Spectator or Participant? Think Longer and Closer
March 25th, 2018 by David LaBelle

Using the built-in wide-angle iPhone lens, I show a broad scene of people intensely watching the final seconds of a youth lacrosse match, at right. By taking a step closer, I watch, anticipate and record the moment of victory.
Photos by David LaBelle

Waiting a half second or taking one step closer might seem like a simple thing, but it can be the difference between static, lifeless pictures that leave viewers feeling like invested participants rather than distant spectators.

Much of photography is about moments: fractions of seconds that capture and hold pieces of time forever. An average picture and a compelling image are often measured in inches and half seconds.

When I speak of moments and moving closer to subjects, some complain such advice is fine for those using DSLR cameras, but not practical for smartphone camera users.

I disagree.

Because cell cameras come with built-in “fixed” wide-angle lenses around 20mm, you can work extremely close with great depth of field—the area that stays in focus. But as with any wide-angle lens, to capture the depth and layers of information in a photograph, you must get close and anticipate action or emotion.

When we photograph from a distance with a wide-angle lens, everything dissolves onto a one-dimensional plane. We lose energy and depth—critical components of a photograph.

Getting closer requires a bit of courage and abandonment of self-consciousness.

Many great conflict photos have been made with wide-angle lenses on the camera bodies of photographers who were close enough to touch the subjects of their pictures.

They understand a sense of intimacy or urgency is seldom captured from a distance. Sometimes you have to be in the fray to see and feel it.

Yes, you can add clip-on lenses to go wider or add magnification with a telephoto lens. These add-ons make a cell camera much like a 35mm digital camera.

A common practice I see with cell camera users is enlarging the image on the screen to bring action closer. Unfortunately, the magnification comes with the price of reduced image (pixel) quality.

Images you enlarge look less sharp and pixelated.

Using magnification is like taking a magnifying glass to a TV screen. You are better served to shoot without magnification—which preserves the integrity of the image file—and enlarge the image in Photoshop after the fact.

Most cell cameras have a fixed aperture of around f.2—the widest lens opening—so they can handle low light fairly well. My iPhone is 2.2.

The ongoing quest for photographic craftsmanship—whatever camera you use—is to see all four corners of the frame, fill the viewfinder only with the desired content and press the shutter button at precisely the right moment to capture the scene you have anticipated or envisioned.

It sounds easy, but few true photographic artists have mastered this. The late Henry Cartier Bresson, who I have often quoted, did not believe in cropping his pictures after the fact. What he saw and captured in the 35mm viewfinder is what he shared.

He was an artist indeed.

Once you get past selfies and posed pictures, recording real storytelling moments with a cellphone requires courage, anticipation and luck.

When you think you are close enough, take one step closer and fill the frame.

Trust me, you will see how different your pictures feel.

You might also practice moving close to subjects, hold your composition, then allow the movement—the action—to move into your frame.

Average pictures suddenly come alive with energy, movement and depth.

Above all, have fun, experiment and please shoot more than one frame.

David LaBelle is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He applies many of the lessons he learned during his magical boyhood years in rural California to photography. For more information, visit www.greatpicturehunt.com.