Chris Usher – How To Make (Not Take) Better Pictures

Example of a moment

Unfortunately the photo-internship with National Geographic photographer Michael Yamashita did not work out as I had planned. I will not go in to the reasons why, but I will say that if you are ever unhappy in what you are doing ,and if you can afford to move onto something else, then pursue whatever makes you happy. Life is too short to be in a place where you are unhappy, and asking for happiness is not asking for much.

So, after resigning from the internship at National Geographic, I spent a few days editing photos, planning local photo ideas, and traveling to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to photograph the city’s murals & the Eastern State Penitentiary. Then, thanks to the Chief Photographer at the Tyler Morning Telegraph, Jaime Carrero, I got in contact with former White House photojournalist Chris Usher. I drove down to Alexandria, VA to meet Chris on Monday – a four hour drive from Budd Lake, NJ.

From the time I met Chris, we did not stop talking photography, and in just a single day I learned more from Chris than I would ever taken away from the National Geographic internship. Chris critiqued my photography and highlighted areas I could improve upon, and helped me recognize what I was doing wrong in photography, and what I might try differently.

Importantly, Chris gave me the following things to consider:

  1. People – In photographing salient, high-profile, highly recognizable people in our community – such as President Barack Obama, or George Clooney – it is not always necessary to show their face in the photograph. But, as a general rule, you typically want to give an identity to your human subject – whether this is by showing their face, or through a characteristic that makes them unique, you need an identifier for your image. As a photographer, it’s your obligation to get beyond people’s masks – this is especially true for portraiture. Every person wears a mask, and as a photographer, you need to SEE into your subject. Find out who they are, and photograph their real identity – even if it’s just for a moment.
  2. Blend in, be confident, and play it cool – Chris told me a brief story about an opportunity he had during the early days of his photojournalism career to photograph Sting. Chris recalled a definitive moment where he was either entering the venue, or getting told to f**k off. So; to begin (if you’re not a Sting fan), replace Sting with your most revered artist, and you have an opportunity to photograph him/her/them. How do you act? This might be an obvious answer to some, but it’s important that you consider how to carry yourself as a photographer. So Chris – and all of his camera gear – was approaching a BIG bouncer dude standing at the entrance to the venue, and instead of acting excited & eager to photograph Sting, Chris played it cool. Approaching the bouncer, Chris acted impartial and said ‘Another day, another dollar’, to which the bouncer said, ‘Ain’t that right, brother’, to which Chris replied, ‘Ain’t but half that once Uncle Sam get’s his hands on it’, to which the bouncer repeated. Confidence and keeping your cool, especially in uncomfortable or compromising situations, is a necessary and developed skill that every photographer will have to exercise at one time or another.
  3. Moments – What makes a moment? From my academic education at the University of North Texas Mayborn School of Journalism, I consider a moment, broadly, to be this: A point in time when a subject demonstrates an action which can not be sustained. There are many examples of moments beyond this broad definition, but in my opinion it is a good foundation to explaining what a moment is. Consider someone walking. Firing your camera’s shutter on rapid fire, there is a point at which the feet enter alignment with one another, and a point at which the feet are furthest from one another. Which photograph looks more natural? Consider a young person jumping on a trampoline. When do you take the photograph? What image is most effective? Is it when they’re in contact with the fabric of the trampoline, or is it when they’ve been launched into the air, briefly defying gravity? How do you photograph the youth, the experience of being free from the world, and the excitement of the activity? Can you force the viewer to feel the same emotion, happiness, and freedom that the person jumping on the trampoline is experiencing? Consider what a moment is; what a moment means to you, and this will take your photography to a new level of meaning.
  4. Metaphors – The biggest message here was… Don’t photograph the obvious! Chris and I discussed an example of photographing the obvious. Consider a protest, which I photograph quasi-regularly doing freelance journalism for the Dallas Observer. Consider what you witness at any protest. For me, what comes to mind is passionate, emotional people holding hand-made signs, yelling, marching, fists in the air, and so on. So if you know what a protest looks like, why photograph it? Find a way to make it unique. Photograph the protestors making their signs, photograph unexpected reactions from by-passers, search for a deeper meaning to the situation than people yelling and holding signs. As a photojournalist, you are a witness to history; you are there to ethically and accurately portray what you have witnessed, and in the course of such action you indeed may photograph protestors holding signs and yelling, but consider the idea of doing so. Does the photograph add something to the story? What is the deeper meaning to the reality of the situation? What has merited this protest, and how is it affecting people’s lives? ALWAYS consider the human-condition. You need to feel what your subject feels, and a great photographer will seek out these metaphors, consider the deeper meaning, and make a photograph the elicits a response from the viewer.
  5. Elicit a response from the viewer – Consider the imagery of a car’s gauge, or a meter. When someone looks at your photograph, how does that meter change, or does it change at all? If someone’s meter doesn’t change when they observe a photograph, then you have failed as a photographer. Whether it’s sadness, joy, or disgust, whether they’re reminiscing a place and time, or even if they are curious to know more, when the viewer observes you photograph, they should feel something. This is what you should strive towards as a professional photographer.
  6. Lighting – This is an essential component to making great images, and as obvious as it is, I have neglected it in my own photography. Consider the mechanics of your camera; the ISO, the F-Stop, and the shutter speed. All of these things, in tandem with flashes and reflectors, concern your control over light. Utilize these mechanics and these tools to help you control light and your images will improve. Consider a portrait, for example. Lets say, for sake of example, you photograph a human subject from the waist up. Where does your eye go? Is the subject’s exposure consistant throughout the frame? If so, this may be considered problematic. Your eye should not be competing on where to look in a photograph, because your attention span is too short. If your eye competes in moving to the most important part of your photograph, then you have failed to make a good photograph. Naturally, the eye moves to the brightest part of an image, so, in the example of the human subject described above, what area of your human subject should eye travel to? Generally, 99% of the time, it’s the face – and more specifically, the eyes. Understanding this, give good consideration towards lighting and your subjects. Use the mechanics of your camera and the tools around you to control light, and as a result you will make better pictures.
  7. Framing & lines – When you take a photograph, consider the borders of your frame. What’s going on in the frame of your image? Is there a stray hand, apart of a tree, the top of a water bottle, or some other strange and distracting object interfering with your image? Be conscious of your framing, and try to be sure that everything in the frame adds to the photograph, rather than subtracts.
  8. Know your story – Do research on what you’re photographing. Why should someone care about your subject? How can you make someone care? You should be knowledgeable about your story, its history, and possibly its future. Lets take for example somebody’s feet. Your assignment is to go to someone’s home and photograph their feet. There’s a thousand ways that a photographer could photograph feet, but you need to make a conscious decision about what image captures the feet best in relationship to the story. So, for this hypothetical example, lets imagine the story is about someone who doesn’t use shoes. Everywhere they travel is on there bare feet. What comes to mind when you think of this story? Most people would want to know what the bottom of their feet look like. Get detail photos of the souls of their feet. Show that these feet have traveled everywhere. The viewer of your photographs needs to know what its like to have traveled all these places without shoes. So, how best to photograph this? You’ve already made a decision to photograph the bottom of their feet, now you need to figure out how best to accomplish this. This is where your creativity as a photographer is exercised. Would it be best to photograph the bottom of their feet as they relax in a reclined position in their home, or maybe in some other way? Explore ideas by taking different photographs, examining the context, and staying aware of your background. Further, consider what caused them to start traveling barefoot. Perhaps it was – for example – a philosophy. Do they read philosophy? Do they have any philosophy books? Would it add value to your photograph if you could simultaneously show the soles of their feet AND your subject reading a book on philosophy? The answer is definitely yes.
  9. Most importantly… Always strive to make images that don’t require photo captions. Your job as a photojournalist is to tell a story through photography. During shooting, you should always, always, always strive to make an image that tells your story in a single shot. Searching for such an image will not only help you think critically about the photos your taking, but it will ultimately help you become a better photographer.
  10. Shoot DAILY – Enough said.
Hopefully these 10 tips will help you and other photographers reading this become better, and perhaps you’ll consider things that you haven’t previously thought of. If you haven’t already, take a moment to ‘like’ my Facebook page, here, and add me on Twitter, here. Lastly, be sure to come back tomorrow, Thursday, July 21 to my blog on building your own neck strap. I built my own based on a design that Chris uses after seeing his neck strap, so be sure to check back tomorrow for supplies and details.
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