Five Photography Tips From Pete Souza

President Obama’s Chief White House Photographer shared his experience and tips for taking great photos during a Q&A with Polly Irungu, Founder of Black Women Photographers.

Pete Souza, best-selling author, speaker and freelance photographer was the Chief Official White House Photographer for President Obama during his eight years in office. Souza was recently featured as the special guest for a fascinating online Q&A with Polly Irungu, founder of Black Women Photographers. Learn five fantastic tips on documentary photography, inspired by the event.

All photos taken by Pete Souza for the White House, the Obama Administration. *Please see license information at the bottom of this article.

“Your eye must see a composition or expression that life itself offers to you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

1. Look for fleeting moments

Every morning for 8 years, Chief Official White House Photographer, Pete Souza reported to the Oval Office to document President Obama’s time in the White House. There were no planned shot lists or structured shooting schedules, Souza simply tagged along with President Obama to photograph the president’s days and activities.

While Souza’s mission was to create images for historical reasons, he also aimed to capture fleeting moments of beauty and magic — the “decisive moment.” This refers to capturing the essence of a real life scene that is ephemeral, spontaneous, and also quintessential.

Inspired by Henri Cartier-Bresson, a forefather of street and reportage photography who coined the term, Souza trained his eye and intuition to look for the “decisive moments” while shooting. Souza’s talent in capturing such beautiful fleeting moments gave people a sense of who President Obama is as a person and showcased his humanity.

The son of a White House staff member checks to see if the President’s haircut felt like his own; May 8, 2009

(L) President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama share a private moment at an Inaugural Ball in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2009 // (R) President Barack Obama jokingly puts his toe on the scale as Trip Director Marvin Nicholson, unaware to the President’s action; Aug. 9, 2010

2. Take photos every day

Souza’s biggest piece of advice for photographers is to try to take photos every day. He says that this is one of the most important things you can do to support growth as a photographer and to improve your craft.

By shooting every day, you’ll develop your own visual style and way of moving. Your visual voice and style can only be learned and developed by practicing as much as possible.

 President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama look at their hometown of Chicago; June 15, 2012 // Barack, Michelle, and Malia Obama watch the Fourth of July fireworks from the roof of the White House, July 4, 2014

The President and First Lady kiss on the “Kiss Cam” at U.S. Men’s Olympic basketball team and Brazil in Washington, D.C.; July 16, 2012

3.Get critiques from professionals

Photographers are not always the best judges of their own work. In order to grow and develop skills and improve your photography, ask industry professionals such as photo editors, gallerists, magazine or book publishers and photographers that you admire to review your work.Through participating in portfolio reviews and other opportunities for critique, all photographers, aspiring or seasoned, benefit from constructive feedback. Furthermore, you’ll make contacts that could prove to be pivotal for your career.

Obama lifting the Daughter of Deputy National Security Advisor in her elephant costume at a Halloween event at the White House; Oct. 30, 2015

The President sitting next to Akira Cooper at the Community Children’s Center in Lawrence, Kansas; Jan. 22, 2015 // The President at the Ford Kansas City Stamping Plant in Liberty, Missouri; Sept. 20, 2013

4. Network in the photo industry

Through networking and associating yourself in a positive manner with people in the photography industry, you’ll create the opportunity to be hired for work, now or down the road. You never know who will end up being influential in your life and career.

In almost every instance, White House photographers are people that the president knows. Early in his career, Souza was a photographer for the Chicago Tribune’s Washington, D.C. bureau where he was asked to document the career of then-senator Barack Obama. Souza followed Obama’s senatorial career rise all the way to his presidency — which led to Obama asking Souza to be his Chief Photographer.

Making connections and leaving positive impressions, along with hard work, led to Souza holding one of the most important photography photography positions in America.

 Obama delivers remarks in the pouring rain at a campaign event in Glen Allen, Va; July 14, 2012

President Barack Obama waits in his limousine Westchester County Airport, N.Y; Sept. 16, 2010 // President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden holding hands during a group prayer in a meeting with faith leaders to discuss immigration reform; Nov. 13, 2013

5. Include metadata in images

One of the most important things you can do with your images is to make sure that proper metadata is embedded in your photo files. Metadata refers to data about the image such as the dimensions, pixels per inch, copyright owner, keywords and camera settings.

The best time to enter the metadata is while processing your images right away at the end of a shoot.

There are two main advantages of using metadata. One, it helps identify you as the photographer and owner of the photo; and two, it can be utilized to search for images both on and offline.

Souza has created 1.9 Million images while working under President Obama. Metadata is absolutely essential to work with such a vast archive. From large to small catalogs, ensuring proper metadata is one of the most important things you can do to take care of your images.

First Lady Michelle Obama hugs daughters Sasha, left, and Malia as they visit the Great Wall of China in Mutianyu, China, March 23, 2014

Robby Novak, AKA ‘Kid President’, feigns a phone call at the Resolute Desk, April 1, 2013 // The President talks with a young refugee at a Dignity for Children Foundation classroom in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Nov. 21, 2015

BONUS: Pete Souza’s go-to camera gear

Souza’s gear list remains largely unchanged from when he was working at the White House. He currently works with newer versions of the same cameras and lenses he used to document Obama’s presidency.

When Souza was shooting at the White House, he carried two Canon 5D Mark II bodies, which had the quietest shutter at that time. Each of Souza’s cameras held a prime lens: a 35mm f/1.4 and a 50mm f/1.4. He carried a third lens in a pouch, a 135mm, which he often used as well. Souza later added a Canon 24–70mm zoom, a 70–200mm zoom and an 85mm prime lens to his kit.Most of Souza’s work was shot with existing light. However, he carried a speedlight for portraits in the oval office in order to compensate for the back light from the window behind the president’s desk. To balance the light and create front fill, Souza bounced the light from the flash off of the ceiling.

Presidents Carter, Clinton, Obama and Bush wait backstage to be introduced during the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas; April 25, 2013

 The President’s wave aligns with a rainbow as he boards Air Force One at Norman Manley International Airport prior to departure from Kingston, Jamaica; April 9, 2015 // White House was lit with the colors of the rainbow in celebration of the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage; June 26, 2015

To view more of Pete Souza’s work, visit his website or Instagram. You can also check out the Obama White House Flickr page to see some of Souza’s favorite images from the presidency.

*Important licensing information: These official White House photographs are being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

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Suzanne Strong
Suzanne Strong

Creative Director for Photos at Noun Project and Photographer

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