As mentioned elsewhere, I am not primarily a photographer, I'm an author who makes photographs. My father, Milton "Hal" Halberstadt, was a photographer whose work was primarily studio images used in advertising during the 1950s, '60s, and early '70s. Beginning at the age of twelve I worked in his studio summers. What I learned was that advertising photography was a very serious business, at least the way he did it, and I just wasn't that serious. I did, however, get to see some very creative people at work, some from the advertising world, some from the art photography world. Ansel Adams was then just getting famous and was living in San Francisco at the time. He'd drop by the studio around tea time and have a drink or two with whoever was around. We reciprocated fairly often and stopped at the Adams' house on the way home. The great landscape photographer William Garnett was another frequent visitor. Imogen Cunningham was another. Other artists, most from my parent's student days at the Chicago Institute of Design -- "Bauhaus West," dropped by quite often. From late afternoon till six or seven in the evening a mixed bag of creative people could be found sitting around a big table in the studio drinking martinis and smoking cigarettes and discussing art from every angle.
Good photographs are MADE, not TAKEN
Hal took photography very seriously. One sure way to provoke a tirade from him was to say something like "I took this picture." "We don't take pictures, we MAKE PHOTOGRAPHS!!!!" he always insisted. So naturally I used to provoke him with that phrase until he finally caught on that it was a joke and then he could smile about the tease. But he had a point -- his kind of photography involved careful composition. His images could take days to compose and just making the exposures on 8in by 10in Deardorff cameras an entire morning. His photographs were made, not taken. Mine are more often taken rather than made.
The secret to success in photography is "f8 and be there"
But I went in a different direction, sometimes with the same weapons, and when I use a camera it has often been while stalking a moment and then taking a picture. That's because my work has been primarily as an observer in some kind of drama or passion play -- I get to tag along with Green Berets, Recon Marines, SWAT cops, surgeons in the ER, Amish farmers harvesting oats. My kind of photography sometimes involves being in the right place at the right time and pushing the shutter release to "take" an image that becomes a "picture." And other times I pull lots of things together and build a photograph sometimes the way my father did. Both ways work, both are valid, and both can be a lot of fun. Especially with modern digital cameras, the technology can be quite subordinate to the process of seeing an image before it is created, and the photographer can either take the image or make the image he or she has in mind. The documentary tradition involves placing yourself somewhere you think a useful picture will wander by and then being ready to grab it when it shows up. There's a legend that a great National Geographic photographer was once asked how he made his spectacular images and his reply was "f8 and be there," meaning that the camera is set for good exposure and that the camera and operator are in position when the moment is available for capture.
When In Doubt Get Closer
Most photographers seem quite timid about how they make their photographs, particularly those of people. The old advice, "When in doubt get closer" certainly applies to portraits but is useful for anything else as well. It's another way of saying, "Use the whole frame." The only problem with this is that it asks you to be more confrontational than otherwise. Longer lenses certainly help get closer and I use 200mm to 3,000mm lenses for that purpose, but sometimes the best way of seeing something is with a shorter focal-length lens that is very close to the subject.