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Poker Face

September 9, 2009


Note my trendy hat.

So I was down on the beach the other night, just loitering around, and there’s this guy shooting portraits. Now this isn’t an uncommon theme at the beach at sunset, but I don’t often go there, so watching someone else work was interesting for me.

But something odd happened. After every image, the photographer would “chimp,” or look at the back of his camera, something I can’t imagine doing, at least not after every single frame.

It’s tempting to do this, but it sure does break up any kind of connection you have with the people you are photographing.

Just as they get involved, you stop and stare at your camera? Then they get involved again and you stop and look at the camera.

The idea of connecting with the people seemed lost as the photographer kept staring at his equipment, then moving slightly, then shooting one frame, and then stopping, again and again.

I guess, in theory, the image preview is supposed to assist the photographer in making decisions, but I sure don’t see it working that way. I think it shows the photographer what they did wrong, then instead of adapting, they tend to quickly make a slight move then “try again.”

As someone posing for a photographer, I would be wondering what in the heck was going on.

But then it got even stranger. After every fourth or fifth image, the photographer would walk up and show the client the images he was making.

Again, I can’t imagine doing this. How anticlimactic can you be?

Is it insecurity? Is it because you are getting images you think are beyond fantastic and it is critical they see them? Or is THIS the attempt to get the client involved?

All of this is foreign to me.

For me, once I’ve seen the image, the magic is gone, at least that initial magic, and not just for me, but the client as well.

I like to live without seeing the image, to leave a little mystery, so I can then edit, and then present in a way that best represents the images, laying out those one or two photographs that are impossible to look away from.

If the client has already seen everything you shot, then where is the excitement level? Where is the mystery?

When I shoot digital I get plenty of people saying, “Can I see it?” My response is always, “No.” “What fun would that be?”

It’s not just portrait photography. I’ve been on set when photographers are shooting advertising, tethered, and the client is sitting there behind the monitor looking at the images. It isn’t photography, it’s just supplying content, and it contains little to no real visual power. “Great, got it, move on,” kinda thing.

And last year in New York I watched three guys shooting a fashion spread, tethered, with a laptop, and watched how disinterested and detached the model was. After each pop of the strobes, all three guys would huddle around the laptop and try to correct what they had just created. The model would make faces to her friends in the back.

I guess this is where we are today, and perhaps I’m just seeing it in a strange way, or perhaps I’m misinterpreting something?

It appears, in some ways, like this equipment has created a slight barrier between us and what we are trying to photograph.

For me, photography is still about moments, the unknown and the edit, and less about immediate “satisfaction” and looking at every frame I shoot.

Watching these folks work has made me realize I need to watch myself when I use this equipment and make sure I’m not doing these same things.

As I moved off the beach I took a seat at a park bench and watched the sunset unfold. Got into a conversation with this old guy about my bicycle, as he told me about riding from Fairfax to Palos Verdes back in the day, fifty miles, and how tired he was.

I watched as another photographer made pictures of a couple. Shoot one frame. Chimp. Shoot one frame. Chimp.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. David Wissinger permalink
    September 10, 2009 6:03 pm

    I actually have some knowledge of this subject (surprise!). Many photographers feel, as you correctly surmised, that showing clients the images on the camera LCD keeps them involved in the process. I have limited personal experience shooting with people I don’t know well, clients or models, but they all want to see what’s in the camera. I couldn’t have said it the way you did, but I did have the feeling that the constant reviewing wasn’t helping the momentum of the project.

    I’ve been lost in a book of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s portraits lately. I don’t thnk he used a light meter much; he seems to have an intuitive sense of the light. I don’t even think he thought about focus very much – he just got it right. Without chimping, obviously. After about a jillion images with the same camera, he must have known what he was getting.

    But when you have an LCD how can you not look? D-SLR’s change so quickly that we kind of date them instead of marrying them and really getting to know their every little quirk and characteristic. How can you trust what you’re getting if you don’t know your camera?


    • September 10, 2009 6:34 pm

      Yes, we have a lot of turnover these days, with our gear. I see it a lot with students, new gear, new laptops, new software, and there never seems to be enough time to learn any of them. I think this is why I’m enjoying the Leica so much now. I know it really well. But, it’s been years of using it that got me here. You can do the same with digital, but the tendency is to change things out.

  2. September 10, 2009 6:32 pm

    Good points; good post.

    After several years of shooting digitally (I shoot for myself only; not for pay), I’ve realized how unromantic and … well, functional digital photography really is. Sure, you end up with an image made from a moment, but that’s an absurdly reduced definition of the art form.

    I’m happier buying sensors by the strip.

    • September 10, 2009 6:36 pm

      I think seeing the image has a dramatic effect on the photographer, any photographer. I’ve certainly seen a fair number of photographers, well know and unknown, who have really dropped off in terms of their work, after switching to digital. I think this is party due to the ability to see their images. I think many of us are control freaks and this doesn’t help.
      I think this ability to see images, and to overshoot has really altered the landscape of photography. Get it….landscape…….okay, I’ll shut up.

  3. David Wissinger permalink
    September 10, 2009 6:48 pm

    I’ll add one more little tid bit to this. With digital, the expectation is that every shot will be Photoshopped. So: chimp to be sure you’re in the ballpark; Photoshop to nail it.

  4. Leigh permalink
    September 11, 2009 3:40 am

    If you have to chimp to be sure you’re in the ballbark and photoshop to nail it….
    you have no business holding the camera in the first place.
    Anybody who feels the need to do this should just shoot video and take stills from
    that. Oh that’s right that’s the “Latest Method” for shooting as a photographer!

    • September 11, 2009 5:01 pm

      Yep, a slippery slope. I’ve seen plenty of really good photographers fall into the “fix it in post,” routine. I’ve done it myself. I’m trying like to hell to make sure I never do it again, but it happens. And there are no shortage of clients who work this way as well. Gone, seemingly, are the days of making the best images possible in the field, and now we have the computer era.
      Another reason I like film.

  5. September 11, 2009 5:05 pm

    Digital is not photography. Digital is picture taking.

  6. September 11, 2009 5:08 pm

    Mom checking in with interesting angle on this. I like it. I’m gonna steal that quote. Thanks mom.

  7. David Wissinger permalink
    September 11, 2009 5:56 pm

    Let’s run this out as far as we can…OK?

    I’m not against improving an image in Photoshop. Unless I’m mistaken, Ansel Adams himself performed darkroom surgery on his prints. What bugs me is changing an image in Photoshop…making it something that it wasn’t when it was in the camera. Am I splitting hairs?

    P.S. Mom’s a smart chick. Can we hear more from her?

  8. September 11, 2009 6:04 pm

    No, I hear ya. I think that is what is being said. There is a tendency these days to be sloppy in the field then “fix it in post,” which is what we gotta be careful of. But, then again, many people are doing this, and like with many other photo-related issues, nobody seems to care.

  9. Leigh permalink
    September 11, 2009 10:33 pm

    I am also not against doing improvements in Photoshop or shooting digital per se. Absolutely Ansel Adams did a ton of dodging and burning in the darkroom. My point is that alot of people weilding cameras now a days point and click very quickly in hopes of getting a usable shot.

    I somehow don’t think Ansel Adams stopped his vehicle at a generally nice looking spot, took out his big honking camera, went….click,click,click thinking”If I just get the general view in front of me, I’ll be able to dodge and burn something into perfection later”.

    Lots of people are able to shoot clear, well exposed, nicely composed shots. This is now [with digital] in the relm of possibility for most of the masses. What’s missing now is learning the technical so one can use various elements of it to actually say something. The other thing that’s missing is having an attention span and work ethic longer than a nats.

    Brookes Jensen of Lens Work once wrote that he went to the 17 mile drive in Carmel at the same time of year, same time of day with roughly the same equipment as Edward Weston in hopes of creating images as imapactful as his.
    After developing his film and being dissappionted in the results he realized why Weston was more succesful. Weston spent 50 years experiencing that same beach, he got to know it intimately.. every grain of sand, every wave.

    This is what is missing from so much photography. Technical confidence, patience and passion for subject.

  10. September 11, 2009 10:44 pm

    Geez Leigh, what a great comment. Right on the money, on all points.

    I’m going to write up something about the patience idea. I think this is why we see so much “new documentary” work, which is mostly portraits and urban landscapes. It can be done very quickly, and with little attachment.

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