•COMING IN SEPTEMBER, 2015•

Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry

by Emery Roth

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Shooting People


Shooting people is tough. The sniper stalks his prey unnoticed and must make settings and compose in an instant. Alternately, he must ensnare his subjects with charm and wit, coaxing them into complicity in the finished composition. In either case, he strives to harmonize foreground and background, include supporting "actors," exclude distractions, determine appropriate depth of field, watch for hot spots that will be blown out, and all before expression or gesture of the primary subject is lost. At all of this I am a rank amateur, a beginner. Too often the prey got away. I'm much better at shooting bottles. This was the greatest challenge I faced at the Rockport workshop. I think most of my colleages at the workshop felt similarly.

Frank LaVelle, our instructor prepared us expertly and then took us to the Thomaston, July 4th festival and parade, a place where people did outrageous things, wore outrageous costumes and expected to be photographed. The best shooting was at the staging before the parade, but it was clear from the moment I began that I needed to think and to use my camera very differently. I'm used to shooting manually, but if I tried to set shutter speed and f-stop for each shot, the shot would be long gone before I ever pulled the trigger. As I had switched to a new camera 2 or 3 weeks before the workshop, I didn't even remember how to switch it to aperture or shutter priority. Once in shutter speed priority, aperture is then set automatically, but one must use exposure compensation to cope with very bright or very dark scenes. This was in the same place as on my old camera, but I'd forgotten where that was. (Heck, until this assignment I didn't understand why anyone would prefer exposure compensation over manual adjustment.) And, of course, one must be aware of aperture to get the desired amount of background blurring or sharpness. I got some quick help from a colleague with a similar camera and was on my way, but with parade staging chaos all around me and new shooting technique, I found myself very quickly in overload.

The real lesson occurred some hours later when I reviewed the 400 or so shots I'd taken. Amazingly, almost all were properly exposed. That does not mean that there were many images I liked. Reviewing them made me aware of pieces of Frank's prep that I had not made use of. I spent much of my time wandering around looking for shots. I engaged lots of people in conversation as directed, but I never went to the next step of moving them around to put them in front of supporting backgrounds and setting up my composition. Only rarely did I spot a supporting background character. In spite of all, I found enough useful images to make a showing at our review crit the next day, and it was reassuring to see that most of my workshop colleagues felt as I did.

Well, that's why I chose this workshop, to stretch me into new territory, and the 4th of July festival was a great place to do it. Since leaving the workshop, I've begun challenging myself occasionally to engage people in my shots, but I'm still happier shooting bottles.