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On Photographs and Stories

This weekend I was faced with a question that I’ve been up against many times before. You see, my friend Travis wanted a group of us to get together and go have a nice picnic somewhere and enjoy the nice weather. As with most things involving Travis, this meant that having cameras around were a must. So I found myself once again staring down at my camera bag trying to decide if I wanted to lug the whole thing around or pick just a few bits of equipment to take with me. Seeing as it was a picnic, with the possibility of Frisbee and other things thrown in, it didn’t seem to make much sense to lug around my flash or any giant or specialized lenses. So, what should I bring?

As a photographer, I’ve always been biased toward having more gear so I can capture what I want. I’ll see something and think, “this would be a great shot!” I’ll then root around a camera bag to find the right lens for it and spend some time setting up the camera. However, having decided to carry a limited amount of gear with me, I found myself spending far too much time trying to find the minimal gear to provide the maximum flexibility.

After getting more and more anxious about my choice, my Zen proclivities kicked in, knocked on my brain’s door, and firmly asked it to calm down and think about why having the right equipment mattered so much.

I sat and thought for a moment, and went back to a realization I had when I first stopped taking pictures and started making pictures. For any of you out there, if you want to go beyond taking photographs for their memories or just snapping to see what you get, you need what most artists call “vision”. I know it’s a haughty term, usually thrown in when an “Artist” is babbling on trying to justify why a print that cost them $30 to make should sell for $3000. (“My Vision was to portray, through this picture of a sad clown holding a chunk of meat, the suffering of the modern lower class at the hands of the elite.” If anyone ever says something like this to you, punch them in the face… especially if they’re the kind of people who can pronounce capital letters.)

However, in photography, I think “having a vision” is nothing more than complicated “telling a story.” Every photograph tells a story. This is why sitting through your family’s holiday photos can be so boring. The stories most holiday photos tell are: “Here’s Darla and I standing in front of the hotel” or “Here’s Darla and I eating dinner at a restaurant we found.” After a couple hundred of these photos, most normal humans are driven to madness.

When I was growing up, I had the benefit of an Aunt who studied photography and art, and who shot not only for her own enjoyment but to potentially sell and hang in galleries. When she would come back from a trip overseas, she would show us the photographs she had taken. Sure there were still photos of “the nice family I met who owned the little restaurant I had dinner in when I was in Rome”, but they were few and far between, and could be appreciated within the show of beautiful photographs as little snippets of connector story. Her post-vacation photos were always inspiring and you walked away feeling like you had taken a trip yourself, with snippets of narrative dancing in your head.

As a photographer, the greatest thing you can do for yourself is to learn to make photographs that tell a story within themselves. Stop snapping “See Spot Run” and start making “The Fall of the House of Usher”. (Feel free to insert a favorite story of you own here instead. I’ve been on a Poe kick this week.)

So how do you learn to start telling stories with your photographs, and more importantly, how do you improve the stories you’re telling?

Since I’m also a writer, and I know many of you who read this are as well, I’ll defer to that discipline for some advice. Stephen King said is his book On Writing, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.” If we carry this over to photography: “If you don’t have time to look at the work of others, you don’t have the time or the tools to make your own photograph.”

Find a master photographer whose work suits your tastes and spend some time analyzing their work. Figure out not only how they made the shot technically, but what story the photograph tells you. You’ll start to see patterns emerge that can influence your own style, and hopefully you’ll also see something completely unexpected that will make you reconsider your own style from the ground up.

This is the most powerful tool in the bag, but it’s far from the only.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m a photographer that tends to see a photograph and then tries to find the tools to make it. I think for any photographer these skills are really important and can teach you a lot about the equipment you’re using. If you’re not currently spending time doing this sort of thing, you should start. However, it does means lugging around a lot of equipment, and it can stifle creativity. How can you force yourself out of the comfort zone if you only take the pictures you’re inclined to see?

This is why, on Sunday, I decided to only pack one extra lens. As a habit I always take my kit lens with me. It’s got a decent enough zoom that if I really want to capture something specific I can. However, I decided to put my 50mm prime f1.8 lens on my camera, and not take it off unless I really felt there was a shot I needed. (Some habits are hard to break.)

By constraining myself to this one focal length, I forced myself to change not my equipment, but the kind of story I was look to capture. The 50mm prime is easily my fastest lens. It afforded me the ability to keep the shutter at a comfortable hand-held speed even as the sun was setting over our picnic, as well as experimenting with an incredibly shallow depth of field. I’ve only had this lens since Christmas, and with the cold weather, I’ve only been able to use it in doors for a few portraits. It was time to really explore what it was capable of.

What I discovered was that it gave me the ability to focus in on the people I was with and tell their story, instead of telling the story of them in their surroundings. With the narrow depth of field I was able to focus on their eyes, which rendered the background very pleasantly out of focus. This emphasized that the focus was solely on them and what they were doing. The background then becomes the seasoning on the shot, giving you the basic context of “oh they’re outside” but without distracting you with needless detail. This can be especially important when shooting a person against a busy city scene or otherwise complex background where you really need to ensure the character of the subject of the photo shines through.

(Pro tip: I mentioned this in passing above, but focusing on the eyes of a subject is the single most important thing you need to do when photographing people. Human beings tend to focus on the eyes first when they look at another person. If the eyes are out of focus, an otherwise great shot of a person can be totally ruined).

In looking back at past portraits I’ve taken, I saw immediately how much more interesting the stories were in the new shots. Going forward, I now have a much clearer idea of how to work with my subject to tell their story, and so if I’m ever called upon to do this, I can quickly and efficiently make those photographs.

As to why that’s so important, well, perhaps in a future post, I’ll talk about how to fight against the stiffness and nervousness most people feel when a camera is on them. As it is, I’ve gone on long enough. As usual when I talk about photography, I’ll conclude this post with some photographs. The first few are those I spoke of above. I also had a few other experiments on Sunday that I haven’t spoken about here. I think I’ll simply post the results and let you figure out the stories and technical details for yourself.

Action Travis


Sunset Flight



- B

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