Shooting People

For many years I believed that I wasn’t good at shooting people (photographically speaking).  I was never happy with the results when I took photos of people and so I concentrated even more on landscapes.  With landscapes, it’s all about composition and lighting.  Except for rare exceptions, like those fleeting moments around sunrise and sunset, you can take your time and get the perfect shot.  People move and they frequently change expression.  Plus I have found that most adults don’t really like to be photographed, making them even more troublesome.  Landscapes just are – you can zoom with your lens or with your feet to change your relative perspective, but you don’t have to worry about the mountains shifting around or making a fake smile for the camera.  Kids are a little less problematic, mostly because they get bored quickly and start ignoring you, which automatically makes them easier to photograph.

I first started to realize that I might not be such a terrible people photographer when I switched from a manual to an auto-focus camera.  It seems incredibly stupid in retrospect, but I just wasn’t that fast at focusing and so I never really got the shot I wanted.  (refer back to the comment about movement and expression)  Most of my early “serious” work with people was centered around racing.  Pit crews and drivers are pretty focused on their work and they are used to photographers constantly buzzing around, so they completely ignore you.  I have some pretty decent images from the late 1990’s, which I’m sure I’ll get around to scanning in someday so I can share them.  But don’t hold your breath, it’s pretty low on my list and you know what happens to low priority requirements.

My second revelation in regards to photographing people came when I switched to digital.  When I would shoot a 36 exposure roll of film, I would be pretty happy if 2 or 3 of the images were really good.  I threw away about 70% of the prints that came back as being unworthy to keep even for my own amusement.  I only showed about 10% of what I shot.  With digital I can get nearly 300 images on one flash card using my 20 megapixel camera.  So it’s a numbers game.  If I can get 10-20 really great photos out of that 300 I’m happy.  It costs nothing to discard the others.  Or consign them to purgatory on my computer, which is more often the case.  Photo snobs will argue “real” photographers don’t shoot 1000’s of images, hoping for a few good ones.  Screw ’em.  Digital has freed me to be more experimental and try a lot of stuff that I wouldn’t have when every photo had a cost associated with it.  As a result, I’ve become a better photographer.  Even with people.

This photo was taken in 2005 out of the window of a van while stopped for traffic in Beijing.  I would never have tried something like this using film.  I had enough time while the van was motionless to take this one shot. 

What’s My Style?

When I tell people I’m a photographer, they frequently ask about my “style” of photography.  This used to be a really easy question for me to answer – landscape.  I took this photo of a stand of trees dusted with snow  almost 20 years ago with my old Minolta.  It’s one of only a handful of film images I deemed worthy of scanning.  The original is color, but it works better in black and white, so I desaturated the scanned copy.  It’s still one of my all-time favorite images.

This classic shot of autumn trees reflected in a pond was taken 6 years ago, a little more than a year after I switched to digital.  These types of images dominated my photographic style for the 20+ years I used film.  Most people call them postcard photos.  They mean this in a complimentary way – they are the type of photos that most people want to be able to take.  Nicely composed, exposed correctly, in focus and “pretty.”  I have taken thousands of photos of like this, it’s something I can almost do on autopilot now.

This reflex comes in pretty handy when I’m on vacation, I always come back with lots of great photos that make entertaining slide shows.  It impresses people.  But over the last few years it’s become sort of boring.  So I’ve been trying to evolve my “style,” for lack of a better word.  If you look at the photos in the “Random” folder on my website photo album, you’ll get some sense of what I mean.  I also have a few sprinkled in with the conventional travel photos.  My husband likes to say that my favorite photo from any given trip is the one that looks like it could have been taken anywhere.  An old bike leaning against a building in Amsterdam, for example.  I think it’s because the photo with the recognizable icon (like a windmill) is always tinged by the postcard or snapshot feeling, no matter how good it is.

This doesn’t mean I’ll stop taking the postcard shots.  Just that I’ll keep trying to go beyond them.


I have been fascinated with photography nearly as long as I can remember.  I still have some black and white photos that I took when I was 8 or 9 years old.  I brought a 110 camera on family vacations and to summer camp.  When I got into high school I started longing for a “real” camera.  At the age of 16 I dipped into my savings and bought my first SLR (single lens reflex) camera.  It was a Minolta and I can still picture the face of the Dayton’s employee that sold it to me.  (Yes, they sold cameras back in 1980)  I still have that camera, boxed up somewhere in the basement.  It was manual focus and the only plastic part was the little wheel that wound up the film as it was exposed.  I used that camera for over 15 years and the only repair it needed was the replacement of that little plastic part one time after all the teeth had broken off.

I switched to digital in 2003.  I didn’t intend to, but I rented a digital SLR in Phoenix and took photos at the zoo for a day.  One photo convinced me to switch.  This photo of an iguana.  I was completely blown away by the detail in the scales of its skin.  I bought the camera within a week and I have not shot a roll of film since.  I’m on my 5th digital SLR now and I’ve taken over 12,000 images with my most newest acquisition – a Canon 5D Mark II.

In between my posts on travel and racing, I will be writing about my journey as a photographer and some of what I hope to accomplish going forward.  These posts will probably be more introspective and less amusing than some of my other ones.  You can just skip them if you’re not interested.  I plan on including a photo or two with each post to illustrate the point I’m trying to make.  I invite you to comment on the photos.  It’s okay to be critical, I am my own biggest critic and I almost always find that something could be improved in every photo.

Today’s post is dedicated to my good friend Jane, who is a tremendously talented photographer and my new number one blog fan.  Keep shooting!