Photography is about observing. A photographic image is a record of the photographer’s observation. An observation can be made at a distance, and captured with a long lens, but it isn’t likely to be an interesting one because distance limits you to one sense: vision. A well-timed observation—which is what’s required for a good image—cannot happen unless the photographer has awareness of the whole situation which he or she observes. Awareness is not primarily a visual function. Awareness requires every sense, as well as a great deal of thought and consideration. Awareness is listening to the joke someone is telling to anticipate when your subject will smile. That’s not only hearing, but also the processing of what’s being said and the application of your own knowledge and experience to time the reaction you know will occur.
Robert Capa famously said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” I don’t know what Capa meant when he said it, but I’ve often heard it interpreted to imply that to get better images the camera should be closer. Although there is plenty of truth in that interpretation, I believe Capa meant a lot more. I think he meant that to get better pictures you as a person—and not your camera—have to be a lot closer. By “a lot closer,” he meant more personally, emotionally, and sensorially involved.
After starting Magnum, Capa worked hard at helping new photographers find assignments. He also gave them advice. One of the more well known pieces of advice was: “Like people and let them know it.” That advice was based on his own experiences. General Matthew B. Ridgway, commander of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division, wrote to the editors of Life Magazine: “Mr. Capa, by reason of his professional competence, genial personality, and cheerful sharing of all dangers and hardships has come to be considered a member of the Division.”
Writing about Capa, John Steinbeck said:
Capa knew what to look for and what to do with it when he found it. He knew, for example, that you cannot photograph war, because it is largely an emotion. But he did photograph that emotion by shooting beside it. He could show the horror of a whole people in the face of a child. His camera caught and held emotion.
Capa, and the photographers of that golden age of photojournalism, usually shot wide. Rangefinders of the day commonly had 35mm lenses on them, and to fill a frame required the photographer to be close to the subject. Being close is also what enables all the other senses to be in play, and what enables the photographer to anticipate the moments not only worth capturing, but to anticipate when those moments will occur.
If your pictures aren’t good enough, ditch the long lens and try shooting wide to get involved with your subjects. There’s almost no chance your pictures won’t turn out better.