Smoke and mirrors, part 1

Pug wearing a clown collar, Wickenburg, AZ

Pug wearing a clown collar, Wickenburg, AZ

When I teach my intro class, I often put my 50mm lens on my camera and make a portrait of one of my students from less than two feet away, closer if I can without overly stressing their personal space. Everybody in the class is watching me, wondering what’s going to happen. I put the camera down and ask, “was that comfortable?” Invariably the student says no. Then I tell them it doesn’t feel so comfortable on the other side of the lens either, at first. And to get over it.

I don’t really aspire to scare my students, but I have two points. First and best said by war photographer Robert Capa, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

My larger, real point is to make the shot anyway even if you fake the confidence needed to get it done. Confidence comes from experience, not the other way around.

In other words, it’s ok to lie to your subjects. If you messed up the exposure, tell them they look great, you just need to fine-tune some settings. If the camera angle you’ve chosen emphasizes a sagging chin, you can “remember” another look you’ve always wanted to try. You don’t need to convince anyone they look like a supermodel. Just that you mean to do no harm and that you are looking at them with kind, trustworthy eyes. If you exude confidence, even if you don’t feel it, chances are high that a good feeling will be reflected back from your subject.

Here at the ranch, we just grafted our first 50 apple trees. Grafting blades are beveled only on one side; it’s supposed to help get a sharp clean edge. For that to work, you have to wield a new kind of knife with confidence. It helps to sharpen it regularly, but those first few cuts weren’t easy. Cutting timidly didn’t help either, it just shredded the tree bark. Only time will tell if any of my first grafts take. I’m also sure I will get better with practice. But in the moment, it helps to be able to “fake it until you make it.”

Experience is the only thing I know that transforms the fake aura into a working confidence, so second nature you don’t even need to think about it. I wish I could say no trees were killed in our first round of grafting. But I am 100% sure that, no matter how loud a subject balked, fussed or complained, no one ever was actually harmed by taking a portrait. Go ahead, get a little closer.