What Would You Do?

In the “PhotoBlog” section, I usually post an article about how I created a particular photo. But this time, I’d like to see how you might approach a particular scene. I want you to step into my shoes at the moment I shot the photo shown below, and tell me how you might have done things differently (or the same).

Name Forgotten

For this post, read through the stuff below and tell me how you might have taken the shot.

Let’s start with the location… Salton Sea, California. This is a strange place to new visitors, filled with an interesting mix of beauty and decay. I was at a location known as “Salvation Mountain” on the east side of the lake, a small distance from the water. It’s sort-of a “holy” destination, created by a few (mainly one) religious enthusiasts. I don’t know how I can explain any better than to point you to my set of Salvation Mountain photos.

For this particular scene and subject… random guy, playing the guitar, on the back of a broken-down and over-decorated truck. He was sort of on the sidelines of the main attractions at Salvation Mountain, not really trying to draw attention to himself — just keeping to his own business. But he, and his surroundings, interested me so I asked him for a portrait. He agreed and asked what he should do. I said “just keep doing what you’re doing and I’ll get the shot”. So there you go — you’ve got a willing participant posing for a portrait in an informal state.

Bible Bus

And the technical stuff… like equipment, lighting, etc. I was using a 1956 Minolta Autocord MXS — this is a fully manual TLR (square format Twin Lens Reflex) with no light meter, loaded with Ilford PanF+ film (ASA50). The fixed focal length is 75mm (but remember, this is medium format film), a maximum shutter speed of 1/400 seconds, and a maximum f-number of f/3.5. Oh, and the ambient light was mostly sunny, fading into somewhat overcast, but hard shadows existed. The sun was to the left of you (as you faced the subject) and it wasn’t too high in the sky (approaching sunset by about an hour or two).

Oh, and one last thing… you’re on shot 12 for this roll (the last shot), and the rest of your film is out of reach. You get one chance to make this work and you want to get a good portrait of this fella playing the guitar as he sits on the back of an old truck. Also envision yourself wanting to get the shot off quickly so you don’t lose the opportunity or frustrate the subject. The smaller photo shown here is a different perspective of the scene and subject.


… right down to the technical details of the camera settings, the crop, the perspective, and the timing. In particular, would you frame it the same way I did? I ask this because I know I committed a “guitarist portrait sin” by cutting off the head of the guitar. My friend Tasha brought this point up because she’s a very talented concert and musician photographer — and I’m glad she did, because I was waiting for somebody to call me out on it. But given the circumstances, I’m curious how others may have done it differently under the same conditions.


The technical stuff first — I shot the photo at 1/400 seconds and f/4 because it was slightly less than full sunshine. I wanted a shallow depth of field because he was sitting so close to the busy designs of the truck right behind him, so a the fastest shutter speed was a requirement in my mind. I also wanted to get as close to him as possible so that I could utilize that depth of field and blur the background a bit. This is where my dilemma began — get close to achieve the desired dof and background blur, or step back and get the desired framing. I knew that I couldn’t get both effectively. I did frame-up the shot to include the whole guitar, but I was far enough back that there would be no real separation between him and the background. I decided against this choice. Any closer and I’d cut out the guitar entirely — not really what I wanted either. What to do? I chose a middle ground and I cut off the head of the guitar. I was probably standing 6 or 8 feet from him when I took the shot. Maybe it wasn’t the best choice, but it was most reasonable decision I could make in a 10 second window.

So again, what would you do given the situation I outlined above? Would you take the same shot? Would you step back and include the whole guitar at the cost of blending the busy background with the main subject? Or would you step closer and throw the guitar out of the frame entirely while maximizing the background blur? And remember — you only have one shot with no crutches!

19 thoughts on “What Would You Do?

  1. Brian Auer Post author

    And of course I realize that me describing the situation via a text article is not even close to the same thing as being there, but do the best you can with what I gave you!

  2. Janne

    As a pure guess what I would have done:

    Gone more to the right to get a bit more of the shadow side of his face and head, get the “Joy” sign almost straight above him and incidentally bring the head of the guitar in view (didn’t think of that until you brought it up).

    And if it had been my TLR I would have preferred to stay away from the fastest shutter speed (which is somewhat erratic and slower than advertised) and perhaps shot at 1/250 and f/5.6 instead.

    Or not – hard to visualize what it would look like without taking a quick look in real life.

  3. My camera World

    Second guessing is always fun as I don’t really have to prove my ideas only suggest. Kind hard to go wrong here.(grin)

    For me there are 3 focal points of interest. His right strumming hand, his left string hand and his face. Which of these is the primary interest, even though we do need to take in the whole, but one of these should grab more.

    If strumming hand then slower shutter speed to show some movement in fingers while the remaining 2 remain stable.

    If face then a tin or white plate for light reflection to add a little more light on face.

    I cord hand the a change in angle (to the right) to focus more on this hand and the other hand and face a little more in distance.

    For me the background is too distracting to give sharp focus to this subject.

    Just some ideas and hindsight , (I wish my camera had more of this) makes it always seem easier.


  4. Gary

    Hindsight is always 20-20… and I just had a frustrating day out shooting where I didn’t pull off any of the shots I wanted.

    But I like to participate, so I’ll through in my 2 cents. My thinking would have been to move lower and to the right, and get him to twist just slightly so the guitar would be pointing at the camera a bit more than it is (so that it all gets in the frame). Moving to the tight would also help cut out those railings in the top right that I personally don’t like, but I can’t tell what might be just out of frame on the left that I would be including….

    Still, as shot, it’s an interesting and emotional shot… One that you can be proud of regardless of what anyone else (or yourself) might have done differently.

  5. Misty

    I love the shot, and the character in it. But since you asked,

    I would have stepped back a couple of steps and to the right, then crouched down for the shot for several reasons:

    1. You need the entire guitar in the shot.

    2. That left had has so much character alone, I would have wanted it to be more prominent. Look at the dirt around the fingernails and the lines and creases in it, the way it curves around for the cords. I can see that happening, the way his fingers move.

    3. I would have wanted a little more of the background to show it’s a truck that he’s sitting on the back of. Without the secondary picture you provided, I had no concept of that background. It really adds to his personality.

  6. Rob Jaudon

    First…I love this shot and this style of photography. I have a couple similar shots where I focused more on the smaller details such as his fingers. I feel that focusing on the smaller details enabled one to really understand the photo. In my photo,
    Guitar Player Larry I wanted the viewer to see the dirt and grim under the fingernails and hoped it portrayed the struggle of life on the streets.

    For your photo I might have gone with a wider lens so you could get the subject in the full frame and also isolate him from the background. I would of stuck with the shuttle speed to stop the movement of his fingers on the neck of the guitar as well. As for framing, I would of shot most likely from the rear of the guitar towards the neck with the focal point being his left hand.

    That is my two cents.

  7. Noah Stevens

    Well, I think it’s a beautiful shot. As some previous posters have mentioned, I might have stepped back and tried to get the guitar head and the truck in the frame. Rule of thirds kind of thing, and the visual line made by the guitar might have led the eye to the entirety of the truck. I don’t know what was going on in the scene, though… Maybe the truck is not as visually interesting as the back of it suggests. I might have gotten down a little lower, too.

    I think you did quite well to capture the image as it is – after all, a good shot on the last chance in a roll on old equipment on a trip to capture interesting images is what we live for. I can’t find any technical fault in the image itself. The detail and exposure seem okay to me, and the variety of pattern and the mood are great.

    Hey man, second guessing is all well and good, but it’s a shot to be proud of. Especially on film. I confess that aversion to missing shots like these is the reason that I’ve traded in my thrift-store Polaroid Land Cameras and Pentax K1000 for a digital rig. You are brave and ought to be commended!

  8. jeremy

    I’d have had colour film in my camera,which may have been a good thing in this case. I’d have got in slightly closer.

    Getting in a bit closer would have cut off the guitar neck above his left hand but that wouldn’t matter. The problem you created is getting in nearly all of the guitar but not quite. It’s the first thing I noticed which makes it look like a mistake. A tighter shot would have been more deliberate, more dynamic.

    I like the angle of the shot. The advantage of a TLR is you can shoot at a lower angle without drawing attention to yourself. I imagine it’s not as easy to focus, but you got that spot on, as is the exposure. The main thing is that you got the shot! How many of us would have got past the asking his permission bit!!!

    I’m wondering why there are two shadows. Was there something acting as a reflector?

  9. sil

    Hi Brian :) This is challenging!

    My 2 cents: I would have framed it much tighter as to focus the attention on the action going on – his playing the guitar.

    As I would probably mess everything up trying to explain this in a foreign language, I thought I’d better show you then tell you :) (Hope you won’t mind my cropping your image). Ciao!


  10. Sarah Tomlin

    Long time reader, first time commenter (I know! How lame….)

    Without reading any of the other comments I will tell you that my opinion of b/w photos is that they should mostly be kept simple. I actually would have loved to see the color in this photo. My personal opinion only.

    I would have left the guitarist as the main part of the picture by getting low and doing an upshot of him. I love to see the emotion on an artists face as they are performing. Cropping could use some work but as it is I still love it.

  11. Brian Auer Post author

    A REALLY great set of comments on this post! I always find it interesting to hear or see what others might do in a certain situation. Kinda neat how we have so many variations on the composition — which just goes to show that we all see things differently. My guess is that this particular subject would produce a wonderful portrait no matter what the perspective, focal length, or composition.

    The most important part of the shot was just speaking with him and gaining his acceptance of the camera. Without this crucial step, the portrait would not have been possible to obtain at the same level of intimacy.

  12. mitja

    It appears that the truck is in some sort of open space. I’d back off and show that off but while being directly perpendicular to the back of the truck. Also, the glasses need to come off, he doesn’t need to *really* be playing you know

  13. Tasha

    You already know my thoughts about the head of the guitar (thanks for the linkage, btw)… I probably would have stepped back a half step, just to get that guitar head in, but that’s about it. The important thing is that you got the emotion as well as the “joy” and “long suffering” which are what I think really matter in the picture. Also, your exposure is glorious.

    Oh, and I probably would have bribed, maimed, or begged for another roll of film somewhere so I could get an additional shot – a close up of his hand as a companion shot. I think hands tell such stories, and between the grit and guitar calluses (can’t see them, but I’m sure they’re there), I think his hands would speak volumes.

  14. Claude

    I think the truck tells a very interesting story as well. I would back off and ask the guitar player to position himself so that he and the truck combine in the shot. I am less interested in seeing a guitar player alone strumming his instrument than seeing someone on a truck with a guitar (not necessarily playing, maybe looking out in the distance, thinking about his “message”) and let the viewer decide what is going on there, why is he on that truck, what are those graffiti all about, etc.

    I would have put on a wide angle lens which would allow some proximity with the subject while getting the whole truck in the frame.

    I would also have popped a little fill flash to fill in the shadows under the hood.

  15. Andrew Boyd

    I guess seeing the secondary photo of the truck takes me off in a whole different direction…as someone who’s shot a lot of photo stories I find myself wondering about this guy…there would be a lot of interesting photos that would develop if you had time to spend an afternoon shooting this guy.

  16. Dan Malciu

    @Sil: I also like the cropped image much better. Just a small change in composition makes a big difference. You were not tempted to take a candid without asking the guy to pose?

  17. Jack

    Brian, A month ago, I bought a nice old Yashica D and shot my first roll of B&W 120 which is still out for development. I stumbled on your blog through searching for B&W film development information (thank you) and then found this post. While I’m new to using a TLR/120 film, I’ve been an acoustic guitar player for 40 years. My first reaction was that of your friend Tasha: MY GOD MAN – YOU CUT OFF THE HEADSTOCK! ;)

    Having written and recorded a few CDs in the Contemporary Christian Music genre, the photo makes an impression on me in another way – seated beneath the word “Joy” the musician is instead, very somber, perhaps even sad. That to me seems like the biggest contrast. So I was thinking if I was faced with the 1 shot remaining scenario, I might have liked to shoot 1 step back and 1 step left of your vantage point, and with the camera held lower so as to be looking upward more and to capture even his feet and to put the word “Joy” to the left of and more parallel to his head / above his shoulder … initially I thought of moving to the right, but feared the 2 round signs would look like Mickey Mouse ears on him …

    If he’s like most guitarists, he’s likely turning his face away from the camera (it’s distracting / he’s shy) – I just like to be a little more direct about capturing the contrast of his facial expression to the sign. Though that may have given you more of a back light problem with the open deck of the truck …

    Thanks for the blog entry, Brian – I’ll definitely be reading more …


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>