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Joining in the Dance

Photography is like a dance, Jim Richardson says. "Nothing and nobody holds still, and the real fun starts when your partner surprises you."

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Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.

"What are you doing?"

It was Lynne at my elbow, and she knew I was up to no good. Among the guests and staff onboard the National Geographic Explorer it seems that I had gotten something of a reputation for "lurking about." Sounds like something that would be a minor felony in some jurisdictions, something your mother would paper over when telling the family history. But I swear I'm innocent—or at the least I'm harmless.

You see, we were in Torshavn, capital of the Faroe Islands, and a wonderful folk group of chain dancers was onboard singing and dancing in the lounge, regaling us with island lore and music. A wonderful time it was, except for the photographers like me. The dancers were gathered in a circle, their backs to the audience. It was easy enough to see what was happening but tough to get a picture that showed their faces and the great time they were having.

Which is why Lynne had caught me "lurking." With just a bit of deviousness I had seen that, as they danced, every once in a while the space between them opened up just a bit. I saw that in the snug ship's lounge, the dancers were—of necessity—right next to the passengers in the front row. So when a break in the action allowed, I quickly hopped over to an empty seat right up front.

Soon enough, the music was in full swing again and as they circled around, I could just barely bring my camera into the gap between two dancers and, with the motor drive going, get off three or four frames. Mind you, I couldn't look through the viewfinder. Not enough space for that. But with a wide-angle lens, it hardly mattered. After dashing off a few frames I'd take a look at the screen and plan to adjust my pointing during the next opportunity. By the second or third try, I was nailing the framing and the timing. From then on, it was all nuance that I was looking for.

Lynne is a smart photographer and it only took one look at my picture to turn on the lightbulb in her head. A couple of whispered bits of technical advice and she was shooting away. (I told her to set her ISO higher, to whatever it took to get enough shutter speed to stop the action. She could deal with noise later, but blurred pictures wouldn’t do.)

There are two things to take away from this episode. First, and simplest, is that a wide-angle lens can do wonders to get you into the middle of the action.

Second (and more important) is that we photographers must be on the hunt for opportunities AND solutions. We have to be inventive. Many, if not most, of the situations we face will be totally new to us. The problems won’t be the textbook problems we’ve already seen in all the instruction books. We already know the answers to those.

It is finding answers to unique, never-before-encountered problems that is much tougher. Photography is like a dance. Nothing and nobody holds still, and the real fun starts when your partner surprises you.

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