The official photo blog of J. David Buerk Photography.

Without My Voice

This week I lost my voice.  I’m quiet, difficult to understand, and have the vocal range of Jack Bauer doing a Vito Corleone impersonation.  In the past four days I’ve shot a corporate dinner party, an engagement, and a wedding… without my voice.

It happened Monday after a happy (four) hour(s) hosted by Capital Area Photographers; a DC area group of professional photographers that meets to share business advice and experiences.  In this case, it was CAP’s end-of-year holiday bash happy hour at a bar in Alexandria just off the waterfront.

After 4ish hours hanging out with a bunch of other local photographers, getting everyone hooked on Grey Goose martinis, posing in a chilly photobooth outside, and frequently answering questions about my unique niche in the market shooting for the aviation industry, it was time to call it a night.  As I left the bar’s din behind me and wished the greeter a good night, I then heard how damaged my voice had been left from straining to converse over a gaggle of chatty photographers crammed into a small upstairs bar.  It wasn’t entirely my fault; I was predisposed - the few days before, I had been battling a cold in my sinuses and throat, although with no detriment to my voice.

So that's why I've sounded the way I sound, if you've had a shoot with me this past week.

What is it like to photograph without a voice?

At a consultation the next day I was told I sounded like a two-carton-a-day chain smoker… a comment I’d hear several more times from others for the rest of the week.

Wednesday was a corporate dinner party and award ceremony, which featured Vernice “Fly Girl“ Armour, the first African-American female combat pilot and first African-American female USMC aviator, as the keynote speaker.  The hardest part was cocktail hour, where I largely have to interact with folks to get the shots I need.  Usually I’ll snap a few candids as a cold intro, and unless folks are so engrossed that they don’t notice me (in which case I’d snap a few more candids), I then step in and make some comment that groups everyone closely together while simultaneously loosening them up.  It’s almost like the psychology behind “pickup-artist” theory - saying one thing to indirectly elicit something else… except without the creepiness, or “picking up.”

Airport Photography

But how do I do that when I can hardly be heard?  Well, some groups are more extroverted and naturally fall in place for a photo without much of any input (but I still like to at least say something before moving on; otherwise you’re just a creepy guy who takes pictures anonymously).  I even had one person see me take a few candids of them, and immediately come up to me to make jokes about my “big camera” before I had even began to approach them - this was easy; I said, in my raspy, gravelly voice, “ Let me guess; you’re going to make fun of my voice next?”  Their jaw dropped, then the entire group burst out laughing, realizing how ridiculous the whole situation was - this group has seen me at other events I’ve shot, so they know I don’t usually sound like that.

Introverted groups were the tough ones to figure out a strategy, because I quickly learned how reliant I am on my voice to get noticed, and get them loose for a good picture.  For the most part I adapted my normal methods, but here I snapped a few candids regardless of if they were any good - some I KNEW were throwaway shots I’d never use except to be noticed in the moment (while not being annoying about it) - I then immediately stepped in and instantly addressed the elephant in the room (“So I lost my voice yesterday at another event.  It was REALLY loud…”) and ended with a question so THEY would do most of the talking, loosening themselves up (“…did you try their Signature Drink yet?”).

I used these methods that still use my voice, but minimized its use by changing my crowdwarming strategies, for about 50% of candid group photos.  The other 50% of the time, I changed my shooting style.  Usually I am in close with a 35mm so I can interact and use my voice, chatting it up while I shoot, but since I was avoiding this, I began using my 85mm to get enough distance that it would have been rude to talk from that distance.  This worked best with the extroverts, and usually just shaking the camera in my hand and then motioning to squeeze closer together got everyone setup, no words required.  On a normal day with a normal voice, I would only do this maybe 5% of the time.

The rest of that event was easy, as it required no words to photograph the keynote speaker or awards being bestowed.

Airport Photography

Next I shot an engagement session, and those are of course very intimate… but they’re also quiet, so my only limitation here was not being able to yell instructions from a distance.  My engagement session style is to place a couple in different situations with minimal instructions, and let them play off each other after that - this reveals their natural emotions and mannerisms, and I just document.  Since I purposely am somewhat hands off in my shooting style, this was not hard to adapt my limited voice to at all - I’d give them the few instructions (“Let’s have you two start right here, then slowly walk along this path toward me once I get all the way over there.  I’m not here; you can tell dirty jokes, talk about how ugly that building is, whatever you want.”) and in the few instances where I’d normally yell an instruction from a distance (“Ok, stop right there.) I’d instead do a quick jog up to them to instruct, or let it play out and then go back and do it one more time after explaining what to do differently.  Overall the engagement was fairly standard aside from not being able to instruct from afar.


Finally, the wedding last night (yes, it was the same couple from the E-Sesh; it's just easiest to call it that).  Luckily it was a dinner party at a French restaurant, and by design the formal family portraits were first thing.  This was great, because I had the entire party in front of me, and their attention.  I treated it just like any other formal portrait, where I introduced myself, but here I explained, “I don’t normally sound like this; I lost my voice on Monday, and I’ve had shoots all week, so it hasn’t gotten a rest.  But that’s OK, because YOUR wedding is my LAST SHOOT OF THE YEAR!”  That alone got everyone cheering and ready to be photographed.  After going through my usual instructions for portraits, I began shooting no problem.  The couple was a big help because they knew exactly which family members to grab for each photo, and got them in frame; all I had to do was pose and snap.  Since everyone was warmed up to me from the start, the rest of the evening was a breeze; I shot my usual candids and details, but most of the time I had guests grabbing me for pictures they wanted - the only input I needed to give was the occasional change of location for better lighting.

I just love this selfie photo.

David and Spencer's wedding photos will be coming later in a separate post; stay tuned.

This week was a crash course for me in better noticing the immense role my voice plays in my own photography style when interacting with subjects, and really the underlying psychology in how I relax folks.  It’s been an ongoing, on-the-fly learning experience to adapt, and thusly alter my methods to get the same results.  What I learned is you can’t just change one thing, such as your focal length - everything must change with it.

Maybe Santa will bring me my voice for Christmas… but hopefully I have it back before then.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays everyone!