Friday, July 20, 2007


What do you think might be the hardest part of my job day to day as a news photographer? Could it be rushing to breaking news like a bank robbery? Maybe it is suffering through the sweltering afternoon heat at a Little League game? Or maybe it is just the day-to-day rush of deadlines and their relentless pressure? Not even close. Sometimes the toughest part of the job is the simplest of assignments, the ordinary people picture.

Now I would rather wade through a pool of starving crocodiles than have my picture taken so I can actually feel my subject’s pain. I have heard all the complaints from “it’s a bad hair day” to they don’t want their double chin in the picture. But a large portion of my job is taking people pictures no matter how much they hate it. Sometimes I spend more time trying to ease their fears of the camera than I do taking the pictures. There are two types of people pictures we do for the paper, the candid photo and the environmental portrait.

Candid photos are probably the hardest type of picture to take. This is when I do my best to slowly sneak up on someone and then stuff a 16mm wide angle lens inches from their face and tell them to act natural. Some of my best candid photos are shot with a long telephoto lens where I can keep a discreet distance and not frighten my subject.

Making people self-conscious is one of the hardest things to overcome in people photography. Having a camera-shy subject is a killer on assignment. I can either hold down the motor drive to drown out their cries for mercy or shoot a few quick frames before they cover their face. I get lots of training for this type of shooting around the office by photographing coworkers for my blog. But shooting quick candid shots isn’t enough for some assignments. Candid photos do a great job of showing who people are and where they are at. Sometimes we want to show more of them, give readers an idea of their character and style. Their personality becomes the subject matter itself.

I was assigned recently to photograph 104-year-old Gladys Schmolk. Gladys had lived through numerous earthquakes, many jobs and was still a feisty woman as I met her for the interview. I was trying to figure out the best way to capture the story of her years with a few different poses. One idea had her looking at a collection of pictures from the years. It was OK but didn’t really thrill me. Another thought was a full body view as she sat in her recliner talking. Again it was OK but didn’t show much of her wit and personality. One of the last shots I took at the shoot was a simple portrait of Gladys. I switched to my 70-200mm zoom and framed the pictures as tight as I could of her face. The portrait was harshly lit by a nearby floor lamp and the light glinted off her glasses and cast shadow through the lines of her face, showing the 104 years of her life in a simple and quiet manner. I loved the shot, and that was our choice.

Some personality shots are of a more somber note. Covering the story of U.S. Army Pfc. Bruce C. Salazar Jr., another local soldier killed in Iraq, I went to the home of his cousin, Claudia McIntyre, and photographed her with the a picture of him. It was a simple portrait, framed against the light streaming in from a nearby window it gave the portrait a quiet feel.

Other portraits I have taken can give a glimpse of the subject’s story. A young wrestler holding a practice dummy before an upcoming meet shows his size and determination. Using a wide angle lens and high shooting position made him loom large in the picture.

Don’t get me wrong, candid photos can also give a sense of the subject’s personality just as well as a more formal portrait. Incorporating the background and setting into the scene such as a “mountain man” at a black powder shooting event gives the reader a quick view of his hobby and the depth of his involvement in the shooting society. The grizzled look was a more a statement on him than the event he was at.

It’s more than just taking a person’s photo. We need to say who they are and what they do, what makes them unique. Sometimes it’s a battle with a camera shy subject, sometimes it’s just a quick view into their daily life but I always try to make sure their personality shines through the lens.


Anonymous said...

your photos are greaaat

-edwen vargas

Anonymous said...

The portrait of Don Higgins running on the July 28 Our Town cover was excellent. It is more than a head shot, it tells a story and captures Don's vocation and personality. -- Mike McLellan