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'The Ted Commandments': Photojournalism Tips from a Canadian Legend

Order of Canada recipient Ted Grant on preparation, trusting one's gut, and the necessity of raisins.

Thelma Fayle 16 Jan

Thelma Fayle is the author of Ted Grant: Sixty Years of Legendary Photojournalism (Heritage House, U.S. release 2014). She has been published widely, including by the Globe and Mail, Reader's Digest,, the Times Colonist and Senior Living.

As I created transcripts of more than 50 interviews with Canadian photojournalist Ted Grant for a biography called Ted Grant: Sixty Years of Legendary Photojournalism (Heritage House, U.S. release 2014), I stashed a slew of photojournalism tips in a file titled ''The Ted Commandments.''

I was able to weave most of them into the 224-page book but was left with a large number that just did not fit in with the way I wanted to tell the story of Grant's lifework, which includes countless candid and iconic shots of notable people like Pierre Trudeau, sprinter Ben Johnson, and Ronald Reagan.

Lara Kordic, my editor at Heritage House, suggested presenting the leftover tips to the reader as an appendix. It proved to be a profitable idea as several professional photographers have suggested the appendix alone was worth the price of the book.

For anyone who would like to take better pictures, here is a sampling of advice from a seasoned professional photojournalist, Canada's own Ted Grant, who is about to receive the Order of Canada for his life work.

On Anticipation

Get to the assignment early, keep your eyes open, and plan. Work through the scenario in your head. How do you think things will play out? If so-and-so is coming through the door, are they going to leave through the same door? Is anyone going to interact with them that you can set yourself up with in advance? If the politician is working their way out of the room, is there some little old lady you know he will be stopping to talk to? If so, you can get up 40 seconds before the politician and place yourself. Anticipate, observe, and be ready.

On Being Prepared

If you have a camera on your shoulder, it should be ready to rock and roll. Don't carry it with a lens cap on. It's hanging on your shoulder; the lens is safe. If you drop it, you are going to have to get a new camera. The lens cap won't make much difference if it's on or off.

I love the digital camera because it allows me to capture what I see. You don't have to carry a thousand rolls of film or consider film cost, which once may have caused me to hesitate.

On Black and White

A huge part of my career was shot in black and white, particularly my documentaries for the National Film Board. When you photograph people in colour, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls.

On Breathing

If you are shooting with a long shutter speed, use a chest-pod or brace yourself. Take a deep breath. Exhale, and then hope the moment you want to capture happens when you are not breathing. Don't jab the shutter. Squeeze it gently. That is how to make the image sharp.

Leicas help you do that because they are made of glass and brass and are heavy. In the Leica schools, they teach you how to use the mass of the camera on your elbows. There are things you learn by using different equipment.

On Carrying Raisins

On assignment, I always have a large bag of Thompson raisins in my suitcase in the hotel. I use it to fill up my camera-bag container every day. Raisins are essential equipment.

When I show up five to six hours early at a sporting event to stake out the best vantage point, I don't want to have to leave an hour before the start time to go and get some food. And if another photographer is nearby and in the same predicament, I usually have enough provisions to help out.

Once I was invited to British Columbia to photograph heli-skiers. The chopper pilot leaves me there and says he will be back ''shortly.'' After three hours -- without skis -- I was a little concerned. I began to wonder how I could get down the mountain but realized that there was no way. I would have to wait. No problem. I had raisins.

They were always a quick hit of something to eat if I was working in the oilfields, or the Olympic Games, or with a prime minister. You make friends with other photographers at the Olympics even though you only meet every four years. And the other photographers knew I always had raisins and would share them with starving colleagues. When you give kindness, you are going to get kindness back. And you have about four months before the raisins will walk away on their own.

On the Competition

How will your competition look at the subject? Can you outfox them by being the only person with a particular lighting and angle?

On Composing a Picture

Walk around the subject. Pick the angle. Have unlimited patience when waiting for a picture.

On Cropping

Crop in the camera. You move and do what is necessary to capture the photograph in the frame. Do it that way so that those x&^%&#$ editors won't screw up your pictures!

On Deleting Shots

Never edit or delete anything until you are looking at large shots on your computer screen. It is too easy to miss a good detail if you are deleting off the back of the camera.

On Editing Images

Don't consider sharpness of an image in isolation. Could something be sharper? Maybe. But is it interesting? That's important. Get over the lack of sharpness. Is it a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo? Maybe not, but is it interesting? Look at the content.

On Eyes

Study the eyes of the people you are photographing.

On Flash

Some people say you have to use flash. My feeling is that if you can see something, you can shoot it -- at ASA [measurement of film speed] 800 or 1,600 or 3,200. Don't worry about a bit of grain. If you are shooting by candlelight, it might add to the quality of the picture. But don't worry; focus on the content of the picture.

On Giving Back

You have to give back. Never say no to helping someone out. Give, give, and give.

On Handling Subjects

How you handle and relate to people is critical to your success. Your mannerisms and the way you speak are important to the outcome. I spoke to people and made them comfortable in the way I talked to them. We were one, so to speak. The tone of your voice is important. Speaking down to people is the wrong thing to do. Don't put pressure on people and don't give them the whole story of what you are trying to do. They probably don't need to know.

Minimize the posing. Always try to have your subject do something that is very natural for them, rather than get them to smile for the camera.

On iPhones

It is an interesting instrument, but I wouldn't hang up my Leica just yet.

On Keeping Fit

Keep fit.

On Keeping Hard Copies

A CD of photographs can be expected to last for only 10 years. The future of archived CDs is questionable. Keep well-protected hard copies of your best work.

On Leica Cameras

A Leica is magical but it is almost out of the realm of reasonable reach for most people. Those cameras have a strong history of having been used by the greats. At one time I had three, but one of those cameras today is $22,000. Buying an iPhone for $500 is an easy choice for most people.

If I were still shooting documentaries, I would order three Leica digitals, but I can't justify that now. I expect Leica will evolve and continue to offer the finest tools in the world. A $22,000 Leica can produce brilliant shots, but you need to understand the principles of photography. Seasoned staff photographers all over the world have been laid off, but their work has yet to be replaced with photographs of the same level.

On Letting Go of Irritations

Get beyond things that aren't worth carrying.

On Making Mistakes

I was once assigned to photograph Governor General Vincent Massey. When I got to the darkroom and developed the film, I realized I had blown the shot. I called and asked if I could go back right away to do a reshoot. Massey, being the gentleman he was, said yes. It worked beautifully.

On Making the Most of an Assignment

Always be first to arrive and last to leave.

On Multitasking

At the Olympics when they hang the medal around the athlete's neck and the Canadian flag goes up and the national anthem begins, I am usually trying to manage a big long lens, focus, and compose the shot -- and I am trying to do all that while crying.

On New Technology

There was a time when painters thought photography would spell the ruination of their art. And of course, the painters who learned to take photos and use them to their advantage in creating their paintings, they were the ones who appreciated the new technology. The same is true today with digital technology.

My old darkroom in the basement has been transformed into a digital office storeroom. It still has the remnants of the wet trays and darkroom sink, but it now has racks full of CDs and back-ups of everything. The trays with various chemicals and a print-wash to wash the chemicals out of the photos and the drier are all still nearby.

I could take everything out of there and turn it into a darkroom in half an hour if I needed to, not that that will likely ever happen.

(''In the '50s, Ted's early use of 35-mm film was part of the revolution in which photographers finally shifted to a different way of technically approaching their subjects. Portable equipment gave photographers a different ease in the way they could take pictures,'' says Lilly Koltun, retired director general of the Portrait Gallery of Canada.)

On Observing

Use your eyes for more than avoiding the garbage can in your path. If there are no pictures, you are not looking. Feel the environment. Sometimes it takes time to get into that kind of groove. No matter how observant you think you might be, you have to teach yourself to really see. It is demanding to constantly use your eyes to appreciate water drops on a flower or the light of the day.

On One-Second Exposures

On a number of occasions I made one-second exposures with my Leica. I can't do it any more with my slightly shaking hand. But then I had a way of standing and locking my body to keep completely steady. A one-second exposure is slow. Today cameras can shoot one eight-thousandth of a second. A one-second exposure is a lot of time. You would use that for a low level of light. If you deliberately move the camera, it will create a swish or a blur to portray movement.

On Posing People

Don't pose people. If you have to, get people to focus on something to do so they are not thinking about you taking their picture. And for heaven's sake, get away from the ''look over here, Grandpa is going to take your picture'' approach! You have just seen the child playing in the most gorgeous sunlight in the living room, and the light is coming through the window. Capture the moment that triggered you to want to take it in the first place.

On Positioning Yourself

Understanding light is one of the key elements of successful picture taking. It makes all the difference in the world. A slight move to the right, and shadows and highlights begin to work together. With architectural photography, you can move to the shadow side and make a cathedral look as a structure of beauty beyond your wildest imagination rather than a flat image. I want people to know that if they take five steps to the left, they might have a brilliant photograph.

On Promising Photos

Never promise someone that you will send photos and not send them, because they will meet you 10 years later and remember. I will often ask people for a card and note their request on it.

On Responding to Your Gut

If you react to something, shoot it. Don't use your analytical brain because if you think too much, you will miss out on the greatest shots. With film, we were more inclined to see how many frames were left on a roll. But today, if you see something that catches your eye, shoot it. It doesn't even cost you.

On Seeing the World

iPhones and other technology are wonderful, but something is lost when we are busy texting and missing the world we are travelling through. There is so much to see in life. When I see people texting, I am sad they are not going to see what I have seen. If you are texting as you drive through the Rockies, you are missing out.

On Selecting Your Vantage Point

In Cali, Colombia in 1971 at the Pan American Games, a female Canadian horseback rider came off the horse and went right under the water. She amazingly came back up and still had the reins in her hand. The Canadian equestrian team won gold that day.

You know that these kinds of things happen, so if you are photographing an event where horses and riders are involved, go to the waterhole because that is where the cool pictures happen. Go where the action is.

On Shifting Someone out of a Picture

If you work with officialdom, there can be times when people try to ease themselves into shots to be seen with high-level people. When someone tries to drift into a picture this way, never be offensive but you can lightly suggest something like, ''OK, you in the back, could you just slip over this way a little?'' Do it in a nice way.

On Shooting from the Shadow Side

I wasn't even aware that I was ''shooting from the shadow side'' until Ron Poling, a student of mine at Carleton, told me. It was just how my one eye saw the world.

On Signing Releases

None of the cowboys I shot signed releases -- same for the medical photos. The families of my subjects would likely be honoured. There is nothing embarrassing in anything I have shot. I didn't go looking for yellow journalism pictures.

On Sports Photography Training

Go to local games and learn where to sit. Explore.

On Teaching Others

Listen carefully and understand where students are coming from.

On Wondering

I was sitting on my front steps by a huge patch of daisies watching some bees hovering, and I wondered what I could do with a 400-mm lens. The bee was about to land when I took the picture.

But it wasn't until I looked at it on the screen that I could actually see it hovering and coming in for the landing. It would be almost impossible to see the bee and the shadow through the viewfinder at the same time -- you don't have time to consciously process that. You do get lucky from time to time.

I encourage you to have as many ''I wonder what if'' moments as you can.  [Tyee]

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