Some other guy’s great advice
My favorite author in the extensive Lynda.com training video library (now the “Lynda.com from LinkedIn” library) is Photographer and Educator Ben Long. Ben is unusually articulate and has a knack for explaining some fairly complex concepts in a way that is easily digested and retained (as well as highly entertaining), and there’s one concept that Ben repeats over and again in a few of his titles, including in his excellent weekly series The Practicing Photographer.
That concept is one of “Working the Shot.”
Working the Shot. What does it mean, really?
“Working the Shot” is a pretty straightforward concept. It says that you you shouldn’t just run up to anything that catches your eye, photograph it and call it done. Instead, you should consider staying with whatever it was that caught your eye in the first place, and really explore that situation. Take multiple shots, move about the scene, explore a variety of angles and perspectives, allow something to unfold, and in short, fully document whatever it was that you observed and deemed worthy of committing to film or memory card or what have you.
It’s one thing to hear and understand a concept and yet another thing entirely to really get a concept; to internalize it and shift that concept from being one guy’s good advice to a being worthy tenet that you own as simple fact and incorporate into your approach to your art.
I thought that I had really understood Ben’s advice on working the shot, but I didn’t really understand it. Until recently.
Magnum Contact Sheets
About a year ago I was gifted a copy of the excellent Magnum Contact Sheets hardcover book. It’s a book of, well, contact sheets. But not just any contact sheets.
From the interior liner notes: …this groundbreaking book presents a remarkable selection of contact sheets and ancillary material, revealing for the first time how the most celebrated Magnum photographers capture and edit the very best shots. Addressing key questions of photographic practice, the book illuminates the creative methods, strategies, and editing processes behind some of the world’s most iconic images.
I found this volume to be incredibly inspiring because it busted a myth that I had about photography, and it’s a myth that seems pervasive in the art world in general. It’s such an easy and romantic notion that some wildly famous photographer happened upon a scene, saw something interesting, pulled out their camera, composed and captured a shot, and then walked away into a life of fame and notoriety. But that’s all fantasy, and Magnum Contact Sheets hammers that point home. For every iconic photograph featured in the book, there are dozens of discard images that were taken at the same time. Some of these discard shots are very good and many of them are actually not good at all, but what’s important for me is that my preconception was smashed to bits. The photographers hunted for their images in very much the same way that I do, and in many cases had burned through several rolls of film before finally landing at “the shot.”
While daunting and eye-opening, I have found this knowledge to be of enormous encouragement and I have retrained myself to Work the Shot. And why not? Digital is free, storage is cheap, and the output is always worth the effort.
A Real World Example.
Take this shot, which I call The Princess and the King. I took this at the Santa Barbara Summer Solstice parade on 25 June 2016.
I often find that the most interesting things to capture during a parade are the things happening along the periphery, at the margins. I’d noticed this Elvis impersonator wandering about the edges before and here was my moment. He was framed up in the crosswalk in an interesting way and so I started shooting him as I approached.
Then suddenly, from out of nowhere, this little girl appeared, so I worked the shot further, changing my composition and allowing their engagement to unfold.
I took 15 shots over the course of 40 seconds and only one of those 15 images speaks to me. In slide #13 the focus and composition is right, but more importantly, their engagement has reached its focal point. She’s observing his hand with caution and she’s keeping her distance. To her he must seem strange, apart from being a stranger; all sequined and flamboyant. And here she is, fixated on her pearls, taking it all in. She’s rejected his offer of a fist bump and she’s getting ready to run. All in all, it’s a decisive moment.
In the past, I’d have maybe shot 1-3 images and I’d have called that done. I would not have gotten to #13. This is one that I’ll print and frame, and possibly show, because it’s good and because I worked it.
In conclusion, what we have here is a good example of some guy’s great advice made manifest. I’ll never go back to casual shooting, not after seeing this scenario unfold over and over again in my own work. So take it from Ben Long, or take it from me, when you’re out in the world making photos, it’s important that you really Work the Shot.
It’s the difference between having a picture and having a story.
Thanks for reading!
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