Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Stock Market

Up until the time it "crashed" in the mid-1990's, I was a major player in the stock market. The commodity I traded wasn't corn, pork bellies, or soy beans, but black and white sports photographs--and they were in constant demand. With at least a dozen magazines publishing on a weekly, monthly, or yearly basis, an enterprising photographer could make a decent living covering the circuit of major league baseball, basketball, and football focusing on the superstars of the games while not neglecting to capture the rookies and up-and-coming players too. But as printing technology evolved and the preference for color photography increased, the need for these black and white images diminished as well. But regardless of the format or medium that is in vogue today, the characteristics of successful stock sports photographs remains the same.

I believe an effective stock sports photo exhibits three main qualities: it's Ultra-tight, Tack-sharp, and Super-clean. Even though compelling sports action shots command these same elements, stock photos are meant to accomplish a completely different task--they are "sportraits", or singular images highlighting a specific individual engaged in their environment and position. Snapping this type of picture requires isolating the subject with the longest possible lens, the fastest shutter speed with the most shallow depth of field, and the least distracting background conceivable. So by definition, first-rate sports stock photos are simple--to read, to recognize, and to understand--but this simplicity can be deceiving.
An on-going debate remains among sports photographers about the legitimacy of shooting stock images. Some purists maintain the essence of sports photography is freezing a specific moment that embodies the competitive spirit of an event, and that stock images somehow diminish that goal. Having been on both sides of this dispute, I can say this: you can't judge a photo simply by its appearance.

While sports action photography necessitates superior knowledge of the game and the players involved, sports stock photography demands an intuitive familiarity with specific individuals and their behaviors and the subtle nuances that personify their style of play. Both types of pictures present unique challenges for any photographer, and remember--often the most basic "looking" photograph requires the greatest amount of effort.

Saturday, January 20, 2007


I think about photographs as being full or empty. You picture something in the frame and it's got lots of accounting going on in it--stones and buildings and trees and air--but that's not what fills up a frame. You fill up the frame with feelings, energy, discovery, and risk, and leave room enough for someone else to get in there. -Joel Meyerowitz

Framing is a compositional element that is best applied figuratively rather than literally. Although it was once considered avant-garde for a subject to place an actual picture frame around their face, I think this technique has run its course.

In reality, photographers use framing to direct the viewer's attention or focus to the primary subject of a picture. Frames serve a double purpose of creating a more aesthetically pleasing image as well as emphasizing or separating the subject from the rest of the photo. Moreover, they add depth and can be used to obscure undesirable elements from the foreground or background.

Ideally, an element used as a frame should not draw attention to itself, but should relate to the overall theme of the photograph. In these two examples, the frames--though disparate--fulfill these necessary requirements: a cross country runner is surrounded and framed by the environment of his event; and a young girl is entranced and framed by the dolls at a craft show she desperately longs to possess. In both cases, despite the variances of focal length and subject matter, the frames augment the photographs and do not detract from them.

Framing offers photographers a world of possibilities--but remember to save the "real" picture frames for the finished product!

Monday, January 15, 2007


The difference in "seeing" between the eye and the lens should make it obvious that a photographer who merely points his camera at an appealing subject and expects to get an appealing picture in return may be headed for a disappointment.
- Andreas Feininger

Ask anyone who owns a camera and they'll probably tell you photography is all about capturing, freezing, or isolating moments. But often simply "stopping" an instant is not the most effective way to portray it. One alternative requires some experimentation and practice, but once mastered, this compositional element can produce some amazing results.

If you're photographing a moving subject and wish to accentuate or focus on its motion and speed, or you're trapped in a low-light situation where using fast shutter speeds aren't an option, the technique to apply is Panning. The basic idea behind this approach is to track your camera along in time with a moving subject resulting in an image with a sharp(or relatively sharp)main subject but a blurred background. Panning seems to work best with subjects moving along a relatively straight trajectory allowing you to predict where they'll be moving to. Also keep in mind these considerations:

  • Depending upon the light and speed of your subject, shutter speed selection will range from 1/60th to 1/8th of a second. 1/30th seems to be a good starting point, but don't be afraid to experiment with faster/slower speeds.
  • Position yourself in a place free from obstructions and consider the background of your shot, avoiding distracting colors, elements, or shapes.
  • Remain parallel to the path of your subject and track it smoothly as it approaches. Once you've released the shutter, continue to track or follow through with the motion of the subject even after the shot is complete--this will ensure the motion blur is smooth from start to finish.

Another variation to use while panning is incorporating a flash(with a subject in close proximity)as it will further freeze the main subject while imparting the background motion you're after. In this example image, I was assigned to cover a timed shopping event where contestants raced to complete their grocery lists with the hope of winning a free shopping spree. Panning was the perfect device to stress the frenetic pace of the shoppers, and utilizing direct fill flash and a 1/15th shutter speed offered the recipe for success.

It commands patience and practice, and can be equally frustrating and fun, but once it's conquered, Panning is a powerful photographic technique.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Decisive Moment

Inside movement there is one moment in which the elements are in balance. Photography must seize the importance of this moment and hold immobile the equilibrium of it.
-Henri Cartier-Bresson

In life, all moments matter, but in photography, one moment matters most. At the risk of sounding trite, newsphotography is all about capturing this "moment". And while it's an understatement to say that the decisive moment is a key principle of the 15 elements of composition, this visual "instant" should remain easy to identify or define.

Decisive moments in photography are universal and can happen anywhere at any time with any type of subject matter(e.g., features, news, sports, etc.). Henri Cartier-Bresson described them as: "the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression." Simply put, a decisive moment consists of both aesthetic as well as informative elements.

I believe an effective news-photo requires three key components: content, organization, and presentation, and all of these features combine to create a decisive moment. And when it comes to pursuing or recognizing these moments, there is no substitute for knowledge--of your subject.

In this basketball example, thanks to past experience, I knew exactly what to expect and how to freeze this decisive moment on film. With the score tied and only seconds left in the game, when the Chicago Bulls called a time out, I anticipated their next move. Sprinting from the opposite end of the court, I switched to a wide angle lens and composed my picture including the scoreboard, well aware that the ball and outcome would be in Michael Jordan's hands. When his teammates cleared the floor and he drove the lane, it was simply a matter of squeezing off a few frames to document the final shot--or in this case, foul--which led to the free-throws and a Bulls' victory.

Before venturing out or while you're on a photo shoot, take a moment to familiarize yourself or recall/reflect on any significant details about your subject--knowledge can be invaluable, while decisive moments are irreplaceable.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


As we usher in a new year, it's only human nature that our thoughts drift to the past yet speculate about the future. I was eerily reminded of this recently after glancing at novelist George Orwell's 1949 masterwork, 1984.

Barely in my twenties and UPI's Iowa and Nebraska Newspictures Bureau Manager, in 1984, I recall generally pleasant times symbolized by our nation's first female Vice Presidential candidate and a renewed interest in our space program, not to mention my first hot air balloon ride and some awfully hot weather! To me, Orwell's vision of a depressing totalitarian society was simply preposterous.

But twenty-three years worth of sobering reflection later, now I seriously wonder if Orwell possessed psychic powers after all. Just contemplate these "predictions" from his book and consider their accuracy or relevancy today(courtesy of

1984: Newspeak
Today: Politically correct speech

1984: Telescreens in every room. The programming runs 24 hours a day and the proles have no way of turning their screens off.
Today: Televisions in every room. The programming runs 24 hours a day and the proles rarely turn their screens off.

1984: Lotteries with very few(if any)winners, held just to collect income for the state and to give hope to the masses.
Today: Lotteries with very few(if any)winners, held just to collect income for the state and to give hope to the masses.

1984: Ministry of Peace
Today: Department of Defense

1984: People are steered away from consuming rare goods such as chocolate, steak, sugar, coffee, cigarettes, and alcohol by rationing.
Today: People are steered away from consuming rare goods such as chocolate, steak, sugar, coffee, cigarettes, and alcohol by warnings that declare these items are bad for your health.

1984: There is always war. If peace is made with one country, war is claimed on another nation to keep the military machine rolling.
Today: There is always war. If peace is made with one country, war is claimed(or threatened)on another nation to keep the military machine rolling.

1984: Songs are created by machines. This is done to make sure nobody can take credit for songs, or write songs not in line with Ingsoc.
Today: Songs are created by synthesizers. Nobody can realistically take credit for their own songs because most are re-mixes or a collage of dubs from other people's music.

In 2007, that's some food for thought!