It doesn’t feel like that long ago when I decided that my passion in photography involved the connection to people. I dabbled and still dabble in still life, landscape, and architectural photography, but the photos that mean the most to me are those frozen moments of humanity that I’ve captured. And I think I’ve figured out why. It’s something that isn’t entirely tangible. It’s the magic that happens between the subject and the 4th wall (which is usually the photographer).
This is not a spiritual thing, but there is certainly an emotional bond that photographers have with their subjects. There’s a trust and a connection that radiates in their expression, whether it’s a candid shot or a completely staged portrait. If that connection is lost or broken, the image is cold. The subject looks out of place. It’s like they don’t want to be there, or worse, it’s like they don’t believe in the photographer.
This is something I’ve been struggling to identify for a while now. Why do some photogs take amazing scenic shots, but fail miserably with people shots? Why do some people know every single lighting and exposure rule and live by proven compositional theories but come up with off-putting portraits? I think it comes down to personality.
There are photographers that can make a building come to life, and others that can make you feel like you’re in the habitat of a wild animal. There are ones that will make huge sacrifices and fly all over the world capturing the perfect light at the perfect time of year. Then there are those that can peel back the walls and bring out a person’s soul. An introvert may not be the best person to capture the light of humanity. They might be amazing at seeing leading lines and balancing the exposure of natural light with artificial light. But, they make people nervous when they attempt a portrait.
On the flip-side, I see a lot of photographers struggling with the technical side of things, yet they make amazing portraits. I was reading a thread on one of the photo forums the other day about a photographer who was upset by the popularity of a local photographer in his area who he thought was terrible because she didn’t know the difference between a RAW file or a jpeg. He then posted a gallery of some of her shots and they were really good. He didn’t get it because he didn’t have it when it comes to shooting people.
What is “it”? I think it’s a deep love for your subject – an appreciation for their inner beauty as well as their outer beauty. “It” is also something that someone who lights up a room has because “It” is a drive to bring everyone up a notch. “It” is not just one thing, it’s also a creative eye, an eye for detail, and an eye for spotting a good story and conveying it in a single image. Whatever you believe “It” is, I don’t think you can find it in a manual. I don’t know if “It” can be taught in a class. That special attraction that some people possess is different for different people. I do think “It” can be nurtured and grown. I do think everybody is capable of their own version of “It”. Confidence, skill, experience, morality, emotion – these are some of the key ingredients. The recipe is unique to all of us and it’s our job to be honest with ourselves in realizing what our passions are and if we’re serving the art over some unrelated motive.
It makes me cringe when I see people obsess over F-stops and focal lengths. There are articles written about what aperture is most used in the most popular photos. While the technical information is very important to learn and it’s great that there is so much educational info available, I feel like many people never escape from it. They’re so concerned with technical perfection that they’ve never tried to capture a meaningful photo. In a perfect world, you’d use that information to help you capture an image you’re envisioning, not capture a photo to demonstrate technical skill.
The magical moment that a beautiful image comes together because of the personality and interaction between the photographer and the subject, combined with technical skill and artistry is what we should all be hoping to achieve. Those images are the culmination of lots of hard work both with the camera and more importantly with relationships. What it all boils down to in my opinion is that the moment and the “It” factor are far more important than the technical stuff will ever be when it comes to shooting people. It’s what I’m currently focusing all of my attention on. How can I be a better communicator and make images that resonate?