Pass The Cheese

I met this woman on a cruise ship. She was a natural, and in 15 minutes I got 15 great shots. (Nikon F4, 50mm lens.)
Photos © 2001, Jack Hollingsworth, All Rights Reserved

Go to the newsstand, pick up a magazine--any one will do--and take a look at the ads that feature people. What are they doing? More important, what are they feeling? What emotions are they expressing? I'll bet that the emotional content of the photograph is what makes you relate to the people in the picture.

I don't know when this got started, but in the last two or three years in stock, editorial, commercial, and advertising photography there's been a trend toward a more basic, unpolished, unstyled look in photographs, resulting in images that are gritty and believable, that seem to have been caught on the run. It's a look that's as far from "stand and face the camera and say cheese" as you can get.

To start out, you can work with your family. I did--this is my wife, Shannon, and my daughter, Emma. (Nikon F4, 50mm lens.)

In two decades of commercial travel shooting, I've come to realize that the ability to direct and capture real emotion in the people being photographed is the absolute difference between the work of amateurs and the pictures made by pros.

Direct & Capture
Note that I said "direct and capture." If I'm very lucky my work is simply to record a fleeting sense of feeling, but more often and more likely, my job as a shooter is to direct the subjects to express real emotion, then capture it on film. I know that a lot of times as a travel photographer you're a passive observer, a witness to what's there. You may get lucky and capture a magic moment, but most of the time you've got to direct those moments. You've got to dig deep and get in there with your subjects, and you can't be afraid of that kind of intimacy and interaction.

Real people, really having fun on a Hawaiian beach for an image that's miles from a "stand in the surf and smile" photo. (Nikon F4, 80-200mm zoom.)

Doing this takes a lot of dedicated practice and lots of experience, but if you work at it, it will make a world of difference in your pictures.

I've been looking very hard to create and then capture real feelings from the subjects of my travel photographs. The pictures you see here aren't of professional models--these are people I've met on assignments, some I've worked with for days, some only for five minutes; some are friends and family members.

The difference is that in the past I'd be happy with the "say cheese" shot--the basic, clean look of the camera smile. Okay, I'd think, that's a good shot, I can license that. Now I get that shot, but then I push it, looking for laughter or sensitivity or emotion; the "Wow!" shot. With a little luck and a lot of initiative, you can do it, too. Frankly, a lot of it depends on you being dissatisfied with the standard cheese shot.

Friends of mine, having fun and acting goofy on the beach as I ran along with them. (Nikon F4, 50mm lens.)

I worked with these people. I suggested ideas and poses. I coaxed the performances from them. I relaxed them by opening myself up, by complimenting them. I'm very liberal with compliments and reinforcing a positive image. I do a lot of "That's great€you look terrific€give me more of that€do that again€that's wonderful!"

We all meet people in our lives who we can work with like this. Let's face it, some people when you look in their eyes, there's no one home. It doesn't matter how good they might look, they just don't have the spark, the personality. They're just not going to get it. And then there are the people who positively light up. They have spirit, personality, humor, a sense of fun and playfulness.

A genuine expression from a woman I happened to meet in Delhi. (Nikon F4, 80-200mm zoom.)

How do you find them? First look for people whose work brings them into contact with other people. In a marketplace look for the vendor who's animated and engaging, who is used to talking to people and playing to them. Look for a tour guide who knows how to engage his audience. Look for the body language, the expressions, the animation. Look for extroverts.

If you're saying, oh, no, I couldn't do that, that's not me, let me suggest this: start close to home. I'll bet there's a friend or relative who is exactly the kind of person you want to photograph. Every family has one--the social director, the person with energy and personality, who comes alive when the camera makes an appearance. Work with that person, and then take a deep breath and take what you've learned with you when you travel.

The cheese? Pass it by.