While it is nice to have a state of the art lens and camera I'm thinking that standing in the right spot is at least as important.

I'm slow to think things through. But I think I've figured out why dedicated sports shooters get the best shots and make shooting sports look easy, but feel damn hard for the rest of us. It's the same reason the best architectural photographs seem to have a magic touch in doing their work. We may buy the same tilt/shift lenses and the same cameras but there's something a bit better, a bit more pleasing about the way their work always seems to turn out. Same thing with landscape photographers. There are legions of retired businessmen and engineers, accountings and certainly doctors and dentists, who can afford gear that's even better than the stuff a full time landscape artist might be able to afford but for some reason the committed artists always seem to get the shot everyone else wishes they'd gotten.

After 25 years of shooting theater I think I understand the missing link! It's not the gear, it's knowing where to stand with the gear, that makes all the difference in the world. Work in sports photography long enough and you learn the stuff you cover forward and backward. The intimate knowledge, coupled with years and years of trial and error, eventually lead you to anticipate where the action will end up. This means you can get ready with the right focal length and settings. You can line up the right background and the wait for all the moving pieces to pull themselves into position. You get it because you've tried it all before and you were smart enough to
learn from each encounter; mostly learning when to be where.

I love the shot above. We shot it at the Topfer Stage for a "Love Janis" revue. I was shooting center stage because that's where directors seem to concentrate their efforts, but I kept my eye on the microphone on stage left (or is it stage right?) because I just knew this particular director loved that corner and would rotate his talent solos from center to right during the shows. I started moving as I watched this actor enter the stage. I showed up at my shooting position as she started singing into the microphone. I already had the perfect focal length on the camera and I was fine-tuning the aperture while I was bringing the camera up to my eye.

It was at that point I first realized that the gear didn't make the professional photographer professional nearly as much as knowing where to stand, where to move next, and when to push the shutter button. But it's also the same thing in portraiture; your personal positioning, as regards the subject, makes all the difference in the world. Your ability to understand a sitter's comfort level with close and far, direct and indirect postures, and the way they position themselves in relation to the camera makes all the difference in the world. With some clients I mirror their aloofness and use longer lenses for our sessions, other clients seem to want me to leave the camera, come close to them and talk them through the process before we shoot. Some want to have their space while others feel neglected if you don't come over and say, "May I straighten your tie? Looks great but the camera needs to see it at a slightly different angle." Over time you sense how familiar or how reserved the portrait subject wants you to play the encounter.

It's not so important whether you use Nikon or Sony or Olympus but it's pretty important to know where to stand and when to get there.  Arnold Newman once said that photography was 90% just moving furniture. He had to move it....it was in the way of exactly where he knew he should be standing. 


Anonymous said...

Spot on! Shoot a competitive volleyball tournament and you will learn to pre focus and zone shoot the recieving team. Lots more drama in dig shots than in serveing and blocking shots.

Art in LA said...

"... at least as important." How about way more important, maybe 70-80% vs. your 50%?

Frank Page said...

Excellently said. I would also add, once you decide on the shot you want and position yourself, you need to let go of other shots you are going to miss. For example, in football, if you position yourself for a fade pass to the end zone, you are going to miss the shot if the play is a power run up the middle. But such is life.

Paul Retzlaff said...

I shoot a fair amount of ballet and couldn't agree with you more about knowing how the choreographer uses the space being a key to good photography.

Stage right and left are from the performers perspective. Conversely the directions are backwards from the audience's perspective. In the early days of theater stages were sloped (raked) toward the audience. Down-stage is nearest the audience because it is down. Then of course up-stage is the back of the stage.

George Beinhorn said...

You are right. In the early 1970s when I was a staff photographer at Runner's World, we looked forward to receiving the latest packet of photos from UK sports photographer Mark Shearman. They were gorgeous, always. And Mark always said he sold more photos because unlike the other photogs who stood in lazy pools and ponds at the finish line, he would spend a lot of time prowling energetically around the venue and finding the spots where the light and the backgrounds were perfect. It certainly showed. Those prints made with Tri-X developed in HC110 (difficult!) had a wonderful classic look, and Mark's careful positioning just drew you into each shot. You wanted to hang them on the wall. Location, location, location. And, of course, timing, concentration, and a good heart.

Tom Passin said...

I participated in a couple of open-air full-figure workshops. I noticed that, at each posing opportunity, almost all the other photographers would cluster together, but that I never liked that spot. I would end up somewhere else, usually because either the light or the background was much better (i.e., more pleasing to me). And I always liked my pictures much better than theirs (not that it's any objective indication of anything).

mgr said...

About a million years ago a schoolmate and I got to hang out with some newspaper photographers for our high school career day. One of the assignments was a pro soccer game, so we were down on the field, near the goal. At one point both the athletes were thundering directly toward us - my friend and I instinctively pulled back, while all the photographers were leaning in. A couple of them got stomped, but they got the shot. Great lesson! (But we missed the second half of the game because the photographers had to rush back to the lab to develop and print before the evening deadline...)

Diogenes Montesa Baena said...

I know of what you speak about. I am a medical photographer in a paediatric facility shooting in any imaginable situation, one of which is for palliative patients, with family, oftentimes hours before passing away, and the key to getting the meaningful images that the family can treasure forever is to get to that spot, or that point, where you are able to click the shutter.
It's not the equipment (a cellphone will do) but it's the approach, the sympathetic vibes that I put out, the body language, the look in my eyes, surrendering my built-in vanity to be able to take that decisive-moment image.
Of course, it helps that I shoot with a Sony a7II, fast lenses, no flash. But I would say it's 30% equipment and 90% approach.