Picture Perfect


Camera becomes time machine as photographer Dave Doody frames the past in his lens.


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi. Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns and mostly I ask questions. With every perspective as pretty as the next, it's hard not to take a good picture in the Historic Area. Here with me today is Colonial Williamsburg photographer Dave Doody, a man who knows getting a great shot is trickier than you'd think.

Is it hard, or easy, or what?

Dave Doody: It's all of the above. We have our own things that we have to take into consideration here. For most of the shots we're trying to tell a story and set a scene in a specific time period. So that means you have to make sure you have certain things in, and certain things out. That leads to some unusual challenges. As with any photograph, it's setting the frame and making sure you have the right things inside the frame in the scene that's going on. It's an entirely different world.

Lloyd: What do you have to keep out?

Dave: Anything that might be considered an intrusion or inappropriate to the period, if that's the kind of photograph we're taking at the time, because we tell both modern and 18th-century stories. But for the 18th-century stories, we need to keep all of the intrusions – and they can be as small as something that one of our models is wearing, so we have to keep a close eye on the folks and make sure that nobody's forgotten to take off their modern glasses, or have the appropriate shoes.

Lloyd: Wristwatches.

Dave: Wristwatches, you name it, or the Bluetooth headphone. It can be anything. The more models you have, the more places there are to look for those things.

Lloyd: Have you gotten any, have you gotten to the point where you've been doing this for so long that you just automatically see what's wrong?

Dave: No, I mean, I automatically see a lot of stuff. But there's often so many things going on that you need multiple eyes on the scene to spot everything. Because sometimes we'll just have one model in a scene, but sometimes we'll have a couple dozen models in a scene. As a photographer, the main thing is the overall scene, and it helps to have other eyes on it, watching for the various details. Because there's, some things can be so complex. For instance, a scene in the House of Burgesses with a couple of dozen burgesses all interacting across a large space, there's a lot to keep an eye on.

Lloyd: Do you have a sort of what you would call your favorite shot?

Dave: One that probably comes to mind, although I guess it depends on the kind you're talking about, is one we refer to as "The Walking Woman," which is kind of an impressionistic shot that I took about 15 years ago in the Historic Area. It wasn't a set-up shot, it was something that just happened while I was on the street and led to become one of my more successful artsy type of shots.

Lloyd: How long have you been here?

Dave: Since 1987, so it's been a little over 20 years.

Lloyd: You have taken lord knows how many shots in the Historic Area.

Dave: I have no idea. It's surprising, it's constantly different. We're constantly doing different things. I suppose a lot of folks might think I just spend my day wandering around the Historic Area taking pretty pictures all day long. That's not really the case. Most of our work is to fill a specific need, and we're always telling different stories. For instance, for the journal, we're illustrating specific stories that need images to tell that exact story. Or we're working on Electronic Field Trips, or any number of different kinds of media projects. But we do also go out early in the morning and take pretty pictures just to have calendar-type shots. But that kind of thing is the smallest part of it.

Lloyd: You also are the chief photographer for Colonial Williamsburg, the journal that you mentioned. There, you've got articles that have been written, and you have to illustrate them. So not only do you have to get the shot, you have to figure out what shot to get that would illustrate this article. That, I imagine, could be kind of difficult.

Dave: That's a team effort there. Usually with something of that sort, we have an editorial meeting where everybody gets together and we go through the list of stories that are going to be up for the next few issues. We'll go through the stories with the editor and sometimes the writer, and a number of different folks that help put the shots together. We have folks that put together costuming for the shot, we have people who help art direct it, and help coach the models and actors that are in the shot and help arrange for all of the stuff that has to come together.

Because, you name it, we have had all kinds of odd things that have to come together to be in that shot. So there's a tremendous amount of work that goes together behind the scenes – to find the props, to find the people, to find the places, to find the stuff that fits what might be a very, a little bit, odd period in time that we're working at. We might be doing something that's 30 or 40 years outside of our primary, our primary area of focus in the Historic Area, which leads to costuming challenges. Any number of things. And then the editor of the magazine, of course, has the final say on how the photograph is constructed for his particular need.

Lloyd: Do you have a sort of "ready file" if somebody says, "We need a maid milking a cow," and you say, "Shot one in '92."

Dave: Yeah, we have a large digital archive that contains somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 images of all various sorts. But that's not everything we've got. We're constantly adding to it, from both the newest and also the oldest images in the Foundation. But, we should be able to go to something fairly common like that and find that in what we would call "stock." That would be a stock image. Quite often, that will fit the need, and other times we have to do something that's custom-made for the specific use.

Lloyd: Every photographer I have ever known has a time of day when he or she likes to shoot. What's your time of day?

Dave: Early in the morning, typically, or very late in the day. It's the first couple hours and the last couple hours are the time to shoot, as far as I'm concerned. The rest of the time, it's time to do other things.

Lloyd: Why?

Dave: The light, the quality of the light is incredibly different for the first and last couple hours of the day. Of course, time of year and other atmospheric conditions make a big difference. But that's not to say that's the only time we shoot, because sometimes, the only time you can shoot it is 11:00 in the morning, well you've got to figure out how to do it then. Given my preferences, I would love to be doing it at 7:00 in the morning. If all the things that I need -- the people or the availability of the location or whatever -- is only at a specific time, then we figure out a way to overcome that. Often we'll come in and we'll do different lighting on the scene, for instance, just to accommodate the time of day, even if it's an exterior shot, we'll bring in lighting and do that so it will look right for the photograph, rather than just look like an amateur snapshot.

Lloyd: Do you prefer film or digital, or do you care?

Dave: I prefer digital. The flexibility is just incredible. I've been in the photography business since I was 16, and so I've seen a long spectrum of business. What we can do now with digital and working in Photoshop is like magic. You couldn't conceive of being able to do some of these things so easily. Of course, it's like any other tool. You have to know how to work with it.

Lloyd: You said your favorite picture, in a way, was a woman walking, because it just, everything turned out right. Can you, with Photoshop, make everything turn out right even if it didn't originally?

Dave: In some respects you can. You can certainly fix a lot of things that you wouldn't have previously been able to, or you couldn't have without spending a ton of money. One great advantage of the digital workflow is that you can shoot much faster. You can spend less time in the field, which is important to us here because we're often under time constraints to, "OK, you can be here for an hour from say, 7:00 until 8:00, but then you've got to disappear." So that means it’s got to be done and things that would have delayed us substantially in the film world we can now just move on and deal with it later in Photoshop. For instance, editing out the person that we couldn't get out of the background, or the car that was parked and is easily removed, but would have taken us another hour to get rid of the car or things of that sort.

Lloyd: I can see how that would be a benefit, simply by being able to erase things that you don’t want.

Dave: Absolutely, yeah. And it's, the cost is negligible now, whereas it used to be you could send things off to a high-end retoucher in New York City and spend $1,000 to have something that now I can fix in 60 seconds. Another great advantage is, you don't have to carry all these different types of film to be ready for whatever the occasion might call for. You can just change the settings in your digital camera, and essentially it's the equivalent of working with a different type of film, rather than having to carry a cooler full of film and make sure that you have plenty of it.

Lloyd: Have you ever gone out on a job and when you got finished with it, it didn't do what you wanted to do?

Dave: Quite often there is one aspect or another of a shoot that I'm not happy with. The feeling that, yeah, one way or another, this could have been done better, and try to figure out how to, if that occasion comes up again, or a similar thing happens, that you can do it better the next time around -- whether it's lighting or something technical or some way of dealing with the models. There are just so many components to it that there's always something that you feel like you could do better or differently.

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