By Sheri Oneal


Sometimes the night before a photo shoot I look through image samples and try to visualize ideas that incorporate lighting and composition. Many times, depending on the assignment, it is difficult because there is no real knowledge of what a location will offer, what my subject will look like, what wardrobe they will bring or what the personality will be of the person I am shooting. The process of shooting an assignment is one that will eventually drain me of my energy but only after it is complete and has my final approval. I start visualizing in my mind what kind of lighting I want to use and what items I might be able to incorporate into the shot. If I am shooting in the studio many times I will go early or the night before and play with lighting ideas beforehand so I have a better direction of what I plan to do. I never have a true sense of where I will end up, and it never ends where it starts . Part of the art of photography is not completely knowing what will happen.

In the beginning of a shoot there is a nervousness. I wonder how the person I am about to photograph feels around me and how I will interact with this person so that they will relax and trust me. How will I connect and find things to keep their mind busy so they are not focusing on the camera. I feel uncomfortable in my skin. I feel a bit uneasy and anxious and I know that they are feeling the same.

I always start early before the subject arrives. When they get to the shoot things begin to get busy with makeup, wardrobe, ideas and questions pertaining to what the subject is expecting the images to look like. Many times they have no ideas and trust me to come up with something, other times they know exactly what they want and I have to determine what that is through their words. I interact with the subject as much as possible to put them at ease, if there is a makeup artist it helps because they take some of the pressure off of me while they converse with the subject as they are working. I let them interact while I take everything in and figure out what works visually.

Now that I have a direction, know the clothes that will be worn and how the subject looks I can begin to create a story with imagery and light. I make sure to connect with the subject, giving them ideas and seeing if I am going in the right direction by asking lots of questions. I always ask them in advance to bring images with them that they like so that I can figure out what they are hoping to see. I watch them from a distance and pre-think what I believe works with their skin color, eye color, hair color and the way that they carry themselves. Their body language always gives me a starting point and a million thoughts rush through my head. I think about light ratios, aperture settings, white balance, angles and color schemes in regard to how I want the overall image to look and feel.

I have never thought of photography as just creating an image but rather a process of creating an image that portrays some feeling of emotion. The beauty of photographing people is that everything in the shot makes up the story but it is in the eyes where the truth of the image will be told. Subconsciously we all look into the eyes of people both in real life and in art. For me there always seems to be a confusion in my own mind as I am putting all the elements together. Often I get quiet in thought and have to force myself to say something in order to keep the subject engaged. It is so much easier on me if I have a good makeup artist, assistant or art director that can keep a dialog going with the subject while I am contemplating my creation. As the shoot begins I pay attention to highlights, shadows, composition, hair, clothes, image placement, and so many other things…thoughts running through my mind a hundred miles an hour.

As I begin it is almost overwhelming as I try to find that place where “it” happens. A photo shoot is the process of creation, it is spontaneous and in the beginning it is always unclear what will need to happen in order to make the image take on a story of its own. It has to play out and unfold with constant nurturing and change. I am always thinking, pushing, changing, talking and tweaking. The uncomfortableness slowly begins to fade, a rush of energy begins to grow within me as I move forward and become excited the closer I get to the place I feel I need to be.

Years of this type of experience helps me to get better with my craft. I realize how to push myself and the subject to a point where in a split moment out of nowhere it happens. I know when it happens, I get a feeling that overwhelms me and I know I am there. I can’t explain it other than to say it is a combination of experience, visual realization and emotion. The “it” is when I get the one shot I know will be the one I want to use. For whatever reason it speaks to me. In the end that image may not be the image that the subject picks but it is almost always the one that I feel is the hero.

Within myself it is a wonderful feeling to have a library of images I have created over the years. I am not just a photographer, I am a storyteller and I love the opportunity to share. I am grateful for the opportunity to capture beauty with a single click which can stop a moment in time that will never again be. It is such a gift to be able to share that with others because it is not about me or my image, it is about the person staring back at the viewer as a story evolves from the emotion within their eyes…the windows to the soul. It is history and it always reflects life in a time that once was.

*NOTE all Sheri Oneal blog posts are ©2013 by Sheri Oneal. Any use of photos or content must be agreed upon in writing.

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