Gesture is not a grab-shot

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A judge once commented on one of my photographs with the phrase: “What a great grab shot”. It was intended to be a compliment but it also exposed some naivety about street and documentary photography in general. While it is true that in this style of photography you are dependent on the chance action that happens in front of you, hardly ever do you get your shot simply by seeing something, raising the camera, and taking the “grab shot”. To the contrary, those are more typically the shots you miss, not the shots you get. Once you see the action, it is too late.

Capturing good gesture, like photographing birds, requires that you observe and prepare. Sometimes your image will materialize and sometimes they will not.

Here are my tips for capturing gesture

Prepare

  • Set your background
  • Set your exposure (and possibly your focus)
  • Get comfortable with the subject and setting
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Take many images

  • Take as many as 20 or 30 images of the same person
  • Explore different angles
  • Practice your timing
Evaluate your results with the following questions

  • Is something happening?
  • Is there emotion?
  • What is the story?
  • Have you caught the action at its peak?
  • Is there anticipation?
  • Is there mystery?
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Take The Best Available Picture

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Air by I Nancy, on Flickr

During my workshop with Sam Abell, he used this phrase often: “Take the best available picture”. I think there were two messages here. His first message was not to miss the shot. Even with all your concentration and preparation at 110%, you can only control so much. If you get 90% of the image working, “take the best available picture”. Perhaps a better picture will emerge in a few minutes, but perhaps not.

His deeper message was not to be discouraged. This street-documentary work is hard. I think Sam’s standards are super-human high and it is exactly these standards that brought him his success and brilliance as a photographer.  Somewhere along the way, however, he realized that if a photographer allow themselves be overwhelmed by these standards, they may never produce another photograph, ever. So he reminds his students, and perhaps himself, “take the best available picture”.

This picture is not perfect. I wish there was separation between the bottom of the skateboard and the people below. This could have been achieved if the people were not there. I wish the two people on the left looking on at the trick didn’t have palm trees behind them and were wearing more colorful clothing. I wish there were some more amazing light or color to the sky. But these things were not there. This was the best available picture and I’m glad to have taken it and learned from it.