As a photographer, it’s your job to find order in chaos. At any given moment, you have to be thinking about things like light, composition, action and expression, just to name a few. Then you’ve got to translate all of those thoughts into photos that tell a story. Needless to say, it’s easy to get overwhelmed!
This summer we felt that. We were on Prince Edward Island, a small province in eastern Canada, shooting a story about lobster fishing. We had just hopped on a fishing boat at 5AM to photograph fishers at work and we were floored! The crew was moving at lightning speed, the boat was rocking, the lighting conditions were changing constantly, and we were scrambling to keep out of the way (and out of the water!). It was a lot to take in.
When you’re confronted by a challenging scene, it’s easy to lose focus and start mindlessly clicking in hopes that something turns out. So you need to have a few tricks up your sleeve that reign in your focus and help you make sense of the scene in front of you.
Whether you’re on a lobster boat, at a wedding, or somewhere in between, here are four things you can do to help calm yourself down and improve your photos at the same time.
1. Focus on one activity.
At any given moment on the boat, we had a lot of options. We could shoot stunning landscapes, cool details, or the fishers engaged in a whole bunch of different activities. And in our first hour, we tried to do it all. In the span of minutes, we’d photograph the guys at work, the birds, the boat, the ocean, and the guys again. We didn’t want to miss anything!
Then we realized that we were captive on the boat for seven hours, and that the crew would be doing the same thing again and again. So we slowed down. Instead of trying to recreate an overview of a day on a boat every five minutes, we’d spend that five minutes in one spot, trying to capture just one activity or scene well. And when we’d done our job, we’d move on.
Good shots don’t just appear every time you turn around. You have to wait for them – for people to step into your carefully composed frame at the right time, or for the light to hit the water a certain way. When you’re constantly bouncing around between subjects, not focused on waiting for those moments, you’re actually more likely to miss them.
Pick a subject and focus on capturing it well before you move onto something else. Not only will you capture better moments, but the act of focusing in on one part of the story will help you to clear your mind, and be attentive. You don’t have to worry about everything all at once. Take it one step at a time.
2. Remove a challenging element.
Shooting on the lobster boat was tough. The light was changing constantly as the boat moved, the fishers were always on the go, and we were trying to find our sea legs and make sure we didn’t get in one another’s shot.
We did our best to keep everything in mind. But sometimes, it was too much. So we’d take a tricky element out of the equation. If we were struggling to keep up with the activity, we’d photograph stationary details, or focus just on hands or feet. If we were overwhelmed by the light, we’d shoot something in the shade. And if we felt like we were in the way, we’d go shoot somewhere else.
Shooting details, like this hook for grabbing traps, gave us a break from the crazy action.
Giving our brains a quick break from trying to balance so many factors let us relax and refocus. And getting a few good shots was a huge boost to our morale. We were better prepared to go back and shoot the tough stuff.
So when things get crazy and you’re not getting anywhere, take something out of the equation. Shoot in the shade, or get in some detail shots. Chances are that you need to get those shots anyway, so take them when they’re going to help you find your focus again!
3. Put your camera down and observe.
Whenever we arrived at a busy wharf, I was tempted to pull my camera up to my eye right away and start frantically shooting. Meanwhile, Lauren and Rob would be next to me calmly walking around, observing the scene, their cameras quiet. They were taking it all in, seeing how the action played out and whether the light was about to change. They could find out where they wanted to try to shoot, or determine if they needed to keep exploring.
When things are crazy, put your camera down for a moment. Give your mind a break from trying to shoot and make sense of a scene, and just look instead. Find out how the action is playing out, pay attention to the light, and look around – take a walk, even – to see whether there’s a better place you could be standing or another scene you should be photographing.
4. Shoot with film.
When Rob found himself getting overwhelmed or visually stuck, he would put down his digital camera and pick up a film camera. And he found that the simple act of trying to shoot a few good frames of film would calm him down and show him things he hadn’t noticed just moments before.
These days shooting with film is pricey and takes more time to process than digital. So when we work with film, we try that much harder to make each shot count. We watch the light more closely, and compose our shots more carefully. We’re more patient in waiting for that ‘decisive moment’ to show itself, instead of clicking the shutter when we see one that looks good enough.
Next time you’re overwhelmed, and so long as you can spare the time (and unless you’re shooting a married couple’s first kiss, you probably can!), put down your digital camera and shoot a few frames of film. You’ll feel better, and your shots will look better, for it!
Don’t have a film camera? Check out the Holga – the film camera Rob carries with him when he travels. It’s inexpensive, lightweight and makes for some pretty cool images. Perfect!
Those are the four tricks that worked for us when we got overwhelmed this summer, but we bet there are a whole bunch more than work just as well. Drop us a line in the comments section to let us know how you find your focus when things get crazy!
Want to hear more about our adventures on Prince Edward Island, and get a ton of tips and insight into shooting a documentary project? Check out our new eBook, How We Did It: Lobster Island!