Assessing A Scene – A beginner’s Guide for Photographers

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  By Damon Pena
Assessing A Scene – A beginner’s Guide for Photographers

Question: You’re working a family reunion. It’s 2 pm on a bright, sunny afternoon and they’ve just decided they want to do a group photo of all 30 members of their family in the backyard. You brought one Speedlight and your widest lens is a 35mm. What do you do? What do you do?

If you’re smart, you’ll run. I’m kidding, but this is an example of one of those nightmare situations that you, as a professional photographer, will have to overcome one day. This is what separates the pros from the amateurs, and believe it or not, it’s not necessarily the skill that separates the two; it’s the thought process. Problem-solving is a huge part of photography. Especially if you’re of the portrait, event, or wedding variety. Being able to assess a situation, think it through logically, and apply your skills to the best of your ability can literally make or break a session.

I used a recent scouting trip to a local venue to prepare for an upcoming wedding, and the thought process I used consisted of the following questions:

Where Am I Shooting?
If you are given the luxury, always do a walkthrough of your shoot location. Create a mental list (or an actual list) of several interesting features of this given location. Maybe there’s a fountain, an old oak tree, or a rose garden, for example, that you can use as the setting for your photo. Always have several spots in case one doesn’t work out.

Where Is My Light?
Okay, you’ve picked your spot. Next, take a look at your light source. Where is it? Is it ambient? Artificial? Which direction is it coming from? Will this light source help or hinder your ability to get the shot? Determining your light source is very important in deciding which equipment you will need, as well as what your camera settings will be.

What Are My Challenges?
Now that you’ve picked your spot, and know what your lighting situation is, it’s time to think about that stuff you don’t really want to think about. It’s time to consider what your additional challenges are, and what potential problems they might present. Whether they might be distractions, interference, or undesirable features (i.e. the fountain has a statue of a naked person on top of it, obscene graffiti in background, etc.), you will want to know as much about the detractors of this scene beforehand so that you will be aware of them and prepare to work around them.

One example of an undesirable feature could be a cigarette disposal unit, such as the one in the lower right corner of the above photo.

How Can I Overcome These Challenges?
You’ve identified all the factors that could potentially ruin your photo, and now you have to ask yourself what to do about it. This is where you might decide your camera angle, so that a certain feature may be out of the frame, or if there are certain things the scene that may be removed or re-arranged (never remove something without permission, of course). This will also be the time to decide your camera settings, and whether the previously mentioned light sources will be a part of your photo or not. Will the additional light be required? Is fill light necessary? Where do the shadows fall? Ask yourself any question you can think of; the more of them you can answer, the better prepared you will be.

If an undesirable feature cannot be removed, a slight change of angle could remedy the problem.

How Can I Rock This Shot?
Once you’ve answered every question you have, the last step is to actually take the photo! The fun part! By the time you pick up the camera, the hard part should be over. Now you get to ask yourself one final question; What can I do to make this shot amazing? All the questions you’ve asked yourself to this point is to make sure you get a good solid photo. Now you get to take everything you know about the scene and turn that good photo into a great one. Now you can allow yourself to be creative, knowing that all the other stuff is taken care of. Now go on, rock it!

This thought process doesn’t only apply to family reunions, or senior portraits, but to any photo you choose to take. The more this process is applied, the more natural and intuitive it becomes. After a while, walking into a location and assessing your scene will become second nature, and will continue to be applied even if you don’t realize it.

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Damon Pena is a self-taught professional photographer living in South Texas. He has a background in graphic design and animation, and his freelance photo credits include Texas Trophy Hunter magazine,, and San Antonio Express News. He is constantly working to improve his craft and learn new techniques.

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