Real moments in controlled situations

Photography is an interesting medium because the more random and “messy” a photo appears, the more effective it can be. It seems more real if there is some dirt in the image. Some photographers, especially photojournalists, feel the only way to achieve spontaneity and candidness in photos is to hide from the subject, have no involvement with the subject and become the “fly on the wall.” These photographers don’t want to use lighting or portrait techniques because the photos are never “real” moments.

I have seen, however, marvelous moments in photos that are from very controlled situations. Harry Benson, a noted photographer who works for LIFE, is one shooter I admire and who has this talent. He is an experienced news photographer who also does celebrity portraits. He has the ability to make composed, calculated photos from uncontrolled situations while also being able to capture unexpected moments in controlled situations. That is talent.

One of the most controlled photography situations involving people is a fashion shoot. The models are chosen and hired for their looks. The clothes are selected for their style and impact and the locations are scouted in advance. At the shoot, we have a stylist who works for hours on hair and makeup. Teenaged girls who wear a size 2 look like alluring women.

So much for reality.

But there is the opportunity to make photos that have a unpredictable essence. Last week, I was working on our fall fashion project. We were shooting at a new shopping complex in the heart of the tourist region and I was trying to get photos that looked like caught moments; ones that you might see if you were people-watching while sitting on a bench. The trick is to work closely with the models so that they can forget that they are wearing four times as much makeup as they normally do and that they are wearing heavy sweaters in 85 degree heat.

We hired two models – Bob and Lina (lee – nuh) – to portray a young couple. Both are at the start of their modeling careers. Bob is 27 and Lina is 17. We shot ten different scenes over the course of 2 days and used more than 30 rolls of film. I shot color high-speed negative film which allows me to work in low light situations without adding strobe lights. It was a compromise I could take because the clothes this season are mostly gray and I wouldn’t need the extra color quality that color slide film would offer.

By the end of the last day, we had made a lot of good photos. Bob and Lina seemed to understand the freedom I was giving them by not asking them to hit model poses. We had a cover shot already and were ready to shoot the last outfits. She’s be wearing a long, gray evening dress and he’d be in a black shirt and gray slacks.

We had planned to shoot outside just after sunset, using a walkway where tiny white lights are wrapped around the palm trees. It would be very pretty – if it wasn’t raining, which it was. Weather in Florida is spontaneous and we had to be flexible.

I suggested we use a vintage-styled diner instead which was a location we hadn’t even scouted. The white tile floors and counters worked well with the outfits and the chrome and red vinyl counter stools would be a nice touch of texture.

Bob and Lina took their places at the counter and I set a tripod a few feet away. The music was loud, so they had to lean towards each other a bit to talk. That worked very well, but things worked even better when the music changed to the Bee Gees “Staying Alive.” The servers turned up the music and formed a dance line to entertain the tourists eating there. Bob and Lina and laughed and joked and I kept the motor drive working.

The song ended and I grabbed the camera off the tripod and jumped on a counter stool next to Bob. Shooting over his shoulder with a 60mm lens, I quickly focused on Lina as they continued their flirty chat. About a minute later, I stopped because the energy had dropped down.

When we edited the film, this last photo kept jumping up at us. It was far less planned than any cover we’ve done – in fact, it was probably the least calculated photo of the entire shoot – but it had that certain “ooomph” we wanted. It was a photo that required a lot of work, but one that looked very easy.

Many commercial photographers have problems giving up total control in order to get photos like these. Many photojournalists have problems taking any control over posing and influencing the scene – sometimes because of ethical or stylistic concerns or because they have little experience in these situations. For me, fashion is a good shoot because I can use my experience and people skills to let the models be more “real.” I can also practice composition and lighting techniques I can then use quickly in more uncontrolled, fluid situations.

Tom Burton

originally published on  September 15, 1998 on

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