PRACTICE THE ART OF SEEING FOR BETTER STORIES

Pacific Ocean, north of San Diego

Pacific Ocean, north of San Diego

Good photography is often the result of developing relationships with the subject.
— Frans Lanting, National Geographic Photographer

I was struck by this statement when listening to a recent CreativeLive broadcast on The Art of Seeing.   It moved me because I struggle with the balance of taking time with my subjects to really find their story, versus the pressures of creating more content faster.

Frans Lanting photographs and documents the lives of animals in the wild - in the Amazon, in the Antartica, Africa and various other parts of the world.  And spoken by him, this was a great understatement.  For example, his series of photos on Macaws in the wild took three months in the field to finally capture.  Most of his shots take great lengths to plan and then happen only after he has had time to observe the animals.  He studies their habits to determine where they drink water or care for their young and at what time and how the light is positioned at that time.  And he finds a way to coexist in a way that allows him to photograph them intimately and tell their stories.

In our busy realities, we do not generally have months to tell a story.

But we also do not have time or money to rush a story for the sake of rushing.

In the rush to continuously push out content, it is helpful to reflect on what is gained with time, and find ways to give yourself time to relate to the subject of your story, and the audience who will be watching your story.

What comes with time?

I make both documentary and narrative style shorts, and this is what I’ve discovered comes with time.

You Discover Patterns:  

  • These can be visual patterns that you want to capture in video.  Or these may be behavior patterns that when captured reveals your subject in a more human or light.

You Discover Questions:

  • As you go deeper into the story you want to tell, you might realize elements that you overlooked on first pass that strengthen your end call to action.  If you have time for a focus group screening, you can discover questions your audience has based on their different knowledge base, and you can rework your video to address these gaps in knowledge.  Often, those wanting to create a video are experts in their areas and forget what is common knowledge and what is specialized knowledge that needs to be translated.

You Discover Nuances:

  • You find nuances to your story that you hadn’t anticipated.  I find this can even happen with scripted works.  When on set, while shooting to script, if you take the time to really observe the shoot and the interactions of your subjects, you may discover a better way to say something or a better angle to show something in a way that enhances your story.

This type of time spent with your subject is different from over analyzing.  Rather, I think of it as walking meditation.  You are actively experiencing the subject, taking it in to your perception, and processing it with a different way of seeing as the end result.

To give you a concrete example, I just completed filming a bike ride from Santa Barbara to San Diego.  The stated goal was to film the ride to show how fun it is and capture some beautiful scenery for a promotional video for the following year.

This was a documentary style shoot, so we couldn’t anticipate how the ride would unfold.  The filming on the first day was very different than the filming on the third day.  As I experienced the ride, I was able to make adjustments in my filming.  I changed camera angles.  I started observing and filming the smaller details like the the shadows of bike wheels in motion and the crew driving the support vehicles and manning the food tables as riders rushed to the tables.  These are elements that will allow me to be more artistic in the edit and by expanding the focus of my camera to filming the support, I was able to illustrate an aspect of the supported ride you don’t get when out riding on your own.

This makes for a richer, more artistic and more interesting and nuanced video.  

If I had come out and filmed only one day of the ride, I would have gotten some basic footage but missed the subtleties and opportunities to observe and find different ways of presenting the same material.

I struggle with the pressure to create more content faster with my own web series.  People put up videos so quickly.  I have experimented with quickly produced videos.  When I already have a spent time with the content it has worked out, but even then I feel the video could have benefited from a bit more time with the subject.

When you are looking to create evergreen content or persuasive content, it is not only worthwhile but essential to take the time to really get to know and understand the subject in question and how it can be embodied and translated for video.  It is like wine or fine cheese and gets better with age and proper handling.

I feel happy that media like National Geographics exist and give their photographers the time and space needed to captures parts of the world we’d never see without their patience.  And I wish for you the space necessary to present your message in the fullest way possible by having the time to discover your subject and tell your story with heart and insight and connection.