Articles Tagged: Sam Abell

Slow Down

One of the best ways to get better travel photos and enhance your own trip is to give your photography time.

If you’re in a hurry you’ll miss out on the time-stretching experience of having your camera on a tripod, just waiting for the nice light. Or framing up a side street and waiting for something interesting to happen. This is what National Geographic photographer Sam Abell calls “compose and wait”. It’s something that takes practice but can make a big difference in the quality and energy of your photos.

I framed up the sign and stairs and waited for some people to come up out of the Metro. I didn’t expect what looks like a choreographed move from a boy band video!

The real gift is that even if you don’t get a good shot every time, you’ve stopped and noticed what’s happening in that foreign place, even if it’s just photographing a row of shopping carts in a Walmart parking lot in Reno.

Booksellers on the Left Bank in Paris. I was waiting for the other pedestrian traffic to clear to get a shot of this perfectly styled shopper. As I did, I noticed the other photographer off to my right with a D810 and a 70-200mm lens. Then I heard her giving directions to the woman in the red dress. It was a setup, which would explain the picture perfect outfit!

Sam Abell Image Critique

This past October National Geographic photographer Sam Abell returned to DCP for an afternoon of image critiques. Sam started his presentation by sharing some of his life’s work and explaining why these specific images meant the most to him. His biggest message was to take the photos that are most important to you. As he flipped through the slideshow he shared stories of his artistic search and intimately described some of the most difficult times in his photographic life.

After his presentation, Sam turned his insight towards the work of the students. Over the next hour and a half Sam critiqued two to three images of each of the 24 participants. Photos ranged from travel photography to geometric landscapes to intimate portraits. Sam’s comments included what he liked about each image and gave suggestions on how he may have photographed the situation differently to make the image stronger. He encouraged students to slow down and compose the image and then wait for the action to happen. He shared that the photos that work well are the ones where the subject’s head is above the horizon line and they have their own space and room to tell the story.

Whenever Sam is working with images he always wants the projector to be placed so his shadow can enter into the frame. There is something magical about watching him step into an image and use his hands to call out details, crop out something he finds distracting or point out some small change that would make the image more powerful. By entering into the photograph he can clearly communicate the concept he is wanting to illustrate.

Here are a few images of Sam critiquing photographs along with the students’ comments about the experience:

Sam Abell critiques Frank Richards’ Photo

Sam Abell critiquing Frank Richards' photo

“Sam has an uncanny ability to hone in on the essence of an image – commenting both on what makes an image work and how it might be improved. I do not normally shoot photojournalistic type images like Sam’s but have been able to easily apply the principles he teaches to my work. I like that he focuses on a few powerful concepts that can be easily grasped and when successfully applied have really improved my work.” – Frank Richards

 

Sam Abell critiques Tracy Allard’s Photo

Sam Abell critiquing Tracy Allard's photo

“I like that Sam sees value in many types of images; not just landscape, or portrait etc. I learn from every image that he critiques. He’s really made me think about what makes an image “mine”. I am still trying to find my voice and style but I think I’m getting closer the more that I’m exposed to.” – Tracy Allard

 

Sam Abell critiques Neil Resnik’s Photo

Sam Abell critiquing Neil Resnik's photo

“I was fascinated by his ability to look at a picture and point out things about the composition that I would never notice. For example he would point out the little spaces between subjects or the space at the top of a photo and how it made a difference in the photo. Sam’s critique of my work was very affirming. It was helpful to see my photos through the eyes of another with his skill.” – Neil Resnik

 

Sam Abell critiques Robert Moore’s Photo

Sam Abell critiquing Robert Moore's photo

“I enjoyed Sam talking about his own story, his own struggle trying to be “commercial” and yet be true to himself. Connecting his work images with his personal outlook on life was very touching.” – Robert Moore

The Next Step: Working with Sam Abell

It’s been six months since the Sam Abell: Next Step workshop, but I can still hear Sam’s voice in my head repeating his mantra, “compose and wait.” I am the studio manager at DCP and I had the unique opportunity to learn from Sam both as a photography student and as a coordinator and I couldn’t be more thankful for the experience.

I have a suspicion that over the years Sam’s practice of composing and waiting has created a meditative energy around him. He lives in a flow and I could not help but be part of it while working with him. Even during the height of the stress of organizing the workshop, Sam stayed calm and kept me focused and grounded on the task at hand.

As we gathered in the studio on the first day, Sam steadily dissected each participant’s portfolio. He studied each photograph, meticulously pointing out what he liked about the image and what he might have done differently. It was eye-opening to hear how he would have composed the scene by slightly shifting to the right, or lining up with the window to give the subject more space and dignity. This was the whole concept of The Next Step. Refine. Take what you see and then edit out all of the unnecessary clutter. Then wait for the action.

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Over the next few days we took his lessons to heart. On our second day of shooting, we met on Jefferson Street in Oak Cliff and Sam challenged us to get behind the scenes. Our assignment was to shoot from the insider’s perspective. He meant this literally. Instead of shooting from the sidewalk, he wanted us to talk our way into one of the shops and get permission to photograph the inside of the stores. I was nervous. I glanced at the other participants and wondered if they felt the same anxiety. I then saw Jean, one of our quieter participants, take off across the street to an eye glass shop and knew that there was no reason to worry.

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The afternoon flew by and as the sun set the remaining photographers gathered on the sidewalk and exchanged stories. To my surprise, everyone had experienced success. Most shopkeepers had no problem opening their doors and letting us shoot. We had made an impression on Jefferson street and by the end of the day our group had become well known.

The week passed by quickly and I had the pleasure of watching Sam shoot several times. What I admired the most about him was his ability to connect to his subject almost instantly. He could walk up to a complete stranger and with one quick eye glance have their permission to take a photograph. I watched him pull up a chair next to the glass wall at a restaurant in Klyde Warren Park. He pressed his camera onto the glass and nodded to the waitstaff who were at a table inside rolling silverware. They obliged and after a few minutes forgot that he was taking photographs. After about 20 minutes, Sam stepped down off the chair and moved on. He mentioned repeatedly during the workshop that he did not get the shot he wanted.

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I later learned during his lecture at The Perot that this was a common occurrence for Sam. As we sat in the darkened theatre and listened to him recount how he took each image, I realized that his career was haunted by moments like the restaurant. For every truly amazing photograph he showed, there was an equally imperfect counterpart. Throughout the lecture, Sam shared his inner thoughts on each photograph revealing a life of determination, frustration and a passion for perfection.
Since the workshop, I have had the pleasure to stay in touch with many of the attendees. Earlier in the summer a few of us met up in downtown Fort Worth and put to use all of the skills Sam had taught us earlier this year.

I spent most of my time hopping from scene to scene, waiting for a few minutes and then moving on with an air of an exasperation, frustrated that what I hoped to capture hadn’t happened in the short time span I had allotted myself. This is why Sam is a master. He is a master of patience.

As I passed by a fountain I was intrigued by a little boy repeatedly running back and forth trying to chase the waterfall. Behind the fountain, a couple sat across from one another looking slightly bored – the perfect juxtaposition of childhood and adulthood. I raised my camera and patiently waited for the elements to align. Sam’s voice was in my head, “Compose. Wait.” Click.

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