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Guest Post: Know Your Subject - A Critical Element

5/27/2015 ISO 1200 Magazine 0 Comments

Many people think that professional photography is all about having the right equipment and an "eye" for framing the picture. While both of those might be true, there is another aspect that is probably the most difficult to master - understanding the subject.

What gives excellent photography true depth is when the photographer has a concept of what the final result should say about the subject and how to bring out the qualities that might not be readily apparent. The trick, therefore, is getting fully involved in the subject to really understand those qualities and how best to represent them through the medium of photography. As you might imagine, this process is extremely difficult as subjects can be completely different. 

Poker Photography 

The old adage that it takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master is true both for photography and for the game of poker. For professional players, learning the rules is only the starting point and strategy can go as deep as you want it to go, with the top names in the game spending countless hours analyzing how they played hands and how their decision making skills could be improved. The same can be said about professional photographers as they continue to develop their abilities and conceive different and better ways to frame the same image. 

Being a seemingly actionless game where players pride themselves on having a "poker face" and showing no emotion during times of stress, it would seem nearly impossible for photographers to find opportunities to create meaningful images during play. However, that's exactly what Joe Giron has done, catching glimpses of players that have let their emotional guard down, if only for a second. Based in Las Vegas, Giron has built a reputation of being the go-to guy for poker events across the globe and one of the few that can capture the proverbial thrill of victory and agony of defeat. His images are some of the most published poker and gambling content in the world. 

Also, when talking about poker photography, it certainly helps to know your subjects. An old anecdote involves one of the earliest poker photographers who toured around high stakes cash games and tournaments in the 1970s to try and sell professional photos to big name pros. With the results being quite good, many of the players asked to buy them for their own personal collection. The photographer asked for $20, but no one bought a single picture. Later, he jokingly asked for $100 and immediately sold his first photo. Word got out quickly and soon many players were seeking the photographer out for $100 per photo. What was his mistake? Because the high stakes players never carried anything less than a $100 bill, the price of $20 was absurd to them. Once he understood that simple fact, he was able to capitalize on his photographic talents. 

Landscape Photography 

It may be one of the first subjects that budding photographers learn, but landscape images can also be the trickiest. Without a human face or figure, conveying emotion can be extremely difficult and identifying the correct intangible values to focus on is a monumental task. There are some obvious examples, such as the movement of a river, but others like the loneliness of a cliff can be harder to translate with only an image. The best landscape photographers are those that are able to imbue their subjects with personification, inserting human values into a non-human image. 

One of the most celebrated landscape photographers of all time was Ansel Adams, whose images of primarily the western half of the United States have become iconic representations of Yosemite National Park and other famous spots. Capturing the vastness and majesty of mountains, deserts, and fields over the course of many decades, Adams developed the Zone System, a technique that is still used by photographers today.

One common tip from professional landscape photographers is to make sure to balance the background with a foreground interest point, thus giving the viewer two separate stories to contemplate that should be unified with a common vision. Lighting is also especially important when dealing with landscapes, which means if you want to get the perfect shot, it could translate to waiting long hours or getting up very early to catch the sun in the optimal position. In many cases, this means research about a particular spot and several visits to develop a more intimate knowledge and understanding of the place. From that base, you'll know the best time of day and the right conditions for getting the image you want. 

Live Sports Photography 

In the blink of an eye, the perfect image can be lost. Professional sports moves at a blinding pace and hesitating for even a fraction of a second can cause a photographer to miss the critical moment of a memorable play. Photography blogs abound with stories of how close a photographer came to capturing an amazing play, but how just the tiniest timing error produced an unusable photo. While top level gear is almost a necessity for sports photographers, even more important is knowing how it feels to be an athlete and what emotions to bring out in your subjects. 

Eric Refner is one of the top names in the sports photography game and with good reason. His unique style and a famous 2001 image from the Copenhagen marathon vaulted him into a deal with providing the images for a global Nike campaign. Coming from a sports background and competing in pentathlons, Refner knows firsthand the trials and tribulations that an athlete goes through during the course of competition. Perhaps that's why many of his photos have an almost grotesque and surreal feel that greatly influences the emotional reaction of the viewer. Because Refner is able to fully understand the sports environment, he is able to put his own spin on a very difficult and complicated subject. 

Assuming you've got equipment that can handle sports photography, a good tip is to look for creative ways to frame the image. We all know the typical photo of an athlete, sweat on the brow and muscles bulging, but is there a different angle that would aid in bringing out a hidden characteristic that might be just below the surface? Rafa Nadal is famous as a subject and many photos of the tennis star focus on the inner anger that drive his competitive spirit. Also, remember that the audience is as much a part of the sporting event as the athletes themselves. Many times, framing a shot with the audience in the background can bring a new feeling to an otherwise ordinary image of an athlete in action. 

Travel Photography 

When we look at travel photos, we have an inherent desire to see something exotic, something that separates us from them, here from there. With many places already being explored, even faraway destinations like the Notre Dame in Paris can take on a comfortable feel. How does the travel photographer bring something new to the canon of already documented places instead of the requisite crystal-clear waters of a gorgeous beach or monuments that have been photographed literally millions of times? While some less-traveled locations will certainly provide their own inspiration, that is the dilemma that many travel photographers face on a regular basis. 

A modern example of a travel photographer that is able to marry the comfort of a familiar image with the same foreign feeling is Murad Osmann. By using his girlfriend as a live prop leading him by the hand, his series of Follow Me images quickly gained a worldwide following. Even though many of the images are of classic spots, what Osmann adds is a touch of variation (clothing, fingernail polish, angles, etc.) that makes us look at these locations in a different way. These new variations are what bring out the intangibles - a classy dress poised against an Eiffel Tower background gives an obvious feeling of elegance. 

Making it in the world of photography isn't easy, but for those that have succeeded, a great deal of the credit goes to their understanding of their subjects. Being aware of how subjects differ and the right way to approach them is something that can take years to learn, but is absolutely essential to deliver an image loaded with emotional feeling. To learn more about how to capture a subject well, just take a look at the galleries of any of the photographers mentioned above.