Make this world a better place
If you can
– Nickolas Ashford and Adele Simpson
Performed by Diana Ross
As photographers, we are bombarded with messages urging us to see the world through our own eyes, or find our “unique vision”. Apart from the photo club outings and occasional seminars, photography is primarily an individual pursuit. And as we all know from Diseases That Plague Photographers and other articles on Photography Life, photographers can be a bit consumed (ok – downright obsessive!) with their equipment, and have extremely strong opinions concerning it!
Along your photographic journey, however, I would suggest taking some of life’s detours, which include using some of your equipment and gifts to make a difference in the life of others. The opportunities are many and cost little, if anything, but can be worth their weight in gold to both you and those you choose to help. They also provide the chance for you to experiment and sharpen your skills in fun, low stress environments. Don’t be surprised if you experience some memorable moments along the way.
Don’t Leave Someone Out of the Picture
Whether it is a single mom or dad out with their child, a grandmother and her granddaughter, or simply a larger group, someone is usually left holding the camera, and thus missing from the photos. When people get back home, they have a slew of photos of one another, or nine of the ten people of the group, but not everyone together. When you observe such a situation, offer to take a picture of them with their camera (a good way to see quite a few camera makes and models, BTW!). Follow-up by taking a photo or two with your own camera. Why? Should someone have their camera settings in some odd state, you are not going to have time to figure out how to fix them given the myriad of unique menu systems and options associated with the plethora of point-and-shoots and DSLRs you are likely to encounter. But you should know your camera well enough to quickly change a setting or two and get a quality photo.
Naturally, you have to be a bit selective, lest you find yourself becoming the unpaid photographer on Washington, D.C.’s National Mall and not capturing anything other people’s family snapshots! But there are indeed plenty of opportunities to take a few photos for others without too much trouble on your part. I always carry 20-30 business cards with my name, phone number, and photograph websites. It is also helpful to have a small notebook with you as well, so you can write down people’s emails in case they lose your card and take notes regarding your adventures. Offer to send the digital images to those you encounter if they send you brief email indicating where you bumped into one another.
During one of our trips to Washington, D.C. a few years ago, I was milling about looking for a good angle on the Jefferson Memorial one morning when I saw a mom and her daughter fumbling with their point-and-shoot camera. I offered to take a look at it. Despite having a fresh battery, the camera apparently experienced an early death and wasn’t going to be of much help that weekend. Mom was clearly disappointed at the thought of not being able to take photos of her daughter during their trip. I offered to take a few photos of them with my camera. I took a few pictures and eventually sent them to her. It was easy enough for me to do, but I suspect it made a big difference to the mom.
In the scheme of processing your photos, it doesn’t take much to do a few more and email a photo or two to those involved. Don’t be surprised to hear that your photo(s) turned out much better than any others taken that day (and they should if you know are a pro or serious amateur). And they will have something the others don’t – a photo of everyone together. Such opportunities can be fun for everyone involved, provide a few laughs, and give you the chance to share a lasting memory that may touch others in ways we can never quite measure. And it never hurts to attract a few extra visitors to your website as well.
“Excuse Me, But Can You Help Me With My Camera?”
I get asked this question quite a bit. During our long weekends to Washington, D.C. and other excursions, I often have two DSLRs and a white balance card dangling from my neck, a camera backpack, and occasionally sport an ASMP identification card. Given that I could pass for a walking advertisement for B&H Photo (or an example of someone that clearly doesn’t know how to travel light!), people often mistake me for someone that knows something about photography. So when things go wrong with their cameras, it is not unusual for people to make a beeline in my direction.
The stories are usually the same, “I can’t quite figure out how to turn on the flash”, “I just got this camera as a present, but haven’t had the chance to learn much about it”, “My husband couldn’t make it so I took his camera”, “I don’t know why, but it only seems to want to take black and white pictures!”, “I borrowed my cousin Vinny’s camera after mine broke, but it seems to work differently”, etc. Often I can figure out what to do quickly enough, since I have seen quite a few cameras in my travels (good training for future Mansurovs’ equipment reviewers!). But sometimes, the photographer wannabe has gotten their camera into some odd state that it can take me some time to resolve the issue. In summer months, the bright sun can wash out most LCDs, making it almost impossible to read the menu system unless you can get the camera into a shaded area. As such, I quickly offer to take a few shots with my camera and send the photos.
It was inevitable that when digital cameras first appeared, and morphed into specialized computers with shorter product lifecycles and increasing numbers of features, people would get a bit confused. This should come as no surprise, given that most people moved from VCR technology to DVDS and Blueray – without ever figuring out how to program the correct time on their VCRs! Even the cheapest point-and-shoot camera can be a bit daunting for the average person, who, unlike some of us that regularly pay attention (agonize?) to the more detailed aspects of our cameras’ operations, doesn’t care to spend much time learning, let alone mastering, the basics of their camera technology. Yet one more reason why smartphone cameras are replacing many point-and-shoots – they are much simpler to operate.
Whether I can or cannot resolve all that ails their camera in the few minutes, I will always take a photo or two with my DSLR, and hand them my card. I will usually get an email from them with a subject line with something such as “Confused in DC”, and a brief email regarding our bumping into one another. They are always appreciative of the help and the photo I send along. If the notion of helping others that struggle with their cameras seems a bit daunting or bothersome to you, think of it as, “performing mini equipment reviews under realistic field conditions”!
That Fortuitous Moment
Sometimes you take a photo of an individual or group of people that really touch you. I had one such moment at during our vacation in 2010. We spent a day in Colonial Williamsburg and decided to listen to a band named, “Slapwater”. They put on one heck of a show, and had people of all ages literally dancing in the street. I noticed an adorable little girl and her grandmother. Eventually, the little girl made her way out into the dance area. She was in pure rapture of the band and had the sweetest smile. I took a number of photos of her as she danced away with some of the other children.
My wife and I made my way over to her grandmother, introduced ourselves, and expressed how much we enjoyed watching her granddaughter dance. I gave her my card and offered to send her the digital photos if she would email me. Of the 50,000 plus photos I have taken in the last four plus years, the one that think of most often when I hear the word, “joy”, is the one below.
The little girl’s mom eventually emailed me and introduced herself. Oddly enough, my offer to send the little girl’s photos took on additional meaning, since in the email, the mother explained that her purse was recently stolen. In it was a camera and SD card containing all their family vacation photos. So it turns out that my photos of their daughter were some of the few they had from their summer adventures. If you are fortunate to take a photo of someone that touches you in some way, be kind enough to send a copy along to them or their family.
The Zen of Photography and the Rabbi’s Kids
Many people aspire to become professional photographers or earn a part time living from their craft. Before plastering our name and photos on the internet, however, it pays to learn the necessary photography, technical, business, and interpersonal skills some take for granted. The era of digital photography has ushered in a seemingly endless array of DSLR advancements and software programs that early photography pioneers could only dream about. But these same advancements and advantages can, however, also act like the mythical Sirens that seductively lured ships and sailors to rocky coasts. Whether out of self-delusion or naiveté, more than a few people have hung out the proverbial “shingle” of being a professional without sufficient experience in the areas of basic photography, technology, and business.
I once knew someone that attempted to pass himself off as a professional, but couldn’t muster a passing grade regarding his camera’s most basic functions. He simply didn’t invest the time to get to know his gear, and ensure that he could make the necessary adjustments in the field. As a result, he often complained of inconsistent results, blown photo opportunities, and a host of other issues all related to the lack of understanding of his equipment. Instead of inviting trouble by signing on for assignments he wasn’t prepared for, he would have benefited far more from doing some unpaid assignments, developing his skills, taking more time to become comfortable with his equipment,making some mistakes in lower stress environments, and gradually building up his confidence and contact list.
The good news is that you can learn such skills without betting the farm, and have plenty of appreciative subjects to practice on. Charity organizations, churches or synagogues, veterans’ groups, animal shelters, hospitals, as well as friends and family, provide great opportunities to refine our skills in a low stress environment. Such groups that run on tight budgets always appreciate those willing to help their cause. Some might think of this as “giving away” their talents, but I would urge you consider it “on the job training”, while also doing some good along the way. This advice doesn’t just apply to serious amateurs, however, but to seasoned pros as well. So why not experiment with that new piece of gear in much more relaxed setting by taking photos of your Rabbi’s or Pastor’s children? There is no shortage of such opportunities. Search for them and utilize them to become a better photographer. And in this age of social media, one never knows when a simple act of kindness or donation of one’s time can yield benefits beyond anything one can easily measure.
Who Photographs the Photographer?
The short answer is “no one”. Most photographers are on one side of the lens. Rarely, if ever, is someone angling a camera in their direction. When I am out and about, I will often make my way over to someone that appears to be a serious amateur or professional and strike up a conversation. At 5:30 AM on Washington, D.C.’s National Mall, they are not hard to spot! This is a great way to make some lifelong friendships and connections. If they live in the area you are visiting, all the better, as they can often be a great source of information regarding photo opportunities that might otherwise be hard to come by.
During one early morning jaunt in Washington, D.C., I came across a fellow photographer in the pre-dawn hours on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial. We chatted for a bit, and I asked him about some good references for photography. It turned out that he was in the process of writing a book on the very subject! We exchanged business cards. Sure enough, his book was released approximately one year later, and I bought a copy. It has been a great source of information. And while I can’t be certain, I believe he used one of the photos he took of the Jefferson Memorial that morning in his book, since the lighting and pattern of the clouds looks exactly like those I captured that morning.
So when you come across a fellow photographer, take a picture or two of them plying their craft and send it to them. Don’t be surprised if it they respond that the photo is one of the few they have of themselves behind the camera lens!
Expect the Unexpected
Sometimes my photos have led to some very interesting twists and turns. During another one of our weekend trips to Washington, D.C., my wife and I stopped by a political rally on the steps of the Capitol building. As I took a variety of photos of the colorful crowd, I noticed one beautiful young lady relatively isolated from the crowds. I later posted the photo on my flickr page. One of my flickr contacts, a soldier serving in Iraq, with a knack for taking stunning photos of the Iraqi children, noticed the woman’s photo, and sent me a message, “Hey, I know her!” I was floored. To think that I (from Pittsburgh) could take a happenstance photo of a stranger (from Oregon), during one of our weekend excursions (to Washington, D.C.), post the photo to flickr, and have one of my contacts half-way around the globe (Iraq) put me in touch with her? That is the definition of “amazing”…
It is easy to get wrapped up in our photography exploits, spend far too much time analyzing our equipment, and chasing down every new technology announcement. There is nothing wrong with any of these pursuits within moderation. But along the way, take some time to truly notice your surroundings and the opportunities to share a bit of your talents with others, without any expectations. You might be surprised at how your photography knowledge and skills, along with your sense of fulfillment, improves along the way.