So here's the thing: you're not a real photographer unless you've done something a little bit crazy in the interest of getting a better shot. Whether that's lying on your back on a busy sidewalk, encouraging your kids to cover themselves with mud even though you know you'll regret it later, or walking straight up to the meanest looking dude on the street and putting your camera in his face just because you think it'll make a great picture, if you are willing to take risks for your craft, then your craft is truly important to you.
Of course there's crazy and there's awkward, and sometimes we'd rather be seen doing crazy things over awkward things. Does that mean you should avoid awkward photography situations? Absolutely not. Let's look at some situations you are likely to encounter and talk a little bit about what the best way is to get good results out of those situations, awkward or not.
Here's the thing about wedding photography that you probably already knew. A wedding is someone's big day. Some people even think of it as the biggest day in a person’s life, a day where everything is expected to be perfect. So as a photographer you're already at somewhat of a disadvantage, because you're wandering through the scene on that perfect day, potentially getting in the way and calling attention away from the bride and groom. So if you're not used to taking photographs at weddings, you may start right off the bat feeling a little bit awkward. But the thing is, if you don't own the awkwardness and accept that it's part of the job, you may not be capturing the best photographs you can in that situation. And if you don't capture the best photographs you can in that situation, you're going to have one very unhappy couple.
As awkward as it may feel to ask the bride and groom to do something out of the ordinary, they're going to thank you later when you have beautiful pictures to show them. If that means asking them to stand in a fountain, then you need to be prepared to make that request. Remember that your creativity should never be stifled by any potential awkwardness you may think will come of those creative thoughts. I've seen some beautiful photographs of brides and grooms doing things that most people don't do on their wedding day, such as lying down together in tall grass or even swimming in their formal attire. Now, some couples are going to balk—not everyone is OK with getting water on a $7,000 wedding dress—but don’t be afraid to ask if you think your idea is going to result in an amazing shot. And remember of course that there are a lot of creative things you can do that don’t involve soaking the bride and groom. Don’t be afraid to climb on things or stand in high places, for example, as long as it can be done safely, and don't be afraid to lie down to get the photo either.
There's no way around it, street photography can be awkward. Unless you are taking photographs in a city where you literally know everybody, street photography means photographing strangers. And photographing strangers can be terrifying at worst, and awkward at best.
Sometimes the best approach for street photography is to think of it as a social occasion. When you go to a party where you only know one or two people, chances are you're going to end up talking to people you meet there, and maybe making some new friends and connections. You should think of street photography in exactly the same way. If you need some moral support, bring along a friend—sometimes having a friend with you can make it less awkward to approach somebody on the street and ask if you can take their picture. If you still feel awkward, try getting to know the person before you request permission to take the photo. Sometimes just a striking up a conversation will remove the awkwardness from the situation and make it a lot easier for you to ask that person if he minds having his picture taken.
Stranger : reloaded by Flickr user zubrow
Of course not every street photographer will ask permission to take photos of strangers—many of them will just go out there and get in the person's space, take the photo and then move on. This is awkward really no matter how you look at it, and or in order to be successful at this technique you kind of need to have a naturally bold personality. If you want to try it, the best approach is to be as casual as possible and to move quickly. Approach your subjects, raise your camera, snap the picture and then keep walking. Most of the time your subject won't even have a chance to react to before you're already moving away.
Of course this approach is not for everyone, and if you just don't like the idea of blatantly photographing someone who might not want to be photographed, you can practice stealth photography instead. Try shooting from the hip, which is quite a literal technique—simply hang your camera on the strap around your neck, and take photographs without looking through the viewfinder or at the screen. To make this work you need to shoot at wider focal lengths and narrow apertures so you'll have a better chance of getting a scene that is in focus and contains your subject. Obviously this technique does require lots of practice, but can get some remarkably interesting and unusual photos so it's worth trying out.
Another way you can reduce the awkwardness of street photography is to use a smartphone. With a smartphone, it is pretty easy to disguise what you're doing because smartphones don't always function as cameras. If you can pretend like you're playing a game or reading Twitter, your subject may not even know that you have the camera function engaged. Likewise, you can also pretend to be taking a selfie, but just don't reverse the camera. These are always to reduce the awkwardness of the street photography situation and still get excellent photos.
But really the best way to get past the awkwardness of street photography is to just do a lot of it. The more time you spend out there in the streets taking photographs of strangers, the less awkward it's going to seem.
If we only ever photographed happiness, we would leave the next generation with a pretty poor representation of what the world is really like. Unhappiness is a part of life, and if you try to deny it you are telling lies. And yet many of us default to only taking photographs of happy situations. We even try to get our subjects to fake happiness—say cheese, anyone? And the reason why we do this isn't necessarily just because we want the world to think that we have unnaturally happy families, it's also because photographing unhappiness can be intensely awkward. A lot of people don't want to be photographed in those moments of unhappiness because they don't want to be perceived as an unhappy person, or maybe they just don't want that moment shared with the world at large. So how we photograph unhappiness really depends on the subject.
Sad, Stress - EXAMS!! by Flickr user Daryl Cauchi
Animals, of course, are easy to photograph in unhappy situations because they cannot be offended when those photographs are shared with the world at large. People, on the other hand, are different story. If you're photographing your own child, you can make a better case for capturing that person’s unhappy moment with your camera, simply because as that child's parent you alone can provide the kind of permission necessary to take a photo in that situation. But even though you have the technical right to take a photograph of your unhappy child, there are still certain ethical questions attached to whether or not you really should. If your child really doesn't want to have her photo taken, you owe it to her to respect her wishes. However, that doesn't mean there isn't room for negotiation. Some kids are just perpetually unhappy ('m talking about you, teenagers), and just because your child is perpetually unhappy or gloomy in every photograph you take of him doesn't mean you should never take pictures of him. If he's constantly ducking the camera, it's time to negotiate some photography time. Try to make an agreement with him that you will only ever photograph him at times when he has given his permission, and schedule a couple of photo shoots a year where you are allowed to take photos in exchange for leaving him alone the rest of the time.
Now what about grief and other situations where the emotion is raw and the reasons for the sadness are profound? Should you avoid taking photographs in these situations as well? The answer is maybe. When you're photographing people who are grieving it is most important to make sure that you have the permission of everyone that you plan to photograph before you get your camera out. It may seem really awkward to even ask the question, but you may find that grieving people appreciate photography at funerals or life celebrations because it is a way to remember that important final event in their loved one’s life. Sometimes photographic evidence of all the people who loved and wanted to remember that person is a very profound and meaningful thing to have, so you shouldn't shy away from the opportunity to take those photographs just because you think they might be awkward. Oftentimes, the awkwardness is in asking the question—and the answer will relieve most of the awkwardness associated with actually taking the photographs.
What is the moral of the story? The moral of the story is that you should never let a feeling of awkwardness get between you and a great photo. Sometimes those photos that you captured in awkward situations are going to end up being your best images. When you think about it, it makes sense. If most people try to avoid taking photographs in awkward situations, then by definition photographs that are taken in awkward situations are going to be unique and interesting. And of course there's always something to be said for facing your fears and conquering them. Like public speaking, taking photographs of strangers, grieving people, and people who want everything to be perfect at all costs is going to be a challenge, and if you overcome that challenge you're going to feel great about yourself, your photography abilities, and almost certainly the photographs that you produce in that situation.
- Wedding photography
- Find unique (and potential awkward) angles to shoot from
- Don't be afraid to ask
- Street photography
- Bring along a friend
- Ask permission
- Get to know your subject
- Shoot from the hip
- Use your smartphone
- Ask permission
- Schedule photo shoots
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