In Friday Fun

Today’s Friday Fun departs from recipes. Photography has been a hobby of mine for several years and today I want to share one tip for taking better pictures.

Every photographer who wants to move from taking snapshots to real photographs asks this question: How can I take good photographs? Entire libraries of books have been written on this subject but it really comes down to two things: Know your camera, at least a little; and develop an eye for the interesting. Or, as documentary photographer Arthur “Weegee” Fellig said, “f/8 and be there.”

Who Was Weegee?

Arthur Fellig is not a well-known photographer outside of photography circles. He’s not an Ansel Adams or Dorothea Lange. He was a documentary photographer from the 1940s, well before digital photography. Fellig made a name for himself photographing crime scenes. He started as a freelancer, without credentials. He’d follow police reports and show up at crime scenes, taking photographs and later selling them wherever he could. It’s said that the nickname Weegee comes from the ouija boards that supposedly predicted the future. Fellig had a knack for showing up, almost as if he’d been told where to go by some mysterious force.

What does “f/8 and be there” Mean?

Fellig’s statement has been fodder for hundreds of articles about what he meant. Here are a few more. Adorama wrote about him; as have countless bloggers (like me). There’s even a Wikipedia article entitled “f/8 and be there.”

What Fellig meant was, know your camera, both its limitations and what are the best settings; and be where good pictures happen. The first is a technical statement; the second is more philosophical.

By “f/8” Fellig was referring to the fact that most documentary photography, and this includes street photography, photojournalism, travel, nature, wildlife — anything done outside a studio and without setup, where you have one chance at the picture — is best shot in 35 mm format. This means a 35 mm focal length lens, not 35 mm film. The 35 mm focal length lens gives enough room in the frame to include elements that give perspective and interpretation to the photo. “f/8” refers to the lens aperture. The size of the aperture controls how much light enters the lens and therefore how much light is available to make the image, whether on film or digitally. The size of the aperture also affects the depth of field, or the portions of the photograph, from near to far, and how much of that is in focus. An aperture of f/8 gives a decent depth of field. Generally with f/8, anything between 9 feet in front of the lens to infinity in reasonably sharp focus. From a technical aspect, Fellig was saying, assuming you’re shooting a 35 mm format, set the aperture to f/8 and you won’t have to worry about focus.

By “be there” Fellig is expressing a philosophical or artistic viewpoint to go with the technical. He meant it literally: be where the good photographs are. As he said, “if you want to be famous for taking pictures of famous people, take pictures of famous people.” You can’t do that unless you go where famous people are. So be wherever the kinds of photographs you want to take will be.

On a more metaphorical level, “be there” means be involved and interacting wherever you are. Don’t be looking at your cell phone or daydreaming about what you’re going to have for dinner tonight.

Don’t be satisfied with the standard pinkish-orange sunset reflecting off the lake or the stiff family standing in front of Old Faithful as it goes off. Look for whatever interests you, what moves you, what makes you think “what am I looking at?” What’s interesting to you might not be interesting to everyone, but chances are a lot of people will think your choice is interesting. For example, I like to include people in my photos, but I cut them off occasionally.

The addition of the person gives some humanity and perspective to the photo, but cutting off his head and leaving him slightly out of focus means he isn’t the main focus of the photograph.

I also think that by “be there” Fellig was saying, just go somewhere and wait for something to happen. Photography, like hunting, requires patience. Sometimes you come home skunked, but occasionally you get a trophy.

So there you have it. All you need to know to take great photographs in one simple sentence: f/8 and be there. Summer is here. Go out and take some great photographs.

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