Famous Spanish Civil War photographer Robert Capa once said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”
I like to interpret that as not only physical proximity to the lens, but mental proximity to the subject. One way to achieve that mental proximity is to feel empathy towards your subject.
Take this image for example. Most people driving down the street would see a pile of trash waiting for pickup. A photographer, though (especially one who had also been through Katrina), would see a family’s prized possessions, thrown out by a tearful family.
When you have water up to your roof for several weeks, very little can be saved. A beloved family portrait, ruined in its frame, is destined for the trash heap.
I showed this image at a photography seminar once. Afterward, several Katrina survivors, tears running down their faces, came up to me to share their own stories, knowing I would understand.
You don’t have to survive a major hurricane to empathize with your subjects. But if you can understand their situation, try to understand how they feel, you can better create an image describing it.
Empathy isn’t the only way to get close to your subject. Understanding its behavior can also help; wildlife photographers have know this for years. If you know what an animal or an insect is going to do, you can better prepare yourself to get the image.
Take a few minutes to study behavior. For example, if you watch a dragonfly flying about in a field, you’ll notice that it will return to the same perch many times over. If you put yourself in position, you can wait for the dragonfly to come to you.
What does a tree frog do right before he leaps? Where do hummingbirds tend to hover? How long does a deer freeze when startled? What time of day do the red-winged blackbirds sing while sitting in the reeds?
Don’t just wait for the pictures to come to you. Take the time to study behavior (and this includes people!), and you can be sure to be in the right place at the right time.
Get a little closer.