Thursday, August 21, 2008

Little Details Make a Big Difference

"God is in the details" -- Gustave Flaubert (1821-80) ... or "the Devil is in the details" (a variant of the proverb). However you choose to look at it, there's no question that little details make a big difference in your work.

The ancient Greek artisans took this so seriously that the statues they carved are complete all the way around, even though they knew their carvings would be in places where no one would ever see those details. This attention to detail is perhaps one of the reasons we marvel at their art thousands of years later.

A Photojournalistic Approach to Corporate Training Materials

Recently I was working on a crew creating training materials for a restaurant chain. We decided to approach the assignment photojournalistically rather than stage the photos. This approach, showing the employees doing their jobs properly, made the photos more believable than set-up shots. These pictures will be used to train other employees and show them in detail how things should be done.

Even though we didn't stage the shots, we still had to set the stage by cleaning up the place. We had to make sure it looked as the company said it should look, that everything was in its place.

In past training programs, the photos occasionally showed that a store didn't always follow the company line in every detail. It may be as small as some item not being in its normal place, or something that's not present in every location.

Insignificant, but incorrect, details are not insignificant to those responsible for training employees. In the Nixon/Kennedy debate of 1960, it was the sweat on Nixon's brow that's remembered -- not what anyone said.

On most high-investment photo shoots, stylists are employed to catch the small details that can distract from the message. Attention to the details is the fine distinction that separates the professional from the amateur.

Communicating Clearly, Without Distractions

I've told you this story before, the one about sitting by a grandmother on a flight from Dallas. She showed me a snapshot of her grandchild standing in front of a house. The child was a mere speck in the picture, but the grandmother, so intent on the memory of the child, was not even aware of all the distractions in the photo. She remembers what the child looked like and so she saw her clearly, but only in her mind's eye.

Musicians, poets, writers and photographers are well aware of how important a detail can be. Musicians listen as they play to keep themselves in tune. Poets search for the one precise word. Writers look for the verb to carry the action. Photographers look at the subject, plus scan the complete frame to eliminate details that distract or add ones that compliment.

As professional communicators, we must show what we want people to see and show it clearly and without distraction.

If a trainee is sidetracked by a detail that should not be there, he or she may miss a point being taught. If there are too many distractions the trainees may not be trained as they should be.

It is our job to make certain the message does not fail due to things overlooked. That's why details make the difference.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Photographing Fireworks

Good fireworks photos have one thing in common - good foregrounds.

The fireworks are way up in the sky, of course, but what you put between you and the fireworks can make the difference between an okay photograph and a great shot.

During the 1976 Bicentennial Celebration at New York harbor some photographers used the Statue of Liberty in the foreground of their fireworks pictures. In Philadelphia some photographed the fireworks in the sky over Independence Hall. These pictures truly captured the mood and meaning of the celebrations because of the foregrounds chosen. 


The most difficult part of using a foreground is balancing the exposure between it and the fireworks themselves. Since it is impossible to know the correct or preferred exposure for the fireworks it is impossible to know in advance how to balance the exposure for the foreground. While this may be done "on the spot" an assistant or two would be necessary because of shortness of time of the fireworks show. To solve this problem use a foreground object that will work as a silhouette.

Prior to the event try to find out where the fireworks will be launched. Then visit the site before the show and look around. Sometimes the best location could be really far away and shot with a telephoto lens.

Pick your spot carefully because there will not be time to move once the excitement begins.

It's hard to know how high the fireworks will go before they explode or how big they will be when they do. So after the first couple of shots check the composition. Make sure it's not too loose and the fireworks are too small or too tight that they are going outside the frame. 

Equipment and Exposure 

A sturdy tripod and a cable or remote release are needed for successful fireworks photographs.

Start with the camera on the lowest ISO (100 or less). Set the aperture at ƒ/8 or ƒ/11 and the shutter speed on bulb (this keeps the shutter open for as long as the shutter release is held down; hence the need or a cable or remote release to avoid camera shake).

A small flashlight is a nice addition to you equipment for the shoot.

Take a shot or two then check the exposure. It should be close, but tweaking it a little should make the colors pop.


As soon as you hear the sound of the firework being launched open the shutter and hold it open for two or three bursts before releasing it. Blues don't photograph as well as reds or greens, so hold the shutter open longer for a blue burst. For different effects change the length of time the shutter is open.

Out of around one hundred shots of a typical show twenty or so should be excellent photos.

The really cool thing about this - an expensive camera isn't needed. Any camera that accepts a shutter or remote release, can be set to "bulb" and has a tripod socket should work. Many of the point and shoot cameras will work nicely.

So check it out before show. Find a spot with a workable foreground. Take a plethora of pictures. Isn't digital great – no film cost!