My problems with the wassail

December 24, 2009 

Following people door to door on assignment always seems to be a challenge. If people are selling things, handing out fliers or trying to get a petition signed, they generally already have a tough enough time without a photographer joining them on the front porch. As a photojournalist hunting for real moments to shoot, the natural reaction to having your picture taken as you answer your door to talk to somebody you don’t really want to deal with makes achieving this goal difficult. Working on private property further complicates things because you also need permission from the property owner.

The obvious remedy is to talk to the resident before your subject does to explain why you’re taking pictures. Unfortunately, this can affect the situation by tipping the resident’s reaction to this intrusion even further toward shutting the door in everybody’s face. And if the door-to-door operation is taking place during the middle of the day, a lot people who are home are rocking sweats and couch-swept hair — all in all, some big factors to work against.

So when I went to cover Chief Joseph Middle School’s neighborhood Christmas caroling last Monday, I was wary despite the cheery holiday nature of the assignment. The technical difficulties of shooting under changing lighting conditions — from near total darkness to porches of varying brightness — added to the challenge.

Surprisingly, the technical difficulties ended up being the only real trouble I had on this assignment. Around 50 people had showed up to go caroling, and the big group meant my presence was less apparent. Plus, anybody who opened the door was clearly supportive of the singing.

The first house we stopped at was a good candidate for a winning shot with a good quote to support the cutline — a big bonus when there isn’t an accompanying story:

"It brought tears to my eyes," said Kathy Alley, who says she has been having a tough time lately. "It just really brightened my day."

The composition is lacking, however, since I had to work from below the porch, and the lighting looks sloppy. Usually, I would have my flash attached to an off-camera cord so that my left hand could better direct the supplemental light as my right hand worked the shutter. Unfortunately, my wide angle lens is currently loose, requiring me to pull the front end tight against itself to achieve a reasonably sharp focus, so I had to settle with mounting my flash on-camera. This problem was compounded by the often very dark conditions that made focusing difficult anyway.

Another difficulty was finding a composition that didn’t leave a big awkward space between the subjects. Achieving this relied on the various porch and front-door configurations to provide both the carolers and me good places to stand.

I thought I had a good chance when Bubba the dog came up to see what the fuss was about, but 8-year-old Anne Lowe had her face down during the fleeting moments that Bubba was at the door:

The following shot of Bubba’s owner, Helen Kreuzer, interacting with Lowe was a possibility, but it lacks giving the viewer a sense of a group of carolers and it didn’t help that Lowe isn’t a Chief Jo student:

Afraid that I would fail at every house and the uncertainty of when the caroling expedition would end, I tried to get some solid CYAs:

I liked the second one better because it featured drama teacher Tina Webb, left, one of the organizers, but unfortunately, Webb had hugged sixth-grader Kenny Ramirez, 11, as he danced comically along to the singing. Fortunately, he resumed dancing at Nikola and Suzana Miljak's house, but I don’t like all the spacing between the people, and the kids don’t really look like they’re singing.

Plus, Nikola’s distance from the camera’s flash means his exposure is mixed between the little light that reached him and the ambient light from his home, making him blurry. It’s also lacking the interaction or emotion I was hoping to capture.

I tried a different approach, featuring some kids who had been staying in the back of the group:

But ended up picking this shot of Brinna Andrus listening as she held back her dogs Lexi and Emma:

The lighting is a little hot at the top of the frame, but Andrus has a good expression, the frame is filled and I think it’s fairly apparent what they’re doing, even without reading the caption. It’s missing dancing kid and Lowe’s Santa hat is gone because she loaded it up with candy at the Miljaks’ house, but the red and green door decoration at least gives a hint of Christmas theme.

Of course, after struggling and trudging around in the snow for an hour, this shot only ran about three inches wide, but that’s how it goes sometimes. My favorite shot of the night is probably this frame of the kids warming up with some hot chocolate after their excursion:

It clearly wouldn’t work as the one shot for publication, but it made a decent ender for the photo gallery.

It’s not that I feel this assignment was needlessly difficult or that I’m expecting any high praise, but this shoot is yet another example of how something that looks fluffy, fun and easy on paper is anything but.

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