This past weekend I was hired to photograph a party at a private home. I find this sort of casual atmosphere a very challenging photo assignment because it is hard to elevate the work beyond a snapshot unless you really understand photojournalism and storytelling. Even if you do understand those things it is still hard because it takes timing to get the magic in your photographs. That last aspect is a lot like baseball where the batter has a simple tool (the bat) and has a simple task (hitting the ball) but needs lots and lots of practice to get the timing right and will still fail 3 out of 4 times. That is what this assignment was like for me.
I was hired to be there for four hours. After the first hour of walking around and photographing all the guest you really have to get creative. As I went through the images I realized that I absolutely loved doing this work because it required tremendous concentration and visual problem solving to make engaging photographs. First of all I needed to be on full alert to pay attention to the gestures and expressions of the people I was photographing so I could capture the right moment.
This got me thinking about how important it is to come up with image rules before you start shooting. The clients hired me to document their event and the goal was to not do posed photos but to tell an authentic story about the fun celebration that was happening at their house. In order to accomplish this I knew I had to focus on gesture and expression and try not to be intrusive.
After photographing for an hour using my 50mm lens which is my favorite storytelling lens I had essentially photographed everybody at the event. What was I going to to do for the next three hours? I ended up photographing the party in three waves of image making. The first wave was to photograph using the normal lens in a manner similar to Henri Cartier-Bresson. The second wave of images involved photographing with a 24mm wide angle lens. I got really excited about this because not only was I using a lens that belonged to my father from over 40 years ago on my new Nikon dSLR camera body but I was also able to set the lens for hyperfocal distance and know that I could get everything in focus from about 3 feet in front of me to infinity. With that in mind I started playing with high vantage point images as well as getting pretty close to the people I was photographing.
The third wave of images involved grabbing my 75-200mm lens and taking telephoto shots without people being aware of me at all. I was inspired by the great soviet era photojournalist Leonid Bergoltsev who believedf that for photojournalism to have any truth the subject could not be aware of the camera. I set my lens to 200mm and grabbed tight shots of the faces as well.
Finally, the other aspect of all of this that I found profound was the fact that with digital photography I didn't feel limited in the number of shots. In the early days of my career I would have limited myself to 200 frames of film because the client would never pay for more film processing and printing! With digital photography I can shoot through the moment and capture a sequence of images that I then can select the peak moment to publish.
For four hours on a saturday night a danced and weaved around the crowed house and back yard to make my photographs. As I look at the combination of images from the night I am extremely happy with the results and with the ongoing learning that happens when I take on any new assignment.