1 Best Seat in the House: Choosing the Right Spot
The most important decision you’ll make when it comes to taking an excellent photo has nothing to do with your camera or your lens. Composition is key to visual appeal, so your foremost task is to choose the right spot from which to shoot. Think of it this way: when you book a ticket to a movie or a football game, you choose the best seat available in order to have the optimal view. The same idea applies to photography. To take the best picture, you must choose the best seat in the venue – in other words, choose the “right” spot. The position where you stand defines the composition of your photograph. Imagine an empty parking lot. A tree grows in the middle of the lot and, in front of the tree, stands your model. The perspective and layout of the composition you create for this scene, however, depends on where you position your camera. The tree will be to the right of the model in your photo when you take your shot from the left. If you shoot from behind the tree, the tree will be either partially or entirely in front of the model, blocking him or her from view. When you are positioned dead-center, the tree will be growing from your model’s head and, if the camera is zoomed in for a close-up, you can eliminate the tree from the composition altogether. The point is, if you don’t walk around and experiment with the positioning of your camera, then you’re bound to miss the perfect shot. In any case, not bothering to consider various angles and perspectives means you’re not placing enough emphasis on the composition of your picture. If you ask a studio photographer to name the most important aspect of photography, he or she will probably emphasize the value of lighting. A photojournalist, on the other hand, does not have the luxury to freely arrange studio flashes, nor can he/she place the models on their "marks" to ensure they catch the best light. Photojournalism is so engaging because it captures the spontaneity of a moment in time in all of its natural beauty. The only thing you have full control over as a photographer is your position. In choosing the right spot, you decide where the available light comes from, where the subject appears, and how the background is arranged in the picture. Whereas light may be the most important aspect of studio photography, your own perspective and intuition - in other words, choosing the right spot from which to shoot - will be what tells the story you want to tell. If you want to photograph in a way that no one else has, to produce a composition that has yet to be produced, then you must stand where no one else stands or has stood. Before you take your shot, look around, walk around, and choose your unique position. For most occasions, the best spots are limited. If you’ve attended any highly publicized event, you will have noticed that all journalists and photographers are jockeying for the same position, throwing elbows and getting in each other's way. This is because the ideal composition is often universal. Man’s visual perception of “beauty” when it comes to the layout of a photograph or of a painting is surprisingly standard the world over. This is why the composition of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” for instance, appeals to many; because, to a certain degree, our eyes work to gauge beauty in the same way. Sure, beauty is “in the eye of the beholder,” but this does not necessarily mean that no universal ideal exists. That being said, your composition does not have to be this ideal in order to be considered visually intriguing; it can be new and unique and still appeal to the masses.
This picture was taken in a room with little space. I was forced to kneel down in front of the teacher’s desk and use a wide-angle lens. The position allowed me to be at the height of the children's eyes and at the feet of Lenin’s portrait at the far end of the room. The position in front of the gangway separating two rows of desks also allowed me to fit many children into the frame, who would normally have been hid-den by the front row. Do not be afraid to kneel, crouch down, or even lie down to find your ideal position and perspective.
Set in the Albanian mountains shortly after the fall of the dictator Enver Hoxha, again I knelt on the floor to be at the same height as the women. It allowed me to include the hand with cigarette, while emphasizing the endearing semicircle of a close-knit family warming themselves by the stove.
In the early nineties, a fire destroyed four houses in the old town of St. Gallen. The best spot from which to photograph the destruction was the women’s toilet on the top floor of a five-star hotel. Inevitably, one after another, the town’s photojournalists filed in to take their pictures.