Merlin Mann on Photography

I love RSS, I don’t subscribe to any photography blogs. I’ve been meaning to find one to follow, but just haven’t yet. Part of the problem, no doubt, is that I can barely keep up with my current collection of feeds (I’d like to remind a certain reader that I find the term “feedbag” to be derogatory and that I can quit any time I want).

In Merlin Mann’s blog, 43 Folders, he discusses productivity and creativity. I started reading it earlier this year, and I’ve consistently found his posts to be interesting and helpful. It was a pleasant surprise to see him talking about photography, especially since I could relate to his experiences as a novice photographer. And, of course, because it’s an inspiring read.

(Amusing but tangental observation of my own: When taking photos of a person or persons who are posing for the photo, the action of taking a photo with an SLR held horizontally, then rotating the camera to a vertical position, is more likely to evoke a reaction from the subject(s) that just about anything else, with the exception of aiming the camera at someone who isn’t expecting it. My guess is that it subconsiously reminds people of poparazzi or fashion photographers that they have seen on TV.)

I still struggle with the self consciousness that comes with getting out there and looking like a fool, but not as much as I used to. These days, I’m able to remind myself just how rewarding a good photo can be. On the other hand, as I move past this variety of negative consciousness, I’m encountering another. More and more, I’m aware of how others might feel about being on the other side of the camera. Subconsciously, I’ve been justifying unsolicited photos of people in some absurd ways:

  • There’s the fact that I discard unflattering photos, so they’ve got nothing to worry about. That notion is clearly stupid, when examined by my conscious mind, because they don’t know my intentions.
  • I used to be about as camera shy as one could possibly be, and I’ve gotten over it, so anyone else certainly should be able to. Again, it’s stupid — just cause they can doesn’t mean they have.
  • In general, I don’t mind if my photo is on the internet, and I forget/ignore the fact that there are several legitimate reasons why someone might not want their photo to exist where literally anyone can see it.
  • When I’m shooting strangers in public, I’ve got Bert P. Krages’ The Photographer’s Right floating around in the back of my head, and the belief that it means I need not be concerned with the feelings of the subject. This is not what it means.
  • The belief that if it really bothered anyone, they’d say so. In the case of friends, it’s just another instance of the classic courtesy-tug-of-war — “They’d say something if they didn’t want to be photographed” vs “Clearly he enjoys taking photos, and his fun shouldn’t be ruined over my discomfort.” In the case of strangers, I expect that most of them just prefer to avoid confrontation.

I think the bottom line is that I’m putting the burden of confrontation on the subject, and that’s not right. As an introvert, my instinct is to hide behind the camera and press buttons. I’m going to make an effort to always ask for permission when dealing with new subjects. Even then, they may feel some obligation, or might be too embarrassed to reveal their camera shyness. But if that’s the case, well… I asked as explicitly as I could, and an inaccurate response is on them, right? That doesn’t seem right, but at least it’s better than my current technique.

EDIT: I just noticed that Kevin blogged about the exact same post, and got something different but excellent out of it. You should go read his post, too.


  1. Kevin O'Mara Said,

    December 6, 2008 @ 10:14 am

    Well, the only way I’ve ever dealt with potentially shy subjects is this: I raise the camera to my face but I keep my eyes on their expression (meaning I do not yet start to look through the camera). If I don’t see any flicker of discomfort I usually proceed to take pictures. If I do sense discomfort then I hold the camera up for another second or two just to see what they do – and if they start to fidget I just put it back down.

    Sometimes I will make it obvious and hold my shutter-button finger well off of the camera to make a point. As soon as they don’t look nervous then I figure I’m good to go.

  2. atox Said,

    December 6, 2008 @ 1:39 pm

    That sounds like a really good technique. I will try that!

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