Coming back from COVID

March 14, 2022

High school swimmer on the starting block

We appear to have arrived at a remarkable juncture during our long, at times frightening, at other times tedious pandemic experience.

Mask mandates are lifting, vaccines and therapeutics are miraculously effective and improving, infection rates and hospitalizations are falling.

But that doesn’t mean COVID isn’t still dangerous or disruptive, as my family experienced in January and February.

2022-02-22 Anderson Pilsner

High school freshman swimmer Anderson Pilsner.

The short version of our experience goes like this – For a period of about five weeks, the coronavirus slowly made its way through our family. Very slowly.

While our cases were mild and manageable, much was unclear, including a mix of positive and negative tests that confounded and frustrated us. The whole experience cause an upheaval in our family and work lives.

For my photography business, I had to cancel prime work opportunities and postpone athlete portrait shoots. Even after I recovered, I had little energy for personal photography projects let alone the ability to provide clients the quality they deserve and expect.

As you go through having COVID, you just don’t know how long it will last or how dire the infection will be. I’m asthmatic and boy did COVID seem to hit the button on wheezing and coughing, even though I hadn’t experienced an attack for years.

The CDC says I’m high risk. But other reputable asthma resources suggest that I’m not.

My doctor offered a script for Paxlovid, which has FDA emergency approval. But you have to start it right way, and the literature admits there hasn’t been enough time to fully study the effects the medicine has, even if it is highly effective against severe COVID. Do you take it or not?

None of us seem to have much clarity at all, even two years into this.

But my family all made it. We’re okay. And that meant it was time to get back to the joy of having camera in hand and subjects to photograph.

It just wasn’t that easy.

The first photo shoots back

There was no easing into it. My first job was a high-caliber club hockey game followed by a high school swim client.

To me, that means not only making great photography but also providing clients with meaningful experiences. No pressure at all, right?

Players from the Skipjacks Academy and Junior Bruins struggle for the puck.

Just like with any other job or hobby or skill, succeeding at photography requires among other things consistency. It’s about developing muscle memory.

The more you do it, the more you become programmed to see light, to adjust it, shape it.

And not just light but how to position a person in your viewfinder, so that light and the human form intersect in the most flattering way possible.

And how to position yourself and your camera to get not just a shot but a better shot.

Oh, and the gajillion ways to manipulate the camera to achieve your vision.

I may have been working as a photographer for the better part of seven years now, but that has mostly been on a part time basis. The skillset is embedded in the conscious, yes, but not deep enough to recall in a snap after so much time off.

Given that I hadn’t shot anything in well over a month, it’s probably no surprise I experienced stress dreams the nights before these shoots. In each nightly vision of pending doom, I failed as a photographer, leaving me with a feeling of dread right before I had my first cup of morning coffee.

Again, no pressure at all, right?

To be honest, all that pressure was coming from myself.

Action in front of the net between Skipjacks Academy and the Junior Bruins.

I was probably most worried about the swim portrait shoot.

Photographing a hockey game is very much like getting thrown into a pool without floaties – you learn quickly how to swim or drown. Once the initial face off happens, within a few minutes your eyes and hands adjust to the pace of the game and you start making worthwhile images.

Portrait photography, however, is a whole different dynamic.

There’s not only the task of manipulating light and shadow in the most interesting of ways, but there’s also the vitally important connection a photographer needs to make with the client.

We can never forget there’s a person on the other side of our camera. We can’t lose ourselves in shaping the exposure triangle at the expense of a personal connection with the subject.

The person we’re photographing needs to feel seen. I mean in a way that goes far above just being an object at which we point a machine with a lens attached to it.

Leading with light

If you ever photograph portraits of swimmers, there’s a fundamental piece of success you need to be aware of:

You’re going to get wet. Very wet.

You don’t even need to get in the pool to feel drenched or to see water dripping from your camera body.

As I laid down on the tile next to an indoor competitive pool in Lancaster County, I could sense adrenaline beginning to flow through my body.

I had my client lift himself out of the pool on his arms, and I positioned a medium sized modifier with just a silver beauty dish attached (no diffusion panel) about five feet away.

I wanted to get punchy with the contrast. If there’s one thing we know about swimmers, it’s that their muscle definition is remarkable and should be highlighted in any portrait.

2022-02-22 Anderson Pilsner

Anderson Pilsner during my first portrait shoot post-COVID.

The shutter button pressed, light flashed, the swimmer gave me a solid, confident competitor’s face.

Then, blam, another swimmer practicing freestyle in a nearby lane made a turn against the pool wall, launching a wave of water down onto my back. It just barely missed my camera.

Damn, this is fun, I thought.

I worked with the swimmer, Anderson Pilsner, for about 90 minutes, and we did some good work. I was rusty. Took a little time to lose the shakiness and to feel in control of all the elements.

But we made good pictures. The client loved them. That’s what counted.

I’ve worked a few portrait sessions since then, and I can feel the instincts all coming back.

What I can say is to keep faith, even in the face of anxiety, that your skill set is there, even if you haven’t shot for some time.

It might take one session. It might take just a few frames. But it comes back.

And don’t be afraid to tell your client. Be up front with them. Chances are, they’ll be understanding and sympathetic.

Dave Pidgeon is a writer and photographer from Lancaster, Pa. He’s worked in wedding, family, and high school senior portraiture and today owns Creative Sports Photography, which provides portrait services for youth athletes.

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