I spent last week in Kenya working with Village Impact, a non-profit dedicated to building schools and supporting education in rural Kenya.
I’ll have several other posts coming from my trip, but wanted to start with this sensational photograph by Philip Muigah because it offers an important lesson — whether you are still developing your photography skills or could, as we all can, use a gentle reminder that one of the great things about photography is there is always room for improvement.
BACKGROUND + CONTEXT
Philip is a ground rep for VI, meaning he builds relationships with, and monitors the activity of, schools VI has built. In addition to his primary responsibilities, he also takes photos and videos to show supporters and potential donors what VI does and who they serve.
Part of my role during this trip was to coach Philip and senior ground rep Sam Wangunyu how to craft stronger photographs and do storytelling effectively.
This particular photograph came the day after our first feedback session during which we did a deep review of all of Philip’s photographs from the previous day, discussing what distinguishes a good photograph from a “not-so-good” photograph … and how to make more of the former.
Philip put what he’d learned into his efforts the following day. Unfortunately, many images were spoiled by incorrect camera settings. Too-slow shutter speeds resulted in many over-exposed and blurry photographs … and this is where my inspiration for this post begins.
Every photographer I admire believes impact and content of a photograph are far more important than its technical success(es) or failure(s). As Jay Maisel puts it – in classic Jay Maisel-ese – “I’m far more concerned about the picture quality than the pixel quality.” (Amen to that!)
Consider this photograph as case in point, with a shutter speed of 1/6 of a second … MUCH too slow in a traditional sense.
That “too slow” shutter speed was the result of Philip having set his camera to ISO 250 and f/8, in Aperture priority. Given those constraints, and the relatively dark classroom environment he was in, Philip’s camera had to employ a slow shutter speed in order to gather enough light to yield an image with “proper” brightness (i.e., exposure).
The result is this photograph … with obvious subject and camera movement.
But, does that movement spoil the photograph?
To my eye, it actually heightens the impact of this image!
Here’s the kicker, though — I was in this classroom photographing, as well, and completely dismissed this opportunity.
We had just walked in to this classroom and Philip began photographing right away, in fairly close to girls who were very self-conscious about being photographed. I, on the other hand, moved more slowly … looking for opportunities to create photographs in which the subject was not so camera aware.
While I wound up with photographs I’m pleased with, I didn’t come away with anything that has this amount of life and spontaneity … two qualities I’m always trying to get in to my photographs.
So, why did I get “outshot” by Philip, a relative beginner? Two reasons.
One reason is that I never considered using shutter speed to create this different interpretation of the situation we both were in (clearly, the motion in Philip’s image is big part of its appeal).
The other more important reason is that I came in to this space less open than Philip, who was (most likely) less in his head and more in the moment than I was. I saw Philip jump in to the thick of things to make this collection of photographs and actively chose to remain rigidly committed to my “fly on the wall” documentary photography approach.
By being shut down to other photographic possibilities, this absolutely wonderful photograph never had a chance of being captured by me. Philip, however, approached this situation with no pre-conceived filters at all … and came away with a photograph I would happily claim as my own!
Sure, this is Monday morning quarterbacking … BUT … that doesn’t make it any less valuable to acknowledge what happened and learn from the outcome. Just another part of the “joy” of photography!
One final lesson I want to address has to do with editing.
It is as important to be open in the editing process as it is to be open during the capture process. Even though I completely dismissed this situation in my capture process, I did bring an open mind to my editing process. That is vital because editing gives you an opportunity to find jewels you may have been consciously unaware of (or, in my case, dismissive of) while you were photographing.
IN CONCLUSION …
Had I approached my edit of Philip’s work with the same mindset I’d had while I was photographing, this jewel of a photograph may have, once again, been overlooked or dismissed.
To let us all off the hook just a bit, this will ALWAYS happen to you in your photography. It is part of the magic (and frustration) of being a photographer to experience how other people see things that we overlook. By taking the less to Be Open, you will not only become a better photographer and better editor, but a better student of this craft we love!