Photography, Newton’s Third Law, and Paul McCartney’s Imaginary Shovel


When I was 13, a gangly and extremely enthusiastic teacher imparted to my science class the essence of Newton’s third law of motion: that every action has an opposite and equal reaction. Walking out of the classroom, I promptly forgot this lesson. Only years later did I realize that Newton’s third law governs not just motion — but virtually everything we do.

Take photography, for instance. You increase the shutter speed and consequently need to open the aperture. You increase the power of your light source and then have to make adjustments to exposure settings. It’s all one big balancing act.

Balance is important in commercial work — and very recently, a minor incident reminded me that this applies to more than your camera settings. How you treat your subjects will affect how they react to you and what the end results will look like.

You Act, Your Subject Reacts

A week or so ago, I was commissioned to shoot approximately 50 corporate headshots. I went into autopilot, found a “words groove” that seemed to work as an icebreaker for each person, and just kept clipping along — until, that is, the CEO walked in.

The boss was entirely different in mood from everyone else. Unfortunately, I did not recognize this in time. So I kept the same spirit of joviality in my interaction with him, when sobriety would have been much more appropriate.

As a photographer, you need to be an on-the-spot psychologist of sorts. You must be able to read your subject, and modify your approach accordingly, to bring out the subject’s best.

Every subject is different. Many people simply hate having their photograph taken. They may feel insecure about their appearance, and this can so easily translate onto celluloid (or pixels). Other subjects may be overconfident, over-pose, or give a distorted view of themselves to the photographer. You have to be ready to adjust for this.

Perception and Reality

In corporate photography, perception is of equal importance to reality, and as a photographer you must put the question to your client, “How do you want the world to see you?”

From there, you can translate this into how you use speech, pose and any other means you can think of to create the desired effect with your subject. This can be as simple as asking them to think the part.

It is said that Lord Snowdon used to play mind games with his subjects. On one occasion, he arrived at his studio late, with his subject already waiting for him. He walked in and said nothing. He turned the radio off and continued to ignore the subject. Eventually, the subject erupted in anger — which is precisely when Snowdon took the portrait, conveying exactly the mood he intended to create.

This is an extreme example, but I think it makes the point that we can affect the outcome of an image far beyond lighting and other technicalities.

A Lesson in Old English

Sometimes though, no amount of forethought, planning or research can prepare you for your subject.

In the early ’90s, I was commissioned to photograph the legendary Paul McCartney. I remember waiting at a venue in London and not really knowing what to expect.

It turns out he was a great guy. He was down to earth and extremely friendly. However, at one point he left me speechless.

Sir McCartney leaped to his feet during the shoot and asked loudly, “Do you know what the old English meaning of the word ‘f—’ is?”

Not sure what to do or say, I said that I didn’t. He started making a shoveling motion and said it means to dig.

Now, what do you say to that?


One Response to “Photography, Newton’s Third Law, and Paul McCartney’s Imaginary Shovel”

  1. Psychologist, psychiatrist, personal confident, the list goes on. I used to have a blond make up artist who I took along when I was doing corporate head shots who used to help enormously while directors were waiting for their turn, and left them very affable for the actual shot. Psychology, possibly, sexist probably, but it seemed to do the trick.....

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