The most valuable photography skill you'll ever learn


“Become a more interesting person” – Jay Maisel responding to a student who asked him how to create more interesting photographs.

I want to tell you about the most important skill I've ever learned to improve my photography and I learned it from my dad. One of the things I most admired about him was his ability to talk to anyone, to show interest in them, make them smile and open up. In short he made friends and he made it seem effortless. But I've a suspicion, because he and I were so very much alike, that it wasn't at all easy for him as it isn't for me. Simply put, the most powerful photographic tool I have is the word, "hello". 

These days we isolate ourselves a great deal. Nowhere I've encountered is more this way than London where simply making eye contact with some people results in fear and alarm. But if we really want to make more interesting photographs we have to talk to people, find out who they are and what they're doing. Showing an interest in what interests someone else is a powerful way to strike up a conversation as it was for me today when I was out seeking pictures for an upcoming tutorial. I was wandering through the car park of a local church when I saw two chaps with interesting looking boxes they'd just taken from their van. So I went over and said good morning. Once I was close enough I could see that the boxes contained pigeons so I asked about them and we struck up a conversation. I expressed interest in their hobby and a few minutes later they were only too eager to let me take pictures of them releasing the birds. I got a picture I'm really pleased with but more importantly I got to experience something I wouldn't have if I'd not had the courage to walk up and introduce myself.

As a child I wasn't the extrovert I am now. In fact, I wasn't really confident talking to people I didn't know until I started getting interested in photography. And it wasn't an overnight thing that changed. I didn't just flip a switch in my head and suddenly I could talk to everyone. I took it slowly at first, just saying hello to anyone that caught my eye in the supermarket checkout queue or complimenting someone on their fabulous hat. It all starts with eye contact and a smile. But pretty quickly I learned that despite initial fears, people quite like it when you show interest in them. Most people *do* like to make friends. All I had to do was make the first move.

I took this to it's logical extreme recently when I was shooting video at a baby expo in Birmingham. I'd been asked to film the show in order to make a promo video and to focus on getting film of babies and children playing and having fun. I was a little nervous about that - would I have a female chaperone? Apparently not.  I was uncomfortable being the male photographer filming people's kids and I was all the more nervous when they couldn't even promise me an official photographer pass. So I bought and wore a bright yellow hi-vis vest printed with "OFFICIAL PHOTOGRAPHER" and I was carrying a *big* video tripod with a camera on top. There was no doubting what I was there for. Nobody could have accused me of hiding or being covert. When I wanted to film kids I would go over and talk to them and their parents first. I started by asking them about what they were playing with, what they'd liked at the show and *then* when I'd broken the ice I brought up the question of what I was obviously there to do. Out of the many people I spoke to and asked for permission to film their children not one person said no. There's so much paranoia about kids and photography lately. It was incredibly refreshing to discover that most people are very reasonable and respond well to an honest explanation of what you want to do and a polite request for permission.

I can't tell you how much of a difference being able to talk to people has made to my life overall. One thing is for sure, though, it's opened up a world of new photography opportunities.

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