A long time ago in a place far far away I wrote about 'The Interest Comes First'. I subsequently expanded those thoughts for an essay in my book, but I'd like to take the idea further.
You can find the essay straight from the book Here in pdf format.
O.K. so I argued that one had to be interested in either the subject mattter or at the very least, what one could do with it, the latter to include all the hobbyist photographers who are more intereted in the process than the subject.
I left the impression that once the interest was there, you could start hunting for great images, but like many things in life, it's just a tad more complicated than that.
There are times when something catches your eye and the full composition, framing, focal length, ideal position and all are right there, all you need is to get the camera to your eye. This however comes with a lot of experience and even then not all that often.
I have written about the process of 'working the scene', moving left and right, back and forth, up and down looking to arrange the composition in the best possible way, but there is a step between seeing something potential and starting to work the scene which needs to be discussed.
Something catches your eye. In a flash, you decide whether it's worth pursuing or not. This is what I want to discuss.
There is a bit of a mental check list against which you test the scene.
1) the thing or person or situation is interesting, but is it even possible to shoot - perhaps there's a barbed wire fence or you really need to be thirty feet higher to get the background right, or there's wind and this is a shot that needs calm.
2) is the lighting/time of day/weather suitable to photograph this interesting thing?
3) does a fair part of its interest come from movement of the subject or yourself (driving by in a car foreground trees blur out and you can see into the forest but on stopping...)? Perhaps it's only through binocular vision that the subject makes sense.
4) is there anything spoiling the image - telephone lines, odd shadows, stray branches, spots of rain (boy that one's killed a few good shots for me, darn irritating after workin the scene, finding the ideal spot, setting up and just before you're ready to shoot, the rain starts. In theory you could clone out hundreds of rain drops, but really...)?
5) If shooting in black and white, does the subject have interesting tones or could you possibly filter to get them?
6) if colour, do they work together or could it be too busy? Is there a theme to the colours?
7) Is there a good backdrop to the subject? This probably kills more shots than just about anything. Sometimes you aren't sure and have to work the scene to find the answer, other times, you just know there isn't one and you have to move on.
8) Is what's interesting about the subject something that will even show in a photograph? A person may show an interesting expression but perhaps it's the development of the expression over time that is interesting, not the instantaneous stopping of the expression by a camera.
9) Is it good enough to turn the car round and find a parking spot and hike back to the scene. If you don't shoot often or haven't been at it many years, how do you know? If you only stop at the certainties, I guarantee you will miss many wonderful photographs. Many's the scene which has started out iffy, only to open up and you discover that extra element which makes it a great shot instead of an ok one. Only practice and experimentation will tell you when to stop. As often as not, the determining factor may be as little as how tired you are, how successful the day has been and how pessimistic you are about finding suitable subject matter, this causing you to tell yourself, naw, it won't work, and keep driving.
10) Are you even in the mood to work the scene? If not you might be better to drive on until you find a scene you can't stand not to stop for.
And all this has to run through your mind, on automatic, often in a matter of a few seconds before you drive on, or continue down the trail or look the other way. And you haven't even started to work the scene yet.