Making Great Photos in Unlikely Places

As photographers, we can’t wait for the perfect light to make photographs. We have to create where we are.

I carry a camera wherever I go, and it’s on and ready to shoot at a moment’s notice. Recently, I was at a kickoff party of a new event center inside the Dickens Opera House, a historic stage in my town. I went with a couple of friends–we weren’t really invited, we just sort of ended up there—okay, we crashed it—and lucky for us we were able to join in the festivities.

It was such a fun evening, they’re great friends and we always have a lot of laughs when we get together. The venue had entertainment, we had drinks and made some photos while we were there too, despite the dim moody lighting. My friend’s wife is also a photographer, and she was shooting black and white film, which makes photographing in low light all the more difficult. She wisely chose Kodak T-Max P3200 film.

When we were ready to leave, we got on the elevator to go down to the first floor, and I thought, “What a perfect time for a photo.” Not because the light was so good–it was top light, hard overhead light from a single fixture creating dark shadows. But it was an elevator and elevators are a unique place to photograph. The rest didn’t matter, we had only one floor to descend, there was no time to wait. “Try it anyway,” I thought.

I love this portrait. They look like rock stars after they wrapped their show, headed home–she’s the lead singer/performer and he’s her husband guitar player. Like Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo who are exactly that–singer/performer and guitarist, married since 1982.

My friends aren’t really rock and rollers though they’re both creatives–she the photographer and he the filmmaker.

What makes the photo for me is its imperfection. She’s actually trying to find her jacket’s sleeve, which is why she’s positioned like that and giving such a natural expression. Neither is trying too hard to pose, she’s busy wrestling with her coat (busy is often good) and he’s leaning toward her while waiting for the elevator door to open. The light was harsh. We had mere seconds. After seeing the photograph, I decided I like the light, the poses, and that the viewer can see her camera. It’s a good storytelling photograph.

None of that would add up to a good photographic moment in the planning stages. Those are not the ingredients for a good portrait, usually.


See, that’s why we have to try it anyway. “Usually” means most of the time, but not all of the time. Sometimes the elements aren’t correct and they still create a moment that we end up liking more than if everything were preset and perfect.

Photography is a lot about making pictures, playing with light, recording it on film or electronic sensor and seeing how that light works out for the final image. And the willingness to toss the ones that don’t work out—good photographers are good editors!

Garry Winogrand once said, “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.” We have to take some chances. Try things. Everything won’t work out every time. That’s okay.

Because sometimes, they will.

And when they do, we get to have photographs that we couldn’t have created if we had directed every bit of it, or waited for all the perfect elements to align. Often when I make portraits for editorial use or for families, I end up photographing a lot of the same good pose—the proper setup. And during the shoot and edit, I am always looking for one moment that breaks from that perfect pose, one frame that’s a little more, that has a little extra something. Maybe it’s a slightly different expression, maybe it’s a moment of connection if it’s a couple but I’m looking for that one frame with a spark.

Like this. This one is the portrait that this couple chose from their session. It’s perfectly good. It’s the planned frame. It’s a sweet portrait of a great loving couple.

But this next photo is the winning photograph from that portrait session, the one that when I showed it to them, they didn’t like. It wasn’t the one they were expecting. When I delivered their print order–the above photograph–I included this one anyway at my own expense, saying it’s important that they have it, it’s a wonderful photograph of them and it needs to be in their family.

It shows their connection, their joy together. It has that one bit extra that I seek in all my photographs, that special something. Just like my friends in that elevator looking all cool despite the tough lighting conditions.

When I work for a magazine or newspaper, I have final say on what photograph I deliver for the story. I am the expert and they entrust me to make that informed decision. Unfortunately, when working for a paying client–whether a corporate CEO or a long-married couple–I don’t get final say, they do.

Though I wish I did and they would let it be my decision–I know more about photography and editing and choosing the best photograph than they do. I see the whole picture while they get turned off by some element and miss it. “My ear looks weird in that one.” I want to reply, “No, it doesn’t, it looks like an ear.”

They see one part and single it out, while the viewer sees the whole photograph.

The musician makes one mistake and gets down on their playing even though people hear the whole song, not the notes.

Make the photograph. Take chances. Expose the film. Play. Experiment. Try. In the unlikely places. In the tough light. Looking for magic. Seeking the spark. Because we won’t know until we do. The more we do, the more some will work out well.

While 100% of the ones we don’t make are guaranteed to disappoint.

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Check out my YouTube Channel of Photography Talks: my 6×6 Portraits Blog (you’re here) and my Daily Photography Podcast. Thanks!

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