Due to the growing demand for web content across all journalism platforms, radio producers are often asked to capture photos to accompany their audio pieces. Following are some ideas that will help you shoot better photos in the field.
What makes photography exciting and challenging is the necessity to execute a variety of techniques at the same time. Below is a short list of things I keep in mind on every shoot. These tips are geared toward the novice photographer who’s using a smart phone or digital point-and-shoot. Because your goal is to make great radio, I know you’ll want to focus your time in the field on recording. If you can, try to budget at least 15 minutes for your photo shoot. It might help to know that when I’m on a portrait shoot, I try to spend at least forty-five minutes with my subject in hopes of getting two to three images that I’m excited about or at least that I think my editor will be satisfied with. Of course this timeframe changes depending on the variables of the shoot.
Light Light Light
You can’t always control the way a shot is lit, especially if you’re capturing action, but often there are things you can do to make the lighting better when you’re shooting a portrait. Here are a few pointers:
Use natural light when possible. Move your subject near a window for headshots (assuming the light there isn’t direct).
This is an example of how to quickly orient your subject to the window. You’ll notice that she’s at an angle. If you ask your subject to face the window head-on, there’s no way you’ll be able to get a headshot without blocking the window. If you ask them to sit next to the window (one shoulder to the window, the other to the room) half of their face will be exposed and half of their face will be either overexposed or underexposed (this can be an interesting, dramatic effect, but often not appropriate). By angling the subject, one side of the face is directly lit and the other side still gets enough light for a proper exposure.
Here are the results.
Below is an example of nice filtered window light. The subject is a psychologist and she wanted something between a portrait and an action shot. I asked her what time of day the light was best in her office and we timed the shoot accordingly.
I took the portrait below in the loft of an old barn. The only source of light was a small window near the roofline. The more you shoot, the more you’ll realize that the camera doesn’t expose for all elements of a scene as well as the eye does. For example, this space wasn’t pitch-black. I could see the barn boards, the floor, the rafters, etc. When light is direct and focused, the camera can either expose for the light areas or the dark areas, but not both. This worked in my favor for this photo, because I wanted a dramatic look. Had I exposed for the barn boards that my eyes could see, the woman would have been completely overexposed.
Look for even light. For example, a pool of shade under a tree can look appealing, but beware of dappled light. It will create blown-out hotspots on the skin. You’re better off using the consistent shade of a building.
Avoid direct, harsh light. You don’t want a subject squinting.
Look for areas of reflected light. For example, the side of a lightly colored building can serve as a reflector and will bounce the light nicely.
For a simple headshot, I nearly always prefer soft even light to direct sun. If you’re shooting outdoors in harsh sunlight, look for the side of a light-colored building that’s being directly hit by the sun. Ask your subject to face the building, stand with your back against the building, and shoot. As you can see in the resulting image below, there are no harsh shadows under the eyes or nose, the light is warm, and the hair is illuminated from behind to create a nice highlight. This photo was not retouched.
The photo below was lit with bounced light only. There was a light-colored building across the street being hit directly by the sun, which bounced light back at the entryway to this housing complex.
If you’re shooting indoors after dark, look for side lighting instead of overhead lighting. For example, if you have the option of using overhead track lights or a floor lamp, use the floor lamp. Overhead lighting creates dark shadows under the nose and eyes.
If you have to use overhead lighting for a portrait, try to reflect the light up using an open book or piece of paper.
When capturing outdoor action, try to schedule the fieldwork early or late in the day to avoid harsh late-morning/afternoon sun. If you can’t dictate the time of day of your fieldwork, just roll with it!
This is pretty self-explanatory. Get close to your subject and try a few shots in which your subject fills at least half of the frame. A good technique for doing this while limiting your invasion of personal space is the old “lean in, shoot, pull back” trick. Don’t move your feet closer to your subject, just lean in closer so you can immediately retract once you’ve clicked the shutter. People always ask about using a zoom lens. A zoom lens tends to flatten an image and I don’t think you can convey emotion nearly as well if you’re shooting at a distance.
This photo was taken after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake as part of a series for the nonprofit, Sichuan Quake Relief. After her village was destroyed, this girl was sent to a temporary boarding school that was once an industrial factory. The kids bathed and washed their clothing outside. I spent a while thinking this shot through so I could spend as little time as possible invading her personal space.
One of the challenges of getting close is being able to hit your focal target. The closer you get to your subject, the narrower the depth of field becomes. I really wanted the out-of-focus dog nose in the foreground and I actually think if I had gotten even closer this would have been a more interesting photo. On most cameras you depress the shutter half way to focus, recompose, and shoot.
Then shoot a little somethin' our way.
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Context and Background
It’s always nice to indicate the topic of your radio piece through the accompanying images. For example, if you’ve interviewed a painter, set up the portrait so that the subject’s paintings are in the background and ask them to hold a paintbrush. If you’re shooting a scientist, instead of getting a tight headshot, pull back and get them in the context of their lab (often the place is as much something to feature as the person). Worlds can be said about composition and if you want more easily accessible insights check this out.
The Decisive Moment
The decisive moment, it is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression. – Henri Cartier-Bresson
Henri Cartier-Bresson – 1908-2004 – is widely recognized as the photographer who established photojournalism as a form of art. Cartier-Bresson also coined the phrase “the decisive moment.” Photographers spend a lifetime trying to capture “the decisive moment.” I use the phrase here as a description of when to depress the shutter. So much of photography is waiting. When you’re attempting to capture a person in action, watch that person engaged in the activity for a few minutes before you attempt to photograph the action. Look for the pinnacle of the action and the moment that best visually describes the activity. For example, if you’re shooting someone cooking a pizza, try to capture them tossing the dough mid-air or pulling the pizza out of the oven. You can also look for the best lit spot and wait for your subject to enter that spot. For better or worse, now that we’re in the digital age, we have the ability to instantly review our images. Take advantage of this and make sure you’ve done the best job you can do of capturing the action.
This photo was taken during a Mardi Gras parade in rural Louisiana. Chasing a chicken to catch for the evening meal is part of the tradition. This kid was the lucky chicken catcher! I watched this scene unfold with the camera to my eye, clicked three shots as he reached for the chicken, and this is the result.
This photo was taken at a wedding. If there’s a shot I really want to get, I just keep the camera to my right eye and keep my left eye open to watch what might be coming into the frame or happening next. I must have waited five minutes or more to get this shot. It’s ironic that patience is the best recipe for capturing action.
One is Never Enough (Neither is two or three…unless you’re a master)
Even if you think you’ve got a usable image, keep shooting. Like most other activities, photography takes some warming up time. The more photos I take of a single subject the more creative I get and (usually) the more relaxed the subject becomes. This is especially true when shooting people in action.
Help Your Subject Feel Comfortable
I think the absolute worst photos are the ones in which the subject looks uncomfortable with an unnatural smile. If you’re shooting a portrait, make sure you leave enough time allow your subject to relax in front of the camera. Presumably you’ve already completed your radio interview so your subject is used to you and your gear in their space. As you probably know, some people are more sensitive about being photographed than about being recorded. I’ve found that if I can maintain a relaxed and happy vibe, I can usually get them to meet me on that level. Don’t be afraid to direct your subject. Though it’s likely uncomfortable for you, it usually makes things easier for your subject if you give them specific directions about what to do in front of the camera. A key thing I usually ask folks to do is “relax and re-smile.” Peoples’ smiles get weird and stiff in front of a camera. If a person immediately gives me a weird fake smile I say nothing and shoot for a few seconds then use the “relax and re-smile” technique. I don’t say anything at first because I don’t want them to think I’m criticizing the way they look in front of the camera.
In a time crunch it’s usually more efficient to move yourself instead of your subject in order to get a variety of images. If you’re shooting a portrait, once you have your subject in a relaxed position and in decent light, shoot them from multiple angles. Get the obvious shots first then get creative. For example, try kneeling or even lying on your stomach. Try a couple blind shots by holding the camera above your head for an aerial perspective. The same goes for action shots and inanimate objects.
This wasn’t a portrait shoot and I knew I only had a few seconds to get an interesting shot of the boy and the rooster. I photographed them once while standing and got a decent shot from an expected angle. Then I decided to focus on the chicken, so I knelt on the ground directly below it and shot upward to get the contrast of the rooster’s red comb and the blue sky. I never could have achieved this shot if I’d continued to shoot while standing.
Keep Shooting Once the Composure is Broken
This trick of the trade is exactly the same as leaving your recorder on after the interview has been officially completed. When you think you’ve captured several usable portraits, take the camera away from your eye and begin chatting with your subject but keep shooting. Even without keeping your eye to the viewfinder, you’re likely to get usable shots.
This was a portrait shoot for two sisters. The one on the left hated being photographed. After several awkward images, I took the camera away from my eyes, started joking with them, and casually began shooting again.
Most importantly remember that, like good radio, the best images are captured during moments of genuine emotion. Follow your storytelling instincts and have fun!