Sometimes Near Enough Really Is Good Enough

"if your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough". Robert Capa, the Hungarian-born American war photographer made that quote. His life and photo legacy have ensured that quote has become one of the most famous and influentail in the world of photography. And, in most cases, its the right question to ask yourself.

Moving close and engaging with your subject is the best way to make a compelling portrait. What's more, employing a big telephoto lens, from a distance, will not achieve the same sense of intimacy.

There's a thin line separating the ideal distance at which you should stand from your subject. Push too close and you can intimidate your subject. Move to far back and you lose control. But don't let your own sense of confidence fool you. The minimum distance from where you should make your picture is determined by the subject, not by you. This is important and the rewards include the following: 

  • By overcoming your own shyness you'll be able to get closer, both physically and emotionally.
  • Your courage will be rewarded by dynamic and compelling portaits.    

Now, just so I don't misrepresent myself or my abilities, the above image was made in a zoo in Bali. What's more, the image is made with me safely positioned behind protective glass. Nevertheless it was a pretty special experience being that close to an adult lion. I felt enormously privaleged and made the most of the opportunity.

So take Robert Capa's quote as good advice for the average photographic situation. But there's always an exception to any rule. Age, gender, culture and religion may temper your approach. Likewise wildlife and war require a special skill set, which we may investigate on another day.

A sobering thought comes from the knowledge that Capa made his famous quote not long before he stood on a mine in Indochina. He died, but his legend and photography, including joining Company E as part of the first wave of landings on D-Day. A darkroom disaster ruined all but ten frames from that momentous day. Some of them have been revisited in the Steven Speidberg film Saving Private Ryan staring Tom Hanks.

There's a thin line that separates the couragous and, often, successful photographer from the rest. Each of us has to decide what side of the line we're going to live on and, by doing so, take responsiblility for the way we interact with our subjects and, as a result, the success of our photographs.


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Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru