Jay Maisel

Photo Tip: Gesture in Photographs – by Sabrina Henry

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Gesture will always reveal narrative, which light and color alone find it difficult to do. Gesture can tell a story. ~ Jay Maisel

The goal of most photographers is to make pictures that say something about a subject we feel is important. We do this in any number of ways, one of which is using gesture. Gesture is basically body language and in many cases, it is universal. That is why it can be very powerful when used effectively in a photograph.

richmond summer night market

This is an image I made as part of my night market series. It is one of my favourite images from that series. Because of two important gestures within the frame, this picture evokes emotions through implied sound and it tells a story about what it is like to be at the market. The first gesture is the woman to the left of the frame who is calling out to people to try the BBQ squid. The market is a lively place where people are in friendly competition to sell food to hungry visitors. That is an important part of this market and indeed many markets you see around the world. Often sales are made only by engaging with buyers and gesture is necessary to catch their attention especially when there are language barriers. The second gesture is subtler. It is the woman the right of the frame looking at the squid on the grill with her finger at the corner of her mouth. This gesture indicates she is thinking about making a purchase, which effectively completes the narrative within this picture.

Gesture is usually captured in one of two ways: by accident or with a whole of patience. Much of the gesture I see in street photography is often by accident and the narrative is applied only after the picture has been made. If you want to be a good photographer, you cannot rely on this method to create a meaningful narrative. Putting content into your photographs requires understanding what you want to say so that you can recognize it when you see it (or you can create it yourself when you choose to pose people). This picture at the market was made towards the end of my two-year project photographing there. I spent almost every weekend during the summer months getting to know the people who worked at the booths. In this case, Lucy who owned the booth allowed me into her space to photograph from that perspective. I studied how she would go about selling her BBQ squid and we would talk about her competition five stalls down, how a location closer to the entrance would increase sales, and next year she would find a way to be in a better booth and maybe sell other items. I spent weeks making pictures at her stall with her niece who is the one in the picture. After I made this picture, I stopped because I knew I had the one that said everything I wanted to say about her stall. 

One of my favourite images that demonstrates effective storytelling through gesture is from William Albert Allard. It is this picture from his Peru collection on his website, which can also be found in his book Five Decades: A Retrospective on page 104. Again there are a couple of gestures here, the first is of the man putting on his hat but it is that second gesture that makes this picture priceless. The man in the middle of the picture is looking at a thread on the cape being carried by the other man. That attention to detail is part of the show that is bullfighting. The elaborate costumes they wear are decorative while at the same time, they must allow the matadors to move with ease. And if I’m not mistaken, this may be where the expression “dressed to kill” originated.

While gesture is usually attributed to humans or animals, it can also be found in landscape photography. Body language can only be implied in nature but what is the same for us as photographers is the intention of conveying an emotion or feeling through some kind of motion. We see it in the wind blowing through a field of rye or the light rays bursting through the clouds at sunrise or even the way branches on a willow tree reach out and gently touch the grass.

Want to learn how to make stronger pictures using gesture? Sign up for one of our private workshops and we can show you how.

Are You Ready for Prime Time?

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If you are like me, when you started out in photography chances are you bought a compact camera with a zoom lens or an entry level DSLR with a zoom kit lens. When I became serious about photography my first digital camera was a Canon G9 with 35-210mm lens equivalent and soon after I moved up to the Nikon D80 with a wide angle zoom 18-55mm lens. It wasn’t long before I picked up my next lens, a telephoto zoom that took me from 55-200mm. For about fifteen months, I made photographs with only these two lenses until a friend loaned me his 50mm f1.8 prime lens to take on a photographic safari to Kenya. As soon as I returned home, I bought that lens for myself. It was light and fast and there was no excuse not to take my camera with me because I could just throw it in my bag and take it everywhere.

Today my carry around camera is the Olympus OM-D EM-5 and recently I decided to add two new prime lenses, the 35mm equivalent and the 50mm equivalent (I already have a 28mm equivalent). These lenses weren’t cheap but they have not left my camera body since I purchased them and they have been money well spent. During a recent trip to New Orleans these lenses performed beyond my expectation and I came home with plenty of good photographs.

The Spotted Cat New Orleans
The Spotted Cat, New Orleans 50mm 1/60 sec f1.8 ISO 2500

So how do you know when it is time to add prime lens to your camera bag? Here are a few questions to ask yourself to help decide if you are ready to make the investment.

Do you need a fast lens?
I love to photograph at night and in low light environments. Prime lenses have large maximum apertures, some open to f/1.2, compared to even the fastest zoom lenses, which typically go down to f2.8. In low light conditions, you can adjust your shutter speed and ISO in addition to your aperture but at some point you will see noise at the higher ISO settings and camera shake will be a problem at slower shutter speeds. This is when a fast prime lens will outshine your best zoom lens. I used both my lenses to photograph New Orleans at night including in jazz and music bars and I was able to get sharp images at the maximum apertures of f/1.2 and f/1.8. By contrast I tried my fastest zoom lens and most, if not all of those images, were unusable.

Is Weight An Issue?
One of the biggest distinctions between primes and zooms is in the weight of these two types of lenses. Prime lenses generally weigh less because they have fewer moving parts and optical elements. If you have back, shoulder or neck issues that are preventing you from going out to make photographs, these lighter prime lenses will make a difference. You will be able to pack two or three prime lenses and a camera body in a bag that normally takes one body and a standard telephoto zoom.

What kind of photography do you do?
Depending on what you want to photograph prime lenses could be a big help. Because they are smaller, they are less intrusive and more discreet. While some street photographers like to use zooms because they can reach without being “in your face”, others prefer a wide angle prime lens such as the 24mm or the 28mm because you can be close to your subject matter and they remain unaware you are taking a picture. If you are interested in macro photography, a prime lens is a must (it is sometimes called a fixed focal length macro). There are very few true macro zoom lenses (the Nikon ED 70-180mm is one) and if you want 1:1 magnification, a prime macro lens is what you need. Sure you can buy a close-up filter but the quality of your images won’t match those taken with a macro lens. Popular macro focal lengths are 55mm, 85mm and 105mm depending on the availability in each camera brand.

Is cost a concern?
Prime lenses are sometimes seen as more expensive than zoom lenses because you have one fixed focal length per lens. In order to cover the focal range of a traditional 24-70mm street zoom lens, you would need to buy a 24mm or a 28mm, a 35mm, a 50mm and possibly a 85mm. That adds up so if cost is a concern, you might want to stick with your zoom lens and slowly upgrade as your budget allows. In the meantime there are relatively inexpensive prime lenses you can buy that are probably faster than your zoom—the 50mm f1.8, for example. Sure you can buy the f1.4 or even the f1.2 but for many, the f1.8 is the perfect lens to transition to working with primes. It was for me!

How lazy curious are you?
One of the most common complaints about working with primes is the need to switch lenses to get the focal length you think you need. This is a hassle if you only have one camera body and you need to remove one prime lens to replace it with another. Zoom lenses allow you to stay in one place and make your photograph at different focal lengths. While that is easier than switching out lenses, if you are curious about how your camera sees at various focal lengths, spending time with one prime lens is a great way to improve your understanding of how your camera works. (Jack Kurtz wrote a great post on one camera, one lens that you should check out.) The fact is your prime lens can be a zoom lens of sorts using a term called “foot zoom”. Yes you can treat your 50mm prime like a 35mm prime if you just move closer to the subject matter and compose your photograph. These approaches come down to how curious you are about finding out what something looks like photographed from various distances using different lenses. Doing this will help you become a better photographer.

At the Bangkok Photo School, we are often asked what camera or lens to buy and students think they need to buy new equipment before signing up for our Beginners Class. We actually advise students to wait until they’ve attended the class so we can have a discussion about the most suitable camera and lenses to purchase. Our next class starts May 28 and we have some spots available. Click here for more information or email us with your enquiries.

If you aren’t ready for prime time yet, take heart. One of the best photographers around today, Jay Maisel photographs using the Nikon 28-300mm telephoto zoom lens. Here is a blogpost about his favourite lens and here is a link to his wonderful work.