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.

“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

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.

Here are five tips for photographers from Pete Souza, inspired by this event:

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

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama share a private moment at an Inaugural Ball in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2009 // 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. Get out and take photographs every day

Souza’s main advice for photographers is to try and take photos every day. He says that this is one of the most important things you can do to support your 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 // 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

3. Ask for critiques from professionals in the field of photography

Sometimes photographers are not the best judges of their own work. In order to grow and develop your skills, ask industry professionals such as photo editors, gallerists, magazine or book publishers, and other 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 reviews and constructive feedback. They serve as an opportunity to get expert advice from professionals in the industry that will help guide your practice and improve your work. Furthermore, you’ll make contacts that could prove to be pivotal for your career.

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

Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha make snow angels at the White House; 2010

4. Network with people in the photography community

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

Three year old, Clark Reynolds looking up as the president grazes his cheek while he crosses his little tie over the rope line; 2016 // President Obama working at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office; Oct. 23, 2015

5. Take care of your images through metadata

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, camera settings, and more.

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.

Obama lifting the Daughter of Deputy National Security Advisor in her elephant costume at a Halloween event at the White House; Oct. 30, 2015 // President Obama and Vice President share a laugh in Portsmouth, N.H.; Sept. 7, 2012

President Obama and the First Lady laughing while recording a holiday video message; Nov. 19, 2014

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.

President Barack Obama looks out the window of the Oval Office, Feb. 12, 2010 // President smiling on the phone; Dec. 12, 2009

The President sitting next to Akira Cooper at the Community Children’s Center in Lawrence, Kansas; Jan. 22, 2015

Summary

From starting out as a photographer for a local paper in Kansas to documenting one of the most beloved presidents in the United States, Souza’s advice, while seemingly simple, is worth holding on to:

1. Keep your eyes open

2. Practice

3. Ask for advice

4. Network

5. Take care of your images

Now get out and shoot!

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

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.

President Obama at the Ford Kansas City Stamping Plant in Liberty, Missouri; Sept. 20, 2013 // Barack, Michelle, and Malia Obama watch the Fourth of July fireworks from the roof of the White House, July 4, 2014

Note: All images featured in this piece were taken by Pete Souza for the White House


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About Black Women Photographers
Black Women Photographers was founded by Polly Irungu as a community and resource that unifies Black women and helps them find work within the photography industry. To participate in future events hosted by Polly, visit the Black Women Photographers events page.