Stories and Problems

110613 122841 175mm f3 2
A Fordham University employee tells stories about her 9/11 experience in an interview to mark the upcoming 10th anniversary.

Whether it’s just the time I’ve put in or that, according to back-of-the-napkin calculations, I’ve crossed the threshold of taking more than a million photographs for professional jobs, I feel like I finally have reached a mature understanding of what I do as a photographer. It’s been a long process of simplification. When you start out, what you do, basically is point your camera at stuff, push a button and hope for the best, so you rattle everything that applies to: “I specialize in portraits and weddings and photojournalism and sunsets and flowers and families and dogs and babies and sports and travel and macro and did I mention sunsets?”

And then you look back and say, “What do I actually like? What am I actually good at? OK, maybe I do weddings with a photojournalistic aesthetic and portraits with a bias for dynamic light and emotions.” Or whatever.

But then you realize that’s both too complicated and too simple, and the real question as a long-term professional is what is it that beats through your heart? What keeps you going, keeps you from calcifying, keeps you from that death knell of photographic careers … déjà vu and boredom? A bored photographer is doomed for mediocrity or professional failure, and generally both. Why do you think wedding photography has such a high turnover rate? Too many people didn’t understand how to make their 100th or 1000th wedding as exciting as their first, how to keep pressing themselves forward when improvement is slower and harder than figuring out how your flash works.

Maybe that’s when you become an artist, and keep chasing your aesthetic down the rabbit hole. But I don’t know much about that. Too subjective. Once you take a photo, in my opinion, you are merely the first viewer of it. Your opinion about whether it is art or good is no more important than anyone else’s, except if it makes you happy or excited. But I know what I can do: Tell stories and solve problems. Simple as that, but also complicated and challenging and exciting to keep my blood pumping until I can’t hold a camera any longer.

Here I faced a problem long familiar to me from my days as a photographer for Columbia University — how do you take a bunch of people sitting around a conference table and photograph them in a way that’s in any way as visually exciting as the words they are saying? You could go down the artistic rabbit hole (“I call this set … “All Of Your Ankles”), but that’s not a great way to serve your clients. Here I solved the problem as simply as possible but no simpler. I put an SB-900 on each side of the room, bouncing toward the wall and ceiling, but close to it, so the light surface isn’t as huge as your traditional bounce. That allowed me to get the contrast and clarity I wanted wherever I stood with my 70-200, lighting what I wanted enough to bring out the reflections, and not lighting a distracting background. Even the water glasses — the bane of event shooters everywhere, serve a purpose with crispness and perspective, and setting the scene with a handy logo.

It’s not a fantastic wedding in Aruba (keep an eye out in November for that), but it keeps my brain churning with “How can I solve this problem better?” And that’s always exciting to me.

Lens: Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II
Camera: Nikon D3s

Jashim Jalal - Reading that put a lot of things into perspective for me. Beautiful image. Thanks Ryan.

Trevor - This post caused me to reflect on my approach to learning photography. Excellent shot as always.

Mark - Well said… helps to add perspective to the photos we take.

Inspired By This - Fantastic post! Creative!

Allan Jackson - Ryan, I discovered your site yesterday and have been greatly inspired by it. This approach to lighting a room sounds very useful for all sorts of events in confined areas. How would you decide where to place flashes when setting up and how do you trigger them? I assume you’re using CLS to control the flash output.
Thanks
Allan

Brendan - And the results are resonant.