"How did you take that photo?" is another question my friends and family often ask. I love that question. It gives a photographer the opportunity to talk about their craft, and about the steps they follow in order to create an interesting image.
Sometimes people will instead ask "what camera did you use to take that photo?" Asking that question is akin to eating a delicious meal at your friend's house and exclaiming, "that was delicious! What stove did you use to cook that dinner?" Asking how someone took a photo gives them—and not their camera's technical specifications—a little bit more credit.
This week I will answer the question "how did you take the photo?" for an old favorite of mine (the image at the top of this page). I chose this as my first "Behind the Photo" because it was the product of a happy confluence of preparation, awareness, and some (really) good luck: three of a photographer's best friends.
I was scheduled to visit a shelter for orphaned, abandoned, and neglected children in the heart of Tegucigalpa. The first thing I did was ask about the kind of space we'd be in. Would we be outdoors, or in a large indoor space? Is it going to be well-lit, or is it likely to be a bit dark? I also gave some thought to the kind of subject I'd likely be shooting. Would my subjects be stationary, or would they probably be moving around? Would I be able to get close, or would I have to shoot discretely from far away?
Answering these questions would help me decide what kind of equipment I should bring.
After some thinking, I grabbed my widest-angle lens: a 16-35mm, which I planned to use mostly at the widest setting (16mm). I'd learned that I'd be in a relatively large indoor space, with good light, so I wouldn't need a flash, or a lens with a particularly large aperture. I also knew I'd be photographing kids (i.e. mostly fast-moving subjects), and that I'd probably be able to shoot up close. I knew that a wide-angle would help me capture people from interesting angles, and give a sense of the place where I'd be photographing.
We showed up at the children's shelter and got introduced. I knew that we'd be giving the kids a brand new soccer ball as part of our visit, and that they'd play a couple of games while we were there. I figured this would be my best chance to get some interesting images, so I grabbed my camera, set it to the widest possible angle, and stood right next to the indoor concrete soccer court where the kids would play their game.
I took a couple of test shots to make sure my camera's settings were set to capture the right amount of light, and to freeze motion a little bit—so that the shot wouldn't come out too blurry as the kids were running around. Then I waited, and watched.
I tried to get a sense for the rhythm of their game as they chased the ball around the concrete court. I noticed who the star players were, and how they moved with the ball. I kept watching the kids play their game, taking a few shots here and there, doing my best to predict where the ball was likely to go. I shifted through the crowd of cheering kids and teachers to where a lot of the action seemed to be happening, just left of the goal box.
After a lull in the game, the kids picked up the pace. I noticed that they were heading in my direction. I put my camera at chest level, hovered my finger over the trigger, and waited. Soon, without warning, the most athletic kid on either team sprinted forward as someone passed him the ball overhead. I tried to keep my camera trained on him. He stopped right in front of me as he brought the ball down with his left foot, and controlled it for a pass back to the center of the court.
He was so close to me he almost hit my camera, still at my chest, with his hand. Right before he began kicking the ball, I pressed the shutter button, and took a single shot.
I got lucky. The camera might have been just a bit too high, or low on my chest. The ball might never have come to where I was standing. The kid might have actually bumped into me, knocking my camera off the right angle. The player might have positioned himself so that he was blocking my view of the ball. Instead, I got lucky, and managed to catch the kid right as he was poised to kick the ball right in front of me, with two kids running after him, and soft light pouring onto the field.
But luck only worked in my favor thanks to preparation and awareness. If I hadn't prepared, I could have easily botched the shot. If I hadn't brought my widest angle lens, I wouldn't have been able to capture the whole scene and the dynamic movements of the players. If I hadn't taken a few test shots to make sure I had the right camera settings, the shot might have come out too light, too dark, too blurry, or not blurry enough (the blurry motion of his left leg really adds movement to the image).
And finally, if I hadn't been paying close attention to the rhythm of the game, I wouldn't have been able to make the shot either. I wouldn't have been standing right were the action ended up. I might not have had my camera trained on the right player. I might not have been watching to make sure I was ready when the game moved in my direction.
So the next time you know you're going somewhere that's likely to have some solid photo opportunities, do a bit of preparation, keep your eyes and senses peeled, position yourself in the right spot, and hope to get lucky.