Thursday, November 18, 2010

Font sizePhotographs

Imagine being able to capture a moment in the life of a person and to experience the faces and expressions years later. From my earliest years there has always been someone with a camera to record family events. The impromptu snap shots are the best! Now some of those early portraits are family icons from times long ago.

My sister Helen and I with cousins

I am not the kind of photographer that I would like to be. I have worked my way through a progression of cameras – and I love my current zoom-lens digital camera. But the question still remains,“What constitutes a good photo?“ In Tanzania this summer we spent a week travelling with the Heifer study-group. When we returned, we shared the photos we had each taken of the same experiences – It was fascinating to see how we made different photo choices. Some wanted to show the texture of Tanzanian farm life, others focused on faces, another on children, one focused on scenery… Each person had their own “decision making filter” in place to guide them in choosing what to photograph.

Lion - Ngorongoro Crater

Observing the work of a master photographer helps me to see the world through his or her mind. This past week I saw an extensive photo collection by Henri Cartier-Bresson at the MOMA museum in San Francisco. (Go to this web site to see examples: Seeing his life work is an inspiration for an aspiring photographer like me! Monsieur Cartier-Bresson was the master of the “decisive moment”. For him photography was about observing deeply your subject and then choosing the exact right moment to capture the whole story. His pictures are an invaluable record of moments in the lives of common people from the 1930’s to the 1950’s… Europe, America, Asia, Russia…

Two of his quotes:

“Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again.

“Think about the photo before and after, never during. The secret is to take your time. You mustn't go too fast. The subject must forget about you. Then, however, you must be very quick.”


This is what I would like to remember and include in my photos, after viewing the exhibition....

  1. A good photo is all about light! If the lighting isn’t right – come back when you can get the light you need to make the photo interesting.
  2. A great photo can use shadows and reflections for real and effective results.
  3. Avoid far away pictures of people – be close enough that you can see features. Human expression in the moment is all-important.
  4. Wait until the “decisive moment” to click the shutter. Wait until people forget that you are there. Wait for the “look”... the “gesture”.
  5. Photos showing people doing things can be effective even if you don’t show a face directly. In most of Cartier-Bresson's photos the subject is not aware that a photo is being taken.
  6. When photographing a group meeting– don’t show the speaker - show the people watching the speaker. Focus on the responses of people.
  7. Landscapes and natural still life compositions can be effective with the correct light, angle, and composition. No subject is too small or insignificant to be considered as a just has to be have the "right balance".
  8. Cropping makes or breaks a good photo – This is done on the computer or darkroom after the fact... (iphoto, photo shop, etc.) The goal is to accentuate your focus topic and remove distracting details.
  9. Portraits are the most difficult. Most people put on a set-face when they know they are being photographed. A good portrait takes time and involves engaging the subject, having the subject involved in something other than thinking about having their photo taken.
  10. Learn to see outside of your usual "this is a good photo" mode - Photography is about being open to seeing in a new way.


Just for fun I attempted some photos from the airplane as we returned from Oregon. Here are two examples: In both cases I used a telephoto lens and then some editing with iphoto to correct contrast.

Berkeley: UC Campus to left, City center right

Mt. Shasta
These days I spent a great deal of time travelling back and forth to visit the student teachers that I am supervising. Public radio stations, KQED 88.5 and KALW 91.7, are my regular companions. I can count on an enjoyable balance of new thought, interviews, music, and entertainment. As I travelled this Wednesday - I heard this interview - Here is both a pod cast of the message and the written text... I was so impressed with it I want to share it: