What is the only way to be happy about your photos? By being unhappy with them. Confused? Allow me to explain. Just about every photographer I know is never completely happy with his photos. No matter how perfect, photographers always push to make it just a little better. If you work in a black-and-white darkroom, you know what it’s like to make print after print, getting that little nuance to be a little better. Just a little more burning in. Just a little more dodging. Just a little darker. Of course, after you get out of the darkroom and dry the photos, you are hard pressed to remember which is which, they all look alike.
Then there are the words that every photographer is famous for. “Just one more shot,” “Just one more roll,” “Just one more step back,” “Just a little closer.” And so on. We’re never happy. At a monthly salon I have with several other photographers, it amazes me when someone like Howard Schatz is always asking opinions about his images in progress. He wants feedback from his peers, seeing how he can improve them. Of course it’s hard for us to talk about them as our jaws are usually opened to the ground.
This drive to always improve, to make it just a little better, is what separates the good photographers from the great photographers, in my opinion.
I just finished a job that would have taken much less time than it did, if I was just willing to settle. It was a shot at Grand Central Station in New York on the last day we could shoot before the Christmas decorations went up. The job was to be shot on 4×5 film so the client could get all that fine detail of the station on a big piece of film. You can talk it to death, but there is no substitute for a larger piece of film to get that fine detail. 35mm is great and 120mm is even better, but 4×5 and 8×10 always knock your socks off. Unfortunately, spontaneity is not a word associated with those formats. It’s always a trade off. Speed and convenience vs. quality.
When shooting jobs like this, one of the better tools to have is a set of nice big walkie-talkies. They are vital in communicating and positioning people. I could just give instructions to one of my assistants and he would move the models on the ground level. Another reason to have big walkie-talkies is that it gives you an immediate look of “official.” Ask someone to move without anything and maybe they will. Ask them to move while pointing a big Motorola walkie-talkie and holding a clipboard, and the world jumps to your requests.
The client was more than happy with what we shot from the mezzanine level of the terminal. I shot from two different vantages and on one I tilted the swings and tilts to put most of the image out of focus, while keeping the main point of interest and the three models on the floor sharp and in focus. It’s a good look that is very easy with a 4×5 camera because of the swings and tilts.
After three variations we were getting tired from a very early start to the day. But I knew we had permission to go up into the catwalk above the terminal floor. In fact, we went up there when we scouted for vantage points. The art director was willing to call it a day, but I wanted just one more variation. As scared as the art director was of heights, we trucked up the elevator to the top level at Grand Central. It’s a little scary if you are afraid of heights because the “floors” of the walkways up there are made of thick glass. Thick glass with cracks in it. Luckily, I don’t have a fear of heights.
The contact person from Grand Central told us not to bunch up on the walkway and not to take too much equipment. I listened very carefully and followed each instruction. Ahh, but it was beautiful. What a view. I can’t show the 4×5 images the client commissioned until their license runs out in a year, but I did shoot a quick roll of 35mm up there for myself and now for you dear reader. Here’s the view. Looks great. Except I just wish I coulda….