Thursday, January 14, 2010

Balancing Event Participation and Photo Taking

When I think of it, I often bring my camera when I take the kids out to a park, swimming, hiking, a birthday party, picking strawberries, etc. Commonly in these instances, I am both a participant in the activities and an observer of them; taking photos necessarily puts me in the role of an observer while I'm photographing. While I'm "observing", I tend not to be much of a participant. Is there a way to balance the two roles?

After trying to play both roles simultaneously for so many years (my son just turned 9 and I've been photographing him since he was a baby), I think I've finally got it down.

I think the key is to be a participant *first*. If you're being an observer/photographer *first*, the people around you will sense that and either get frustrated with you (e.g., your spouse gets angry that you're not helping with the children) or not interact with you because you're being aloof.

Now, while being a participant, you should be watching for photo opportunities with your camera readily available (e.g., around your neck, at your side, in your hand) and turned on. It can be tricky to have this split attention while interacting with others, because they (especially adults) may sense you're not giving them your full attention. You have to gauge the situation and may have to give up on watching for photo opps during certain stretches of conversation when you can't realistically be paying attention to both things at once.

I generally find there's an ebb and flow to these events and situations such that you can easily be more of an observer at certain times because there's a lull in the action; but then need to jump back in as a participant when warranted.

One key to making this work is learning to recognize optimal "photographic moments" and quickly snapping them and putting the camera back down. The less time you spend with the camera in front of your face (or looking down at the LCD if you're using the LCD instead of an optical viewfinder), the less you'll give others the impression you're not really participating.

I think that being an active participant can sometimes actually lead to more interesting photos; it gives you a different and somewhat "dynamic" viewpoint of the situation. Watching and interacting at the same time can create its own sort of synergy that can get into the photos and make them uniquely compelling.

I'm not sure what comes first--the elevated state of perception or trying to play the combined observer/participant role--but I've found that when it's going well, I do have this creative and energetic state of mind that not only leads to better photos but also to being more present and having more fun at the event or situation itself!...:-).

Michael Grace-Martin is a professional wedding, portrait, event, stock, and fine art photographer based in Upstate New York. He is also the author of this blog. All images and text are (c) Michael Grace-Martin Photography. His main website is:

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