Wise Person Said: Matt Roth

Posted On: Monday, 12 September 2022

Matt Roth is an award-winning photojournalist with experience in both newspapers and magazines. He lives in the Baltimore area and specializes in portraits, conceptual photography, reportage, documentary, advertising, and creativity. He’s done work for The American Legion Family, including the cover of the February 2022 Auxiliary magazine.
What is your background in photography?
Well, my degree is in sociology from the University of Georgia (Go Dawgs!), and I definitely don’t have a mind for academia. So, I was going through a bit of a “What am I gonna do with my life” crisis. And I took the intro to photojournalism course. I was invited to take the other two courses, and I had the weirdest calm when I thought about being a photographer for a living. I just felt like I wouldn’t fail at it. I mean I’ve definitely had failures throughout my career, but once I got my degree in 2002, I only made money as a photographer …  well, except that one time when I was an extra on House of Cards as a photographer. Also, holy smokes! I’ve been a photographer for 20 years! That sneaked up on me. 
What are your favorite things to photograph?
You mean, besides the work that pays the best? Ha! Well, when people ask me what my favorite food is, I always say “macaroni and cheese.” But, there’s food I like waaaaayyyy more than mac n’ cheese. But, it was my favorite as a kid, I still love it, and there are so many fun ways to make it. So, in a similar way, I’ve photographed a ton of different subject matter. I thoroughly enjoy most of it. But I think portrait work is my favorite. I do editorial and commercial work, and there’s always a story attached to those portraits. Some photographers are very good at controlling everything during a shoot and executing a pre-planned vision. I’m the opposite. I love to collaborate and improvise with my subjects. I think it helps that I like people too. They tend to enjoy the process when they realize I’m enjoying their company. 
What is the one thing you wish you knew when you started taking photos?
Better business practices. 
In your opinion, what makes a good photograph?
If it makes me feel something.
What are your top five tips for taking a good photograph? 

  1. Gear isn’t that important. Don’t get me wrong; it totally helps and it can be fun to use. I have very nice equipment. But most of my family photos are on my iPhone. 
  2. Clean up your backgrounds. Photographs are kind of like rooms. In the same way messy rooms are kind of hard to be in, messy photographs can be hard to look at. Just open a magazine and check out the print advertisements. The backgrounds are under control. The photo is easy to look at — it’s clean. You know what you’re supposed to look at. Pay attention to their backgrounds. And now, pay attention to your backgrounds. And to further this point, try composing your photos from the background, forward.
  3. Wait. You see a cool setting? Wait for something cool to happen in it. We pros do a lot of waiting. Even while we shoot, we still wait. We wait for the light to be right. We wait until we’ve figured out how to make our subjects relax enough to show their real smile — not their smile-for-the-camera-smile. And even working a scene photojournalistically is a form of waiting. 
  4. Give yourself limitations. If you’re trying to push yourself and improve how you see, give yourself parameters. It’s fun. It’s like a game. I’ll sometimes go into an assignment with only one prime lens — sometimes it’s a lens I rarely use, just to see what I can get. Smartphone cameras are the ultimate limitation. These days, one of you will have more than one lens. If you’re up for limiting yourself, just pick one of the focal lengths, stick with it, and maybe only shoot horizontally for a day. Or, if you have a phone with “portrait mode,” just shoot with that. Or give yourself a time of day — like one hour — to go out and make pictures. Or limit yourself to subject matter. Like say, “Today, I’m only going to photograph red things between 6 and 7 a.m., horizontally, with my iPhone on portrait mode.” 
  5. Get critiques, and give critiques. Feedback can be hard to hear sometimes, especially from the wrong person. If you ask someone for a critique and they say you might as well throw your camera in a dumpster fire, then that person’s a — wait, can I curse here? No? Well, you don’t need to listen to anything that person says. Find folks who want to help. Chances are, they’ll tell you what they think works and what doesn’t in your photos. And keep in mind, this is all advice for when you make more photos. But I find that giving critiques, talking about someone else’s photographs to them in a kind and thoughtful way, is the best way to really understand what makes a better picture.
What are the top things to avoid when taking a photo?
  1. Messy backgrounds.
  2. People who don’t want to be photographed. Seriously. They have their reasons, and they don’t have to tell you. Hopefully they’re nice about it. For example, I’ve had assignments in schools before, and each class has a list of who is and isn’t allowed to be photographed. I found out some of these kids are in the middle of ugly custody battles. Some have parents who are hiding from an abusive ex-partner and showing up in a newspaper article about new computers in a classroom could put lives in danger. Obviously most of you aren’t going on assignment, but I hope you get my point. 
  3. Digital zoom. Blech. If you can, just move closer.
What is the best way to capture candid/action shots?
Like I said earlier, find a clean background and wait for something cool to happen. Also, shoot the emotion. Photography speaks in nonverbal communication. Watch for body posture and facial expressions. What are they communicating? Are they happy? Nervous? Bored? Bummed? 
What is the best way to take a group photo?
Oh man. The best way? I think tableaus are the ULTIMATE group photo. What’s a tableau? It’s a narrative picture with several subjects helping tell that narrative. Ever see a Where’s Waldo? You have to look for Waldo in a sea of other people doing other things. Waldo is surrounded by tiny narratives. That’s an extreme version of a tableau, but I hope you get the idea. But if you want tips on making a better family photo — aside from putting them in front of a clean, simple background — allow their personalities to come out, especially the kids. Let the 8-year-old make a ridiculous face. Let the 15-year-old roll their eyes. Their personalities will change every year. I know a lot of you might want that perfect everyone’s-smiling-photo, and try to get that, but then see what happens when you let everyone pose how they want. After 10 years, it’ll be a really interesting study of your family.
What is the best way to hold a camera to avoid camera shake?
Tuck your elbows into your torso, and, when you’re holding your camera, cup your left hand UNDER the lens. I see so many people putting their left hand on top of their lens, which does nothing to support your camera.
What is the best advice you’ve received as a photographer?
Don’t be afraid to hold a camera. They’re meant to be held. 
Out of all your photos, which one is your favorite? Why? 
This is kind of like my mac n’ cheese answer. There are a lot of photos I’ve made that I love. But one sticks out. It’s the photo that went along with Howard Magazine’s Best Vet of Howard County award. It’s a ludicrous picture that borders on schlock. but what makes it work is the vet’s connection and interaction with the dog. That’s the emotional glue that elevates this silly role reversal theme to, what I think, and most people also seem to think, is a really great picture. There’s an emphasis in the photo world for young photographers to develop their “eye.” It’s a photographer’s distinctive style, and this photo became my guide stone for the most distinct style I show in my portfolio.

By Travis Perkins, Staff Writer 

ALA Mission

In the spirit of Service, Not Self, the mission of the American Legion Auxiliary is to support The American Legion and to honor the sacrifice of those who serve by enhancing the lives of our veterans, military, and their families, both at home and abroad. For God and Country, we advocate for veterans, educate our citizens, mentor youth, and promote patriotism, good citizenship, peace and security.