Monday, June 01, 2009

The Fastest Way To Better

My entire first book was about becoming a better photographer so I'm not about to condense that into a single short essay. On the other hand, there must be some things which will improve our photography faster than others. "Study the masters" he said - well that could take a life time so, valuable as the advice is, it ain't quick. "Buy a better camera" says a small voice at the back of your head - nice try but that isn't going to do it either - though it is fast. Doubling your pixel count will simply allow you to make bigger prints, not better!

Surely photographers of different levels, interests, skills and experience will need custom advice - well maybe, but consider the following:

Try the following experiment. For the next month, for each and every image you take (or at least series of images), stop for a moment and ask yourself what it is you want the image to do, and then ask yourself if you have done everything you could to help it do that.

That's it, that's the secret to eternal bliss, just that one sentence.

Naw, it can't be that easy you're thinking, besides I already do that. DO you really, do you do it for each and every composition?

Here's a fictitious conversation that someone might have with themselves when out photographing to illustrate what I mean.

Let's say that the subject is a small meandering stream, with overhanging trees draping moss. The reason you are there int the first place is to make some nice landscape pictures - you could come up with some hokey reason that looks impressive and relates to communing with nature and forces of the earth and stuff, but that's to tell other people like curators, for yourself you cut the bull and admit it's all about taking nice pictures of a pretty scene.

Right, but that's why you are there, not why you are taking this particular photograph so the conversation should now continue:

So, I'm hanging out over the water, trying to capture that lovely S bend in the river, the overhanging trees.

Why take this image? Well, I like the reflections on the water, the shapes, but perhaps most of all, I somehow want to capture the remoteness of this spot (even though it's a city park), the coolness of the forest shade on a hot sunny day, the tranquility.

OK, I never said it couldn't be a tall order.

So, that's what I wanted in the image. Is it any surprise that the odds of achieving all these goals isn't great. Still, let's see how I do at answering the question of what am I doing to achieve these goals.

I envision a fairly dark print to reinforce the isolation and tranquility. Definitely not contrasty and harsh - does that have any bearing on the image I am about to capture.

Well, the sun is shining through the trees in spots so whether I like it or not, harsh may be exactly what I get. But, there are some clouds and every so often the sun is partially hidden. I call this "dial - a light" conditions since I can control exactly the amount of contrast I want based on my timing of the image.

I want those reflections on the water, but a check with a test exposure shows that they are off the chart and going to record in pure white - sure I MIGHT be able to rescue them with the recovery slider in Camera Raw, but I don't know - do I want to gamble - NO, I do not. I am going to have to adjust the exposure or possibly even use more than one exposure and exposure blend the result, whether HDR or not. I want softness and empty shadows do not factor into that so simply reducing the exposure to handle the reflections is not going to work - so two exposures it is. I wanted this to be as close to wilderness as possible but I see that in the distance there is a streetlamp showing - barely visible in the viewfinder but there none the less. Sure, I could Photoshop it out but what if I moved one inch to the left - Ah Hah, problem solved and I didn't even need to cheat.

So this is an example of the kind of conversation you might have. First determine why you want this particular image, then ask yourself what you are doing to make it achieve those goals and more to the point, is there anything further I can do to achieve those goals.

It took a while to write it and even some time for you to read it, but my suggestion is that you have this conversation with yourself with every shot for a month, and see if it has an impact on your images.

Let me know how it goes.

6 comments:

Jen said...

Thanks for this wonderful essay, George. You make it sound so easy. I'm definitely gonna try this - think a lot more, slow down before I click the shutter, work a little harder at getting what I want. I can't wait to get going ...

Anonymous said...

Excellent essays like this one are your best contributions to photography.

Tommy Williams said...

I have tried to do that before, but I didn't quite phrase it the way you did and I think that will make all the difference. I promised myself that I would answer the question: "Why are you taking this picture" for every picture (or scene, I suppose) that I chose to shoot.

But it's almost impossible to answer that "why" question straight out. Instead, I need to answer a series of questions to get to that point. I need, as you wrote, a conversation.

Thanks for this insight.

Hong CN said...

George, everytime I read your essay, you really make me think a lot more. I don't know whether when your said statement in this post able to apply on candid shot or portrait capture. Probably I will need to try this out. :-)

Anyway, thanks a lot on insight self-conversation :-)

Highton-Ridley said...

A really great externalisation of your thought processes and a valuable guide to people looking to improve.

I'd add one other related... take a good handful of the same scene at slightly different exposures and viewpoints.

When you compare them in the digital darkroom, you'll start to see why you lost detail in the shadows, that awkward out-of-place lampost etc.

That closes the learning loop. For a lot of character types (like mine) you have to be guided by others but make your own mistakes! That way, the lesson is learned and the subtle nuances as well as the obvious get added to your own repertoire.

Well, that's as I see it, anyway :)

Cheers,
--Mark

Billie said...

Ok George, it has been a long time since you posted. Where are you?