Nick Goodenough: In the Midst of a Jostling Crowd

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of “How I Got That Story” interviews featuring the winners of the 2005 AltWeekly Awards. First-place entries are collected in the book “Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005.”

Most people wouldn’t expect that working as a manager at Target would be a steppingstone to a job at an alternative weekly, but that’s the path taken by 21-year-old Nick Goodenough, winner of a first-place 2005 AltWeekly Award in Photography in the small-paper division.

One day Goodenough assisted a shopper who came away from the encounter impressed with his knowledge of cameras. The shopper, it turned out, was Hillary Johnson, then editor of Ventura County Reporter. She invited Goodenough to come by the office and show her his portfolio.

Nineteen at the time, Goodenough had never owned any camera more sophisticated than a disposable. But he had an extensive art background and was interested in learning more about the craft. So he purchased a camera — a digital Canon 10D — and got in touch with Johnson. After he completed his second assignment for the Reporter, she offered him his own column covering Ventura County’s lively music scene.

The weekly and, later, monthly column, titled “Nick at Night,” was a natural for Goodenough, who was familiar with the tight-knit community of Ventura County bands. He’d even lived with a few musicians. The county is home to a small record label, Blackbird Music, which helps front bands money to produce albums. In the spirit of friendship, Goodenough had shot album art for a few bands at little or no cost to them.

To produce “Nick at Night,” Goodenough spent five or six nights a week at shows that took place at about 15 small venues and bars in the county. The column proved popular enough that it grew from approximately a half-page to a full spread, sometimes in color.

Now in the second year of a three-year program at the Brooks Institute for Photography in Santa Barbara (the location of his second assignment for the Reporter), Goodenough has had to put “Nick at Night” on hold so he can devote himself to his studies.

He now owns more camera equipment than he can afford, he says, including two digital cameras, five film cameras and many lenses, and he looks forward to a career in photojournalism.

Below, Goodenough talks about the techniques and skills he used to shoot his award-winning column.

Some of your pictures show crowded dance floors in which everyone, I’m sure, must be moving very fast. How do you manage to get good shots in the middle of the crowd like that?

One thing I’m learning as a photographer is that you’ve got to shoot a lot of pictures. You see the work of all these great legendary photographers, and you think they just stand there and take one or two pictures. But from reading about it and doing it myself– I mean, I shoot upwards of 300 to 1,000 pictures at one show if it’s a good show. And then I might have an okay picture out of every hundred. Out of all of the okay ones, I come down to three to 10 pictures. I can usually pick out like one or two of them that I’ll actually use in print.

So shooting a lot and really being in the zone helps. I usually don’t even really remember a show after I do it because I’m looking through a little square viewfinder and trying to block out all the music.

Do you basically stand there with your camera to your eye through an entire night?

Not really. I have a camera strap that I can wind around my hand so the crowd doesn’t knock my camera to the floor. I hold the camera in one hand — it’s a pretty big camera — and then I have my flash that has a little cord going from the top of my camera to the other hand. So I’m standing there, camera in one hand, flash in the other.

I can do something called zone focusing, which is where you can focus by adjusting the little ring around the lens and know that anything three feet in front of you is going to be focused. I have to get the feel of making sure the camera is about three to four feet away from the person, and then I manually set the flash. The flash has to be five to six feet away, so I have to get these arm motions down.

The flash is pretty much everything that lights up the person, so I guess I think about how to get the light on their face, so you can actually see them and they’re not in shadow, and then also have the camera in the best spot to take a picture of them based on what they’re doing, to best show it.

Then there’s composition: I want to have something bright, so like if they’ve got dark hair, they pop out. There are a million things going through my head at once. And I hope that in shooting 300 photos one will actually turn out.

The atmosphere in bars must be a lot darker than nearly anywhere else you might take pictures, yet you manage to play around with the light in your photos. How do you do that?

I was trying to search for a way, ’cause I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and a lot of the band photos I take suck. So I was just messing around in the beginning with the slow shutter speed. I have some shots that are over a second long and the flash freezes them, ’cause it’s really quick, and then all the ambient lights from the concert kind of blur around. A lot of that’s tricky, too, because you can’t get the blurring across the face, or you’ll just have a big streak. It was a lot of trial and error.

Casualties lead singer, Jorge
One of Nick Goodenough’s winning photos

The photo you took that appears on the cover of the Association of Alternative Newsweekly’s book “Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005” has the kind of lighting you’re describing.

The one of the Casualties singer? Yeah.

One of the judges of the AltWeekly Awards contest concluded that you were able to capture the energy of the club through “terrific camera angles and judiciously applied filters.”

I thought the last part was pretty funny because in fact I’ve never used filters in any of my photos. I don’t know if people usually think that I do. I don’t use any filters or weird computer editing in my photos.

How did the different types of venues you were in affect the approach you took?

The smaller venues were much better, in my opinion. I mean, I don’t want to talk down any of the venues, but the bigger venues are probably the worst place to shoot at. They’re a headache just to have to deal with the management, because they have bigger bands coming through, and you can’t get as close, and you can’t be more personal with it. Most of the smaller places you can go up and talk to the band before they play, and you can be right in their face, and they don’t really mind. Everyone’s kind of friends so they’re more laid back, and they’re willing to bump into each other a little bit more.

What makes your photos interesting to someone who doesn’t even know who the band is?

My art background took over for a while: I was just trying to make a really interesting image that captures a moment. You’d have a pretty picture to look at — you know, somebody jumping around. Now I’m trying to get a little more into the storytelling, which is more important in photojournalism, so people actually learn something more about a band than they would by just going to see them. I can take them behind the scenes where they’re usually not allowed.

How do you decide which photos you will use? How much was the editor of Ventura County Reporter involved in that, and how much of it was up to you?

I was pretty lucky there. They told me to try and get five pictures each week, and so I would pretty much be my own editor because I usually wouldn’t give them anything I didn’t want published. I’d be really hard on myself.

Do you think you were able to do things differently with your column because it appeared in an alt-weekly rather than a mainstream publication?

Definitely. I mean, this is my first job at a publication, so it was a new experience for me, but they really let me be creative with it, which is nice because everyone in the community was into it.

Lindsay Kishter is a junior at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. She interned at the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies for the summer.

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