In photography, breaking the rules often results in high-impact results. While portrait photography has guidelines (project the chin, don’t clasp the hands, etc.) there are times when a rule can be broken in order for the photographer to capture an image that delivers more than just good looks. Shawna Shields, a lifestyle portrait photographer in Alaska, makes her living providing rule-breaking shots. Her clients often see a side of themselves they haven’t seen before — a story that is told in half-laughing smiles and sparkling eyes that can’t be captured in a perfect pose.
When it comes to photographing a girl and her gun, another set of rules applies, and these can’t be broken — the rules of basic firearms safety. Shawna agreed to talk to me about her experiences as a professional photographer who is often asked to shoot images that include guns. “I didn’t start out thinking about safety,” Shawna admitted.
As more of her clients brought guns as “props” for everything from senior photos, private portraits and pin-up parties, Shawna got a call from her design studio in California. “What’s with all the guns in Alaska?” they asked. Capturing the beauty of women posing with guns was not something that she had intended, but as more women asked to be photographed with firearms, Shawna noticed the confidence they exuded — and confidence, Shawna told me, “Is a woman’s best asset.”
She shared one of her early experiences shooting a portrait for a law-enforcement officer. Having no background in firearms, Shawna suggested a pose she had seen before in which the officer would aim the gun at the camera. In the world of firearms instruction, this idea is verboten, but as a photo, the “fem fatal” image worked.
“It goes against all my training,” the officer said. She was referring to the rule memorized verbatim by officers that states, “Never allow the muzzle to cover anything you are not willing to destroy.” Shawna was disappointed at first, as the image of the gun pointed to the side did not have the same dramatic effect. Her unspoken rule of photography up to that point was, “Anything for the photo.”
While her clients always assured her that their guns weren’t loaded, and Shawna always checked to make sure that was the case, she decided to make gun safety a priority at her studio. She would become not just a photographer but, when guns were involved, a “Studio Safety Officer.”
One of the first things she learned was that the finger should never be placed on the trigger. This rule is often explained with the statement, “the finger lives on the receiver and visits the trigger.” As an image, a straight finger contradicts the portraiture rule that insists that, “if it bends, bend it”–referring to wrists, elbows and knees. It could no longer apply to index fingers when guns were concerned.
The next thing she learned was how to handle the various types of actions that may be brought to her studio. “I needed to know how to check different types of guns,” Shawna said. She now always opens the action of a firearm before passing it to someone and insists they do the same. If a firearm is set down and left unattended, for even a minute, she checks it again when it is picked back up.
Just like in the studio, a photo in the field is an opportunity to memorialize not just a trophy animal but, especially with new hunters, an opportunity to reinforce good gun handling. These photos will be viewed for years, and I’ve heard plenty of criticisms of photos that are quick to point out an obvious error in safety.
Here are the 4 basic firearms safety rules and what they mean for photographers and their subjects:
The gun is always loaded
This means that when we handle firearms we assume they are loaded and treat them accordingly. Many, if not most, firearms related accidents come with the statement, “I didn’t think it was loaded.” This rule may be obvious when hunting, but forgotten when the gun is just taken out of the case for a photo or in the excitement just after an animal has been taken.
Never allow the muzzle to cover anything you are not willing to destroy
This does not just mean “pointing” it means that no matter how you are holding a firearm you should always have complete control of where the muzzle is pointed. This means when placing it in a vehicle, removing it from a table, or carrying it across the room. Shields had a client posed for a shot who brushed a hair from her shoulder and when Shawna looked up from her camera, the pistol was pointed at her. She now has an assistant with her on “shoots” who also acts as a second Safety Officer.
Keep your finger off the trigger until the sights are on the target and you have made the decision to shoot
It could be said that Hollywood has contributed the most to the bad habit of people picking up a firearm and immediately placing a finger on the trigger. Whether it makes for better cinema or photos, it has no place in the real world of firearms. The reflex action of the finger to surprise could easily make a gun go off that would, if all other rules are followed, be safe.
Be sure of your target as well as your surroundings
This rule is often applied to shooting situations, where hunters fail to consider what is behind their target, but it applies anywhere a gun is being handled. An example is if you are on the first floor of a two story building — the gun should not be pointed toward the ceiling. If you are in a studio with partitions, the gun should not be pointed in a direction that, if it weren’t for a person on the opposite side, would otherwise be safe.
Shawna’s studio, Narrow Road Productions is a lifestyle portrait design studio located in Kenai, Alaska.
This article is courtesy of Christine Cunningham, author of “Women Hunting Alaska.” For up to date information on the Women Hunting Alaska book, please visit Northern Publishing or like Women Hunting Alaska on Facebook!