Are you an Observer or Director?

Foosball Closeup - Austin, Texas

Foosball Closeup – Austin, Texas

It occurred to me that photographers can be broken up into two broad categories, observers or directors. There are certainly photographers that can do both, but, by in large, I see people fitting into one camp or the other.

Who are the observers? They are the photographers that look at their world, and capture it with minimal alterations. Their skills include anticipating a shot and seeing details that others miss. The ultimate observers are Photo Journalists, where their ethic prevents them from altering the image during capture and post processing. Street, sports, landscape and nature photographers all belong in the observer camp.

Directors are photographers who alter their environment. Portrait photographers who pose their subjects. Studio photographers, who also control the lighting and even create their sets, are even greater directors. Product and food photographers are also directors, since they set up their lighting and arrange their subjects for the ideal composition. Directors master the light, because light is photography. The best portrait photographers know how to position people and, most importantly, make their sbjects feel comfortable.

Then there are people like wedding photographers who seem to straddle both worlds, but their style and preference usually pushes them towards a particular camp. Traditional wedding photographers, who pose their brides and grooms, fit into the director category. Wedding photographers who shoot in a “photo-journalist style”, tends to lean towards the observer camp.

It’s not that there can’t be photographers that do both. But, I believe, there is a natural inclination or preference for one side or the other. Back 20 years ago when I got married, I found a wonderful wedding photographer who also had a traditional portrait studio. She created wonderful environmental portraits of us and the wedding party. I also requested her to take more candid, photo-journalistic snapshots. She agreed but I could tell she wasn’t as comfortable. At the time, when I wasn’t a serious photographer, I didn’t understand the difference. Photography is photography, right?

Our wedding photographer created wonderful portraits and good candids too. But ultimately, you can tell she was used to controlling her environment and excelled on that side.

For me, I’m strongly on the observer side. My urban landscapes and street photography fits squarely in this area. I relish the opportunity to capture details, in plain sight, that others might have missed. When I shoot events, I try to anticipate and capture people in interesting poses, but I don’t direct. Finally, while I may ask strangers for a street portrait, I feel uncomfortable adjusting their poses. One reason I like shooting experienced models is that they know how to make those typical model poses. They self-direct, so I don’t have to.

I realize though, that if I ever wanted to do serious portraiture, which I’m not sure I do, I’ll need to learn how to properly pose my subjects. I prefer environmental portraits to studio work, since they seem less manufactured and potentially closer to a street photography style.

Observational photography, however, is my bread and butter. I find it fairly easy to see interesting angles. But this too has been learned over years of practice. I guess ultimately, observer or director, you got to work hard to become good at it.

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9 thoughts on “Are you an Observer or Director?

  1. I am an Observer! Something that I already had an awareness of but have become even more aware of since starting photography. Posing people is a challenge, and directing shots is uncomfortable for me. I still want to grow in the area of portraits but I can tell that candid/documentary is where its at for me. Good article and insight!

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