Details, Details: Sometimes the Smallest Detail will Tell the Biggest Story


The difference between something good and something great is attention to detail- Charles R Swindoll

The retreating storm surge from Hurricane Katrina left a layer of mud which over six months dried around this child's computer mouse in a classroom at Charles B. Murphy Elementary in Pearlington, Miss.

Not all stories require “The Big Picture.” Not all photographs need huge moments to tell the story. Sometimes the quietest photo with the smallest detail screams the loudest.

One of the many things I love to shoot are the details I see while working on assignments. Sometimes the smallest detail will tell the biggest story.

They are everywhere. It is simply a matter of opening ones eye and seeing them all around. It is also a matter of listening to your subjects and linking what they say, to what is around them.

Vietnam War veteran Howie Berg touches the names of service members killed in action during the Vietnam War while visiting the Moving Wall in Aspen, Colo.

A good example would be a painter. They’ll describe the way he likes to paint their work. They’ll tell you how they mix the paint, what brushes, favorite colors, and even the make of the canvass they use. These are all details that in some way should be shot. Whether or not you decide to use them, you should have them so that if your client asks, you have the answer.

Another would be the bent wrench which lays on my bookshelf. It looks like an old wrench, but it is a little piece of my dad I like to keep with me. Asking questions is a powerful tool to use to find meaningful details you would otherwise never know about or simply overlook.

Take the time to walk around and observe your surroundings. Look high then low, on tables, on the floor, on the ceiling, and the walls. You will be amazed at the images that will materialize as you slowly make your way around.

One technique I use when walking around, I simply kneel on the floor with one knee and close my eyes. This allows me to hear the sounds around me, clear my thoughts, and ultimately open my eyes to a new world of these images around me.

Delegate Wendy Wilson of Westminster, Colo., sheds a tear while listening to Barack Obama's acceptance speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver

While on my second trip to Pearlington, Miss., to document the recovery six months after Hurricane Katrina, writer Scott Condon and I finished our assignments early. We were at the Volunteer Center transmitting our daily work. He wandered off to find a place for a nap.

As I was sitting outside, I was looking at the school. The watermark left by the storm surge at its peak was almost 10 feet above the floors. For some reason I began hearing the ghostly laughter from the kids as they played outside during recess.

This compelled me to explore the school buildings. In the school I found subtle reminders of the children that once attended. A teddy bear laying in the hallway, a computer mouse surrounded by the mud which settled on the desk and ultimately cracked over time. The watermark across the face of a clock in a classroom. Stained books strewn about the halls and rooms. A homework assignment left on the chalkboard with the due date “Monday, Aug. 29th.”

During the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, I observed the faces of the delegates as Barack Obama gave his acceptance speech. In the face of one of the delegates, I saw a tear rolling down her cheek next to a temporary tattoo of the future president. With a lot of luck due to the dim lighting, I was able to capture a some of the tears representing many of the emotions involved.

Another option, and one I use extremely rarely, is cropping an original photo down to the detail I want to show. Many times I have came back to the paper to edit my work only to look at a photo and say: Why the heck didn’t I shoot that tighter?”

Cropping is not one a technique I like to use as you lose finer details as cropping it actually brings out the flaws. Out of focus areas seem more out of focus, any motion blur from camera movement is enhanced, and the file size decreases. It’s not a real option but should be mentioned as an alternative.

My girlfriend Heidi Rae Melcher helped a friend photograph a wedding. As she was shooting, the bride and groom began their Sand Ceremony. Each pours a different colored sand into a vase as a symbol of their lives now eternally merged. She was further away from the ceremony and did not know about it, but took photos anyway. When she showed me the photo, I asked her permission to work on it. And below is the result.

© 2010 Heidi Rae Melcher/Heidi Rae Photography

To capture my detail shots, most of the time I use either my 80-200 or 17-35 to photograph any details I see. It’s rare I bust out my 85 or 55 Macro. Very rare. And I use the available light. No flash, just what light is already on the scene. After all, it’s the quality of that light that caught my eye in the first place.

For the photo of the computer mouse and Teddy Bear, I used my 17-35 and the available light. My shutter speed was under 1/30th at f/4 or 5.6.

For the photo of the hand on the Vietnam Wall, my 80-200 at f/4 and about 1/2000th on the shutter speed. For the photo of Obama Tear, my 80-200 at f/2.8 with a TC-14A converter at 200 mm and about 1/60th and a lot of holding my breath with a dose of good luck. The lens combination was essentially a 450 f/4 at full zoom. So some serious luck was, and received, needed.

The most important lesson is keeping your mind and heart open will help you as you seek those important and storytelling details.

A child's Teddy Bear lies in a hallway of the Charles B. Murphy Elementary School in debris left by Hurricane Katrina sixths months earlier.

A child's Teddy Bear lies in a hallway of the Charles B. Murphy Elementary School in debris left by Hurricane Katrina sixths months earlier.

Details- the little photos which can scream big and add depth to your story, or tell one of its own.

 

 


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