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In The Practicing Photographer, photographer and teacher Ben Long shares a weekly serving of photographic instruction and inspiration. Each installment focuses on a photographic shooting scenario, a piece of gear, or a software technique. Each installment concludes with a call to action designed to inspire you to pick up your camera (or your mouse or smartphone) to try the technique for yourself.
I travel a lot, sometimes it's for fun, sometimes it's work related. But I find myself in a lot of different towns, a lot of different places. You'd think that as a photographer that means wow it's just one shooting opportunity after another. And it is, it's just I don't always take advantage of it. How many times have you experienced this thing you, you, find yourself in a new town, and you've got your camera with you, but you're dealing with your car and you're checking into your hotel, and you're doing whatever business you have to do. And then you're getting your car back and you're trying to find parking and you're driving around and you're paying tolls and you're doing all this stuff and you realize, wow, I didn't take any pictures.
That happens to me a lot. And, just earlier today, my friend Troy Word and I were driving around. Troy is a great photographer. Predominantly a portrait and fashion photographer. And we were out in Southwestern Oklahoma. We'd had breakfast in a small town and left, and we hadn't taken any pictures. We realize, you know, we ought to go back and shoot. And this came out, largely Troy, because you had seen a waitress at the restaurant that you thought you wanted to shoot. So, you really were on a mission. I wasn't so much.
>> When we came back to this town, it was the middle of the day, the light was lousy, and we really had this idea that well, we're going to come outta here with some pictures. So Troy, I want to talk to you first about, about your approach. We both got out of the car, but you already had an idea. You were going to go find this waitress. I was just in an existential photographic haze. But What did you do? What, first of all why did this waitress catch your eye? >> Well it it's, it's interesting here. I think there's, a real, beauty to the people in this area of Oklahoma.
I, it's really difficult to describe because I feel like it's different than other parts of Oklahoma. And it's just, a very simple, unselfconscious prairie beauty you know, that people have down here. So, it was you know we had breakfast and she just had this sort of like, you know, I don't know, just a very simple unfussy beauty about her. And, I thought she'd be an interesting portrait subject. Plus this location is just fantastic, it's like, you know, a Hollywood movie set, or you know the dusty Oklahoma town, you know, diner, hamburger joint, you know.
She's the proverbial waitress, and you know, hamburger joint in Oklahoma. So it was the perfect situation, so. That was my mission. >> Now, most people are terrified by the idea of walking up to a total stranger and asking to take their picture. I think there's also, an additional gender thing going on. If you're a man walking up and asking a woman to take your picture. You're worried about, is she, think I'm being a creep or whatever. You don't seem to have those concerns. Did you, had you sensed something in her, or would you do this with anybody? >> Not at all. You never know what the reaction's going to get.
The key is to just be smiling, open, friendly, you know, I mean it is intimidating. I find it intimidating, because I think photographers in general, we tend to like, to hide behind our instrument which is the camera, we like to look at the world through, you know, that one point of view, and in a way, that's our barrier to the world. So in these situations, you have to get past the camera and really go interact with people. >> Hey, how are you? >> Good. Thank you. >> I'm Troy. >> Dana, nice to meet you. >> Dana, how are you? >> Good.
>> I'm here in town and I'm doing some pictures of some of the people here in Mangum. >> Okay. >> And I think this place is amazing and I was wondering if it be possible that I could shoot your portrait. >> Absolutely. Yeah. Sure. >> Alright, great. I love the way that the hamburger shop looks right outside. Would you. >> We do it right out from here? >> Yeah, would you mind coming out with me to do that? >> Sure, let's go. >> All right, great. >> The inside of that restaurant is very interesting. You pulled her outside. >> Yeah. There's, you know, just this, sort of, lunch counter area that just looks like it's from 1935, you know.
And I just love, there's so few locations like this, anymore, that aren't constructed for a movie set. I just thought it was extraordinary. I mean, we could have shot inside as well. It would have been a completely different feel to the images. It would have been much darker, you know, much moodier. But I just love this bright light, and it just sort of really lit up her face. She had, you know, a really beautiful, open face, and we had this beautiful fill light coming from underneath, almost like if we were in a studio, you know. Sort of filling with these broad sources of light which always really make people just look amazing, because you get all this light bouncing back off of them.
And, and it's, it's a really luminous look. >> Now you were getting that fill light from a reflector? >> No it was coming off of the street. >> Oh just coming off the street? Oh great, okay. >> And you know obviously I think in a real world situation, where you don't have reflectors and you don't have light modifiers, you have to find these locations and think about that. You know, the street was great because it was a neutral reflector. It put beautiful, white light into her eyes and opened up her face. If that was a green lawn it probably would've been horrible. >> Yeah. >> Because it would have put all this green, you know, reflected in, so.
We were shooting black and white you know, it wouldn't have affected that situation. But I think you have to look for these spots where you have this sort of magical kind of light. And if the light's very high, it's usually some sort of overhang, with some sort of. >> Okay, with reflected light. >> Yeah, reflected fill light coming in. And it can be really quite, quite stunning. It's a beautiful way to do portraits. >> Now you were shooting black and white. If you had been shooting color, would you have made the same choice for a location? >> I don't know. I might have tended to shoot inside, because you know, everything is so bright and sun bleached out there, it might not have really read quite as dramatically on color, but the black and whites sort of intense, intensifies and it adds to this sort of nostalgic feel.
You know it, except for the modern t shirt she had on, I mean it could have been a picture from 1935, you know, and you know that, you have to think about that as well. You know, when you're shooting color, black and white, when you're shooting film obviously. Digitally, every picture basically is a color picture, you just manipulate it to black and white. >> If, if what attracted you to her as a subject was her lack of self consciousness, now you've put her in front of a camera, what do you do to keep her from going into her head and becoming self conscious? >> You, I mean, I think you have to be a little mini-psychologist.
You have to sort of feel out your subject and see what they're going to respond to or not respond to, I mean. >> Did you do that before the process of shooting, or during? >> Yeah, yeah. You know, just talk. Talk about the weather. Talk about where you from? You know I mean, there's a lot of things that you can do to just sort of, like. You know, it such an uncomfortable process being photographed and you know, the more you can sort of let the subject forget all of the mechanisms of taking the picture, I always think, the better. The only other thing that is really important is like making sure that first picture looks great, because if you can create that amazing image the first time then you have them.
You know, then they'll do whatever you want. You know, this is particularly true with celebrities you know that I've learned. It's like, doesn't matter if that's the way your going to do what you intend on doing, just make sure the first picture looks amazing. If the first picture looks amazing, then you have them, because everybody wants beautiful pictures. >> It keeps their confidence up. >> Yeah. I mean, they're confident. I mean, you know. It's, it is. I mean, people are very self-conscious, and, of course that's what I loved about the people of Mangum. They seem completely unselfconscious. >> If you were shooting digital, would you be showing her images as you went along? >> Would you show her images any time? >> I prefer not to show images but sometimes it's a confidence building thing.
You know? Because I think everybody, you know the thing I've learned shooting a lot of models, no matter how beautiful someone is there's something they hate about themselves and it's the only thing they see. >> It's the way their bridge of their nose, there's a bump, or there's a tiny, you know crook to the edge of their mouth, and that's what they obsess with. That's the only thing they see in an image. I mean it would be interesting to see an illustration of what it looks like when they look at the picture. It's like. >> The size of the bump. >> Everything blurry except for the bump on their nose. It's like, you know, so you know, I find it's better not to show your subject the picture, because they're going to change their performance.
What you're trying to do is get a certain look, out of the subject. They may be fighting you because they say well, I'm only good from the right side, so they're only going to give you that angle. So you know, it's, do it if you have to, but if you don't have to, why do it, because it's, it's more likely to create a problem than it is to to help the session. >> So once you were shooting her, did you give her any direction or anything or did you just let her lead? >> Yeah. Part of the, you know, the problem with this really strong light when you're in a diffused situation like that is, there's still really strong light that they're looking at, so it's very difficult to open eyes.
>> And then she's squinting. >> Yeah, so the first couple of frames in fact, with polaroids, we pulled she was blinking or, or the eyes were closed. So I, you know, one of the techniques I used is just, get in position, relax, close your eyes completely, on the count of three, just open your eyes. And usually, that'll work. If you can get them in a relaxed state, close their eyes, and literally all they're doing is opening their eyes. Usually you can get one or two frames off that'll just be that moment you want, you know, because you're just trying to get that moment of you know, I don't know what it is.
You know, some connection with the subject through the eyes. >> They're not blinded when they open their eyes back up into the light? >> They are eventually, but you can get two or three frames, you know. >> Yeah. All we care about is our pictures, right? >> Right. >> She's seeing spots the rest of the day. >> Yeah. >> You got great stuff. Were you pleased? I think they look great. >> Yeah, yeah. I mean I, it was exactly what I kind of envisioned. It was sort of a portrait of this sort of you know, proverbial diner and this proverbial waitress in rural Oklahoma. It's you know, it was great. >> That's great. And this is a very easy thing for you to get out of the car with an idea to do.
>> Yeah. >> Even if you haven't already spotted the waitress. Say, wow I like that diner. I'm going to go see if someone in there will, will give me a portrait. It's a really nice way of coming out of a location you've never been in and weren't expecting to shoot in with a picture. I went the opposite direction. I decided, all right. I'm just going to wander around town and see what I can find, and I, I think I made a decision at the beginning of, I'm not expecting to find anything, which doesn't mean, and so there's a happy ending where I find something. It means that the goal is no longer about getting a picture, its just about practice. And I tried to settle into that, so I shot, first I was just seeing shadows and cracks in the sidewalk and textury things and so I shot those.
And then I found these weird dolls in a window in plastic bags that were kind of creepy. And just all sorts of weird little small town things. I think the, I think the trick is to understand that you don't always, and maybe this is true even if you're going to go shoot a portrait of someone, you don't always have to go out going, all right, I must come back with a good picture. A musician doesn't pick up their instrument and every time say, I must perfectly play this concerto. They know there is value in simply practicing and simply playing. And it was good for me to, after a day of driving, and not really being in a shooting space, to go right.
I need to go reattach myself to shooting, and, and remind myself of that. Do you feel that sometimes even with portrait stuff, that not every portrait always comes back a winner? >> No, of course. I mean, you know, I mean I wish it was true, that everyone was a winner. But it's not, you know. I mean, because you're also dealing with human beings, you know, I mean sometimes they're in a bad mood or you know. Either you're or they're affected by their emotions. Of course, you can use that. >> Right. >> Depending on you know, my favorite picture, I think, of Marilyn Monroe ever is the Avedon where she just looks incredibly sad.
You know? And I'm sure that wasn't the intention but it just happened and it's like. You know sadness can be incredibly powerful too depending on, you know, what you're looking for. >> What you're going for, yeah. I think it's tricky as photographers because we produce what always appear to be finished perfect results even if they're flawed and so. It's really easy to go, well, I've got all these bad pictures. Remember, it's okay to just be practicing. It's okay to just be trying things. So I would challenge you, get in your car and head out to some small town you've never been in before and try either one of these approaches.
Troy got out of the car with a really directed idea of going and getting a portrait. Doesn't have to be a portrait, you could say, I'm going to go take pictures of dogs or fire hydrants or whatever. Give yourself some kind of focus just to narrow down the complexity of the world. Or, get out and go, heh, I don't know, I'm not feeling anything. I'm just going to go shoot and I'm not going to worry about it. I'm just here to practice. And I think either one of those approaches might get you out of your head a little bit, and get you more back into the seeing space that makes for good photos.
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