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Matinee: Burk Uzzle on Preparedness in Photography Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

21 January 2017

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the 171st in our series of Saturday matinees today: Burk Uzzle on Preparedness in Photography.

This nearly four-minute clip from the North Carolina Museum of Art is shot entirely in what appears to be Burk Uzzle's Wilson, N.C. darkroom. Just a guess but where else would you find three old film enlargers and a silver Halliburton case that a former Magnum photographer would know what to do with?

Uzzle has been shooting documentary photography since he worked as a staff photographer for the Raleigh News & Observer when he was in his teens. He was hired by Life magazine at the ripe old age of 23, the youngest photographer they ever hired. And he contributed to Magnum for 15 years before serving as its president.

Among the more well-known images of his six decade career is the Woodstock album cover of the couple hugging at dawn, scenes at the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr. and reportage from the Cambodian war.

Last summer three North Carolina museums featured his work, the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University and Raleigh's North Carolina Museum of Art.

You won't have time to fiddle when life presents you with an opportunity on the street.

In this clip, Uzzle discusses documentary shooting technique. That's where the notion of "being prepared" comes in. You don't have time to fiddle as life flashes before your eyes on the street.

So, Uzzle says, first meter the light. Set the camera to expose for that light.

Then set the aperture to whatever depth of focus you expect you'll need. Incidentally, that will also help you figure out the hyperfocal distance.

He doesn't mention hyperfocal distance because he goes a little further. He's actually modified his lenses so he can feel the focus settings for certain distances like five feet away or twelve. As he raises the camera, he can set focus without ever looking through the viewfinder.

Focusing without looking is a lot easier, we note, when using a wide angle lens. In fact, you may not have to focus a wide angle lens at all if you set it to the hyperfocal distance.

Apart from his indispensable advice to meter the light, Uzzle's presetting advice is really for film cameras. With a digital camera, ISO can change automatically with each exposure and your lens can typically autofocus.

So you can preset your aperture for depth, preset your shutter for subject movement and let ISO float to compensate for the sunny or shady side of the street. Autofocus is probably quick enough (especially at wide angle) and you can fudge aperture (most likely) or shutter (just as easily) with a subdial on a dSLR. Just set ISO to Auto.

Uzzle does sound effects, too. But don't hold that against him. Especially when he demonstrates composing "by your belly button."

You don't, he says, need to look through the viewfinder. And when machine guns are coming at you, you don't have the time either. But you still have to get the shot. So you have to be able to compose with your belly button. And no one is the wiser.

Even in a studio portrait, he prepares ahead of time to "synchronize your own spirit with their spirit." It's a dance, he says. You figure it all out in your head before they come in, setting the lights, picking the camera and lens and then interacting with your subject.

Preparing what can be done ahead of time clears your head for the real work, which is capturing the image.

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