envy you. I want to think my camera doesn't diminish my experience; maybe it's not diminished, just a different experience. Thanks for the encouragement! said...

Bună seara!
Vă mulțumesc pentru comentariul trimis.
Nu vorbesc englezește.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Incertitudini -- Thanks for visiting OMW! I wish I could read Romanian, but I understand enough of it to say thank you for the encouragement.
Buna seara! to you too!

Shari said...

I find myself trying to decide if I want to experience the moment as it happens or take the shot and capture that memory to look back on and share with others. I usually choose the latter! You, Jeff, are an inspiration to me as a photographer! I have so much to learn from you.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hey Shari -- How great to hear from you here! Thanks for the kind words, but I was thinking the same thing about you and your obvious photography gifts!
I'm a total hypocrite when it comes to photography -- as guilty as anyone of missing the experience for the shot. But it bothers me; sometimes I decide to leave my camera at home.
I guess it's like anything else -- a matter of maybe keeping one eye on the viewfinder and the other open to everything else.

Anonymous said...

Another way to participate in photography is to take a photo and then meditate upon the scene until it's essence is taken to heart. The isolated focal point in time then becomes loved in a timeless way, and effects the very fabric of nature forever more to come.

Jeffrey Willius said...

I like it, Bernie! You always have a thoughtful, interesting viewpoint. Hope your current travels are proving timeless too!

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