Monday, August 23, 2010

Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.

Tattoo Man, 2010

Allison and I had a brief e-mail exchange the other day about the camera equipment we carry with us. She described how free she’d felt when she left her camera bag filled with every piece of camera equipment she owns at home and instead gone on a trip with just her camera and a single 50mm lens.

I described how I carry a backpack full of lens, filters, spare batteries, chargers, cleaning supplies, a backup storage drive and a backup camera when I travel for vacation. But when I’m on a business trip and don’t want to add an extra ounce to my load I, too, reduce the pile to a single camera and single lens. The camera’s always hanging over my shoulder, always at hand.

I’ll probably always carry the whole bag of tricks when I have the luxury of a car to carry it in. But more often than not, I’ve found that having the flexibility of having all that extra equipment with me translates into fewer shots rather than more. In many cases the moment I was trying to capture will have passed while I was fumbling around in the bag for just the right lens.

(As I wrote that, I remembered that I’ve started carrying two cameras, one with a long lens and one with a shorter, wider one, when I shoot parades. So maybe all isn’t lost. But I mean, really, how often do you shoot parades? And just how pretentious do you want to look, Mr. Two Cameras Man?)

The larger point is this: one of the things I’m trying to train myself to do a better job of is forgetting about thinking before I take a picture. That probably sounds counterintuitive, especially if you’re a photographer who is big on careful arrangement of the scenes you photograph. Now that I think about it, I recall hearing photojournalists who cover wars and other tragic events describe how they have to shut down their thinking processes and become almost mechanical about shooting what they see in front of them. If they stop to consider a horrific war scene, the moment will have passed. If they stop to take in the human toll of an earthquake, they’ll be too emotionally involved to do their job.

As a rule, I face no wars and few natural calamities in the course of my photography. I can think of a half dozen times, though, in the last year when I’ve missed good pictures because I waited too long to take them. That car full of Goth kids who lifted their tops to provoke me, for example. While I stood there thinking about how I wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of acting out in front of me, I should have taken the picture and worried about the morals later on. And then there was the young couple I saw on the street embracing after a fight. It was a sweet emotional instance of young love that many people can identify with. I should have taken the picture right that second rather than be drawn into the tenderness of the moment (especially since two minutes later they were back to fighting again).

In both of these cases I could have easily deleted the photographs later on if I decided they were too provocative or too invasive of the subjects’ privacy. But since I never took them I didn’t have that choice. No one lost in this proposition but me.

Tattoo Man, above, is another good example. I saw this old man walking down the oceanfront boardwalk recent. His chest and arms are covered with tattoos, made only more interesting by his age and a generally hostile facial expression. I wanted to ask him to let me take a full portrait shot of him that would include all the tats as well as his facial expression. But I waited too long and when I finally got my act together for permission his wife was yelling at him to “get the f*** back to the car so we can get the f*** out of here!”

Just take the picture. Think about it later.


  1. and yet you get so many great shots anyhow. still, words of wisdom from which i trust you'll profit in future. from now on, take no prisoners in getting the perfect shot - you know, "go to the mattresses!" (sorry, it's the only other godfather line i know.)

  2. Too funny. You got a great shot regardless: It's still a great shot of his arm and I still get a good feel for him from that "free refills" sign there, as well as his hat, and his companion, etc. Classic.

  3. What was my wife doing yelling at that old guy? I don't know enough about photography yet to worry much about composure. Usually I'm just making the frame counter rattle like a machine gun while trying to capture that "one good shot". I worry about what I've shot during editing and it sounds like that may be a good thing.

  4. No matter how effortless the shot could be, I still haven't mastered the art of asking someone to take their photo. I'll always dream about the shot that got away....