How to Shoot People (and Places and Things)

After flailing around for about a year and a half with my Nikon D70 digital SLR camera, I resolved several months ago to finally take a proper class and learn how to use it for real. I found one that suited me at New York University: “Digital Photography Shooting Workshop,” taught by Joseph O. Holmes of the noted photoblog Joe’s NYC. As its title implies, the course allows me to forgo any education about the chemical processing of traditional photographic film — I have zero interest in that — and focus on shooting, handling the camera and responding to different shooting environments. Perfect.

Class meets twice a week: on Saturday afternoons, we make our way to select spots around New York City and take photos, with Holmes giving impromptu talks along the way. Then we choose five selects from those shots and review them, unmanipulated by Photoshop or any other process, in a group critique on Wednesday nights. It’s a short course lasting only about a month, and I’ve just come back from my first Wednesday night.

Photographic Evidence

Below: Click on each photo to see larger sizes at Flickr.

I took about two hundred photos last Saturday, but when it came down to it, I was surprised to find how few I really felt worthy of presentation. The first two I showed in class this evening — a close-up of water exiting a drain pipe, and a shot of a signal light on an elevated subway track — were technically passable but artistically bland. More than anything, they’re examples of my modest competency in selective focus and the one-third/two-thirds rule for composing pictures, but little else. The more I learn about photography, the less interested I am in close-ups that fetishize surface textures, and the less impressed I am by well composed but basically inert subjects that don’t communicate a narrative of any particular stripe. These are two fine examples of what I don’t want to do.

Close-up of Water Exiting a Drain Pipe
Signal Light on Subway Elevated Tracks

Things get more interesting in the third picture, an overhead shot of a parking lot seen from an elevated subway platform in Brooklyn. I really like this one a lot, mostly because its story is at once both hidden at the edge (the tiny little car at the top) and out in the open (the numbering on the parking slots that isn’t immediately apparent as a significant factor in the story). It’s like a portrait of the only guy who had to work on a Saturday afternoon, and how they wouldn’t even give him a numbered parking spot.

Parking Lot

Unlike many of the other shots for which I snapped sometimes dozens of pictures on Saturday, I snapped only one of these photos, and even then almost as an afterthought. It never occurred to my conscious brain that a shot of a parking lot could be as interesting as this one turned out to be. And it’s something of a fluke that it came out properly at all; I have to give myself a little pat on the back for instinctively composing that shot, really, because there wasn’t a heck of a lot of intentional framing involved. I just aimed the camera and pushed the button.

What this photo teaches me, more than anything, is that I have to look more closely when I’m shooting, that the kinds of stories I like to capture often require keenly observing the scene and interpreting what’s in front of my eyes. I feel quite lucky that I managed to take this photo at all; had I been even fractionally less engaged, I would have missed it altogether.

My fourth photo was a similar stroke of good luck; I almost don’t even remember taking it. I stepped halfway out of the subway car, just before the doors began to close, so I composed and shot the picture very quickly. I was a little surprised to see it in my ‘roll’ when I reviewed my shots at home; I wasn’t even sure if I had actually taken it myself. But I’m happy with its stark duality, its one-third/two-thirds composition, its dramatic perspective, and especially the way it suggests different worlds inside and outside of the subway car. That woman’s hand over her mouth on the left side of the composition kind of makes the whole thing for me.

Interior and Exterior of a Subway Car

The last photo is an example of the kind of picture that I’m always trying to take but rarely succeed at pulling off… and this is another case of well-intentioned failure. It has plenty of the kind of elements that, for me, make for interesting photos: off-center composition, suggestive video monitors, a human element glimpsed through industrial trappings, and a face that tells a thousands stories even from a distance. But I just couldn’t compose it properly, and I just couldn’t manage to bring it into focus before she left the frame… still, I find it far more interesting than the first two.

Woman in a Subway Station

Finally, here’s a sixth photo that I didn’t show in class, but that I probably should have. It’s more of a joke than anything, really, and not much of a photographic feat. But it’s more entertaining, at least, than either of the first two. I shot it at a parking lot (not the same one that’s shown in my fourth photo, above) way out in Red Hook, Brooklyn:

Most Wanted Parking Spot

Seriously, though, did anyone think to look for him here, at his parking spot?

  1. I’m definitely interested to see how your photos change over the course of the class. Will have to investigate whether there’s a similar sort of class ’round here.

    Of the last four, I like the lonsesome parking lot shot best. (:

  2. Excellent work, I’ve recently got my hands on a Canon 350D and I’m looking to hone my photographic skills with a course too.

    I love the parking lot shot and the one of the lights by the railway tracks

  3. I just got a 350D as well. In some ways it’s a step backwards (but only in a good way) — I used to use an old Pentax SLR camera. Then I got a small point & shoot digital and stopped using film. The P&S has been great for liberating me to take as many photos as I like, but it’s a great relief now to go back to an SLR and rediscover the joys of focus and composition.

    Can I offer some constructive criticism? I’m by no means an expert, but I think one “problem” with the first two shots is that they’re not offering much that differs from what anyone might see with their own eyes.

    I agree about narrative: it’s something to strive for in photography because it makes your image more than just light passing through glass. Your parking lot shot is a winner because of it. But I don’t think every photo must tell a story. Good photos can also offer you an unusual or fresh perspective on something commonplace. Those first two images seem cramped to me, as if they were cropped too closely. I want to see what else is going on. I think both would benefit from showing more of the scene, either from stepping back (assuming you don’t fall of the train tracks. :)), or from using a wider lens.

    Some people might consider it a cheap gimmick, but using a wide-angle lens lets you keep your main subject in the foreground while showing a lot of background. For inanimate objects that don’t have much to say I find this sort of perspective can still offer the viewer something new.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing! As a fellow amateur photographer, I find it very interesting to hear about someone else’s experience trying to improve their in-camera technique. Too many people these days are talking about megapixels or how to use Photoshop. Like you, I’m more interested in the actual shooting process.

  4. Great post, Khoi. I feel like I’m in the same situation with you, right down to the D70.

    I just posted too many photos from a recent trip to DC and your comment on the story being told at the edge of the photo is really interesting. After too many photos of DC monuments, I happened to take one with “a story” happening at the edge. I need to think about this more as I shoot. Or maybe easier, as I edit.

    I’ll keep checking in on your progress. I think I’ll look into taking a similar class.

  5. “Shooting from the hip” I suppose is how it is. I definitely strive to convey either a sense of emotion or a narrative. What story are you trying to tell? I always come back to this in whatever it is I’m doing.

    Oddly enough, I had seen those on your Flickr account and those were the ones that jumped out at me. And I commented as such. Nice stuff!

  6. I like where you’re going with that! I’ve often found that my very favorite photos are the happy accidents, where I was trying to take one photo and something intruded in the frame (or was there and I didn’t notice until later) that brings the story together.

    I have a strong tendency when I’m choosing and framing photos to try to “tell the whole story” in one shot (as opposed to capturing a detail or an abstract), which more often than not fails, but every now and then I get something really surprising that keeps me shooting.

    Love that Nikony texture by the way – the way the D70 gets those soft muted gray tones is perfect for NY scenes.

  7. When making pictures, I’ve found the most important thing to keep in mind is this phrase/question/concept: “What is the picture about?

    It’s a kind of home base for me.

    Also, you probably know about Garry Winogrand, but I thought I’d mention him, just in case . . .

  8. I think you should crop the parking lot one a little, take that distracting thing off the top. I actually like the first two the most though. But Im no photographer.

  9. I think it’s easy to ignore, but the truth is any visual form, even the most “abstract” has the potential for narrative. Any image is representation, because something, even a close surface, is re-presented. I think the question of a “good” or “powerful” or “interesting” image has nothing to with what the image shows and what it doesn’t. But rather what the shown image is, itself, and how. Everything we do is drenched in narrative, it’s just that some photos don’t do a good job of letting that be known. Show me an image of a single drop of water, and show it in the right place, at the right time, and you’ve got some powerful human narrative. Otherwise, it’s just a fetishized surface texture.

  10. I think you hit the nail on the head in many aspects, here. And I’m really glad you’re learning and growing. The narrative is so hard to capture at times, and perhaps your discovery of this will cement your name in the future of the Street Photography genre, who knows?

    Either way, it’s always interesting, and while there’s often little differenciation or unique styling in close-ups or very staid shots, you can place your bets on Street Photography to let your personality really shine.

  11. “The more I learn about photography, the less interested I am in close-ups that fetishize surface textures, and the less impressed I am by well composed but basically inert subjects that don’t communicate a narrative of any particular stripe.”

    That basically sums up my feelings towards the photoblogging world. Seems like people ooh-and-ahh over anything that’s shot with shallow depth of field, cross processed, or is an extreme macro, but nobody cares about planning, composition, and narrative. I think it’s the whole “happy accident” wake left from the Holga/Lomo fad.

  12. Congratulations on taking the course. It sounds like a good, structured way to improve your photography.
    I’m primarily a street shooter, shooting Tokyo streets at night. What I’ve realized is that there are a few stages to getting good photographs:

    The first is light. To control light, you need to have complete technical competence with your equipment—your camera settings need to become reflexive and nearly subconscious. Fortunately, this technical skill is easily mastered with a few weeks or months of practice. Turn off all of the camera’s automatic features and let your eye and your fingers learn to do the work. Buy a handheld incident light meter. Learn how simple light really is.

    The next stage is seeing. A photographer needs to see the scene thoroughly and think about composition and focus. To learn this, I’ve found that nothing beats a short prime lens and manual focus. Autofocus coerces you into becoming a sniper, finding your subject in one of a few pre-set focus points and firing away like it was a video game. Turn off the autofocus, put the camera to your eye and really look through it, concentrating on the whole frame. Where you may have initially decided to take a picture of a person on a rainy cobblestone street, you may find that giving a bit of the focus to the foreground (at the expense of the subject’s focus) may give you a more interesting overall picture.
    Again, you need to instinctively know speed and aperture settings to be in control of this.

    The next stage is dialog. Every great photograph tells some story, visually. Take a photo that lets me know what was in your heart and your mind when you took it and it will be a good photo. Tell me, with your photo, what it feels like to stand on a train platform in 2006 and you will have a worthwhile photo. Aspire to take photographs that can stand completely on their own.

    Somewhere after all of these stages comes virtuosity. When you’ve transcended your equipment and transcended your surroundings and can make a great photo, seemingly out of the most mundane subject, with whatever camera is at hand, you have likely achieved it.

    Best of luck, I look forward to seeing what you do.

  13. All this makes me feel timid because I don’t have an SLR but rather a four year old point and shoot digital. Looking at great pictures and hearing how they’re taken really pushes it home that there’s a world of technical mastery in there that for now I can’t access. But when the light is good (night is completely useless for me) and I can pick my shots, I think I’m learning something. Certainly, it is better to shoot than to sit about and grumble while I dream of pro equipment!

    Good luck on your skills.

  14. I really liked your website. I’m just learning how to use blogs, so I found your site on a random search. Wow! I was so interested by your introduction that I consumed your pictures and the rest of your comments. I like the first parking lot shot the best.

    Sarasota, FL

  15. I think your first 2 pictures are actually better. I took a Photography Class at UCLA Extension and she encouraged us to frame our photos. Your 4 pictures after the first two are too crooked and they don’t capture the moments that you explain well. If you really want to make them look good, try cropping and adjusting in photoshop.

    Also, my instructor at UCLA had us use 35mm film. I think that’s more interesting to a certain extent when you are trying to learn more about photography. We had to go to photolabs to develop our film and we had to print our own black and white. I think with digital sometimes, you don’t get that type of cropping and perfection that you push for with a 35 mm camera.

    Try 35 mm and then try digital….

  16. ^I agree. I’m loving the first two images as well.

    the course allows me to forgo any education about the chemical processing of traditional photographic film — I have zero interest in that — and focus on shooting,

    I wish the Film classes they offer here are like that as well. I hate thinking of the hours I’ve spent on the dark room when I should have been out taking photographs instead! LOL.

  17. Don’t think about perfection. Think about doing:

    Don’t think, just do:

    And beware too many technical aspects:

    While you’re at it: the story about the pottery class (on Paul Butzi’s site) is from

    David Bayles, Ted Orland: Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking

    A very good book I recommend to read – if not now, then one day.

    It’s your art, not theirs.

    Art is your way to interact with the world. Even if you’re not seeing your photography as art, it still is. And it’s still your’s. And the rules you are trying to follow are not.

    Follow your heart. And good light!

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