For Good Photography: Access > Gear

It’s a simple equation, but good access beats top camera equipment every time.

Because we need to be somewhere to make the photo, and where that is matters first, much more so than what camera and lens is in our hands. An example will make this clearer.

I was at a friends’ house on Christmas and they had flown in their daughter’s college girlfriend as a surprise for her 25th birthday which falls a couple days after, and their daughter’s girlfriend was arriving right on Christmas Day. She would make her surprise entrance just in time for their Christmas dinner. I knew when to expect her because I was the one who ran to the airport to get her after she flew in from Tuscon.

I walked in first. The house was full of family and friends–I knew all of them, I’m like one of the family. I made a point of saying quick hellos knowing that the girlfriend was only a couple of minutes behind me. I set the exposure on the Leica M6 and 35mm Summicron–the best camera and lens in many photographers’ opinions–and then, I chose my spot to photograph the moment, picked exactly where I wanted to be.

Didn’t matter. It was exactly the opposite of where I needed to be.

The girlfriend walked in, stepped in front of me in a blur and hugged my friend’s daughter, their faces turned facing away.

My friend, sitting on the couch on the opposite side of the room, pulled out her cell phone camera and made a wonderful portrait of her daughter and her surprise friend together. Tears on their faces. Emotional expressions.

I photographed the backs of their heads. Waiting for them to look at each other, to give me something.

I ended up making a few photographs, but it’s a great example where good access makes the photo. Being at the right place at the right time.

If you’re a nature photographer, it’s in place, set up at the lake an hour before sunrise.

If your a music photographer, it’s backstage before the concert, if you can somehow get back there.

If you’re a sports photographer, it’s the opposite endzone when there’s a defensive interception and the player runs the length of the field for a touchdown.

We have to be on the right side of the action to get the shot.

The camera and lens have to be proficient enough, sure, but no top-of-the-line camera is going to make gold out of a bad location, the wrong angle or perspective. The phone camera with the clear view beats it every time.

And I don’t even like phone cameras!

But this was one time where being at the right place with a lesser camera was much more conducive to good photographs than me with my experience and Leica. Didn’t matter. The picture is all that matters.

And one I didn’t get.

This is the side I picked, since I didn’t want to be standing in front of everyone. Their daughter is seated in the left foreground corner of this photograph. The girlfriend entered from the right, sat on the arm of her friend’s chair and they hugged with both their faces turned toward the window (which means they were in beautiful window light). My friend is the one standing, the one who had the perfect angle from her place on the couch.

Not so great for me–I had the backs of their heads. (I’m the one in tears behind them in bad light.)

I was able to come around and photograph from the opposite side, but missed most of the emotional moments. In photojournalism, all you need is one, so I have one, but it was slim pickings trying to find an angle where I could see both their faces.

This has some of the emotion of the moment. But again, I’m hovering, just trying to get anything.

This one I made of them later that night, and it’s the one I printed for them in my darkroom, two copies, one for each of them, both 5×7, and placed into small wood frames. This is the one that will be valuable to them in 30 years.

And it will exist since it’s a physical print, in a frame. It will survive moves and end up on new shelves in different houses, maybe different states or countries. It will be a photograph that they will tell their kids about–that special Christmas Day surprise all those years ago when they were very young and she was turning 25.

I doubt those perfect pictures from my friend’s phone will still be able to be located in 2051. I can’t imagine that they won’t have become lost in 30 years of digital clutter, computer updates, new phones and millions of files. I don’t know that there is any plan to print them. And without a print, there’s very little chance they’ll be around.

I can’t find digital pictures from 2011, just ten years ago, and I have a quality filing system.

That’s why I use film. And it’s why I brought a film Leica to that Christmas dinner. To have a way to create a negative and a make a simple print of the two of them.

They will open the frames someday and find there is an additional photo inside, the one of them seated on the chair hugging.

But that’s a surprise for another day.

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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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