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Taking Your Photography to the “Next Level” (6)


Copyright 2010 Andy Richards

This final installment in the series, is written, as much to myself, as it is to any other reading audience. It is an ongoing experience for me and will probably be as difficult to write as it is “live.”

Good Photographers Make Images

A photography instructor some years back, critiquing an image-assignment, said something which, while certainly not an original thought, has always resonated with me in my approach to photographic imagery. Photographic artists don’t “take” pictures . . . we “make” photographs. I am firmly in that camp.

I am not speaking so much about reportage and sports photography though I still think it applies – the photographer chooses the perspective, the lens, the depth of field and the parts of the scene to include or exclude. She also chooses when to capture the image (what has been referred to as “the decisive moment”).

Good photographs are not “taken.” They are Made

Before we can make a good photograph, we need to do some preparation. We have spoken about the physical part (choosing the right equipment for the shoot, knowing its use intrinsically, and knowing how to capture a technically good image). I am now speaking of mental preparation. We need to think about what we want to accomplish, and how we want to present the image. We need to think about what parts of a scene will effectively show what we want our viewer to see and how our equipment captures and presents that image. This is a concept teaching professionals call visualization, or pre-visualization.

Visualization Tools

My friend and mentor, professional photography teacher and talented artist, James Moore, starts every new student (whether a “seasoned professional” or a rank amateur) with an exercise that is designed to make them think about this process. Jim has the student think about the physical limitations of the camera lens—its “aspect ratio,” what parts of an image will fit within that ratio and how the image will look, using rules of good composition. He teaches them to understand how an image will render using the most commonly used focal length/aspect ratio combinations. His method is extremely simple, and at the same time, very “freeing,” of our tendency to become tethered to our gear. Jim has the student make a simple frame (e.g., out of mat board) with the opening cut in a rectangle with the same aspect ratio as their capture device. Again, this is not original invention on Jim’s part. I have carried one of these in my camera bag over the years, gleaned from one book or website or another. It doesn’t really matter what size this cutout is – just that the aspect ratio be correct for your capture device (sensor size for most of us). However, Jim has his own very creative approach to this visualization method. I don’t want to give away all his secrets J, so I enthusiastically recommend going to his website and signing up for one of his workshops, classes or one-on-one mentoring sessions!

My friend, Kerry Leibowitz, in his Lightscapes Nature Photography Blog, illustrates why previsualization is so important, in his article about the (almost counterintuitive) use of telephoto lenses and isolating important elements in a scene to make a meaningful image with visual impact. Kerry clearly explains the limitations of the photographic visual media from a viewer’s perspective. I think this supports Jim’s aspect-ratio and focal length exercise as in invaluable tool to visualizing and understanding this process.

Alain Briot, in his Mastering Photographic Composition, Creativity, and Personal Style, references this cutout viewer, and even goes to another level of purchasing an optical viewfinder which duplicates his aspect ratio. These are useful tools. In my “day job” I do a fair amount of speaking to groups. I often use a Powerpoint presentation and one of my most important tools is a remotely operated switch. While nearly every sponsoring group sets up a speaker’s podium and microphone setup, I never use them. I need to be able to get out and take a measure of the audience and make a more personal bond with them. The point of these viewfinder tools is to “step away from the podium” (our tripod-mounted cameras and lenses), move around, get low (and sometimes high), and look at a scene with all the freedom and creativity we can; and to try to make a more intimate “connection” with our subject.

I am usually lazy (Jim would chastise me, I am sure) and don’t pull the viewfinder cutout out of my vest pocket. But I do—and I strongly recommend that you do, too—start my exploration of a scene without the tripod. Several of the “new” photographers I have had the pleasure of helping over the years have made me envious of their very good “vision” in their imagery. Often, they are the same folks who later really balk at my insistence that a tripod is a fundamental feature of most good landscape photography. There is a reason. Tripods are not only a bother to carry and set up; they are limiting. But the answer is not to leave the tripod at home or in the car. It is to leave it on the ground until you have decided on your composition. Then, bring the tripod to that point and set it up around the camera position.

Tripods are not only a bother to carry and set up; they are limiting

Visualization Theory

Reflections; Cascade River, Minnesota

In July, 2010, I made a trip to the Minnesota “North Shore” on Lake Superior. One of the images I made was of the Cascade River. While standing at the edge of the water, down in a deep canyon, I noticed the colors and swirls of light reflecting on the water in the foreground. Using the widest lens I was carrying, I tried to include the distant waterfall, its journey through some very interesting and colorful cobblestones, and the colorful swirls in the foreground; lots going on in the image. James Moore gave a very insightful 3-part critique of the image on his website. It is a critique that I will read and re-read. There is a lot of good information in there just in terms of compositional technique and things we can do in the digital darkroom afterward.

Taking Good Composition Skills and Visualization into the Field

Good visualization means composing and making these images in the field, and not relying on Photoshop after the fact. It means learning composition theory; when to follow and when to break the classic rules, and putting them in practice in-camera.

Are you supposed to see what I just pointed out in this critique in the field? Ideally, yes. Learning to see more effectively as a camera sees the world, learning to compose to bring order out of chaos…to simplify…to achieve the ideal of “less is more” does take time. Stronger and better photos are created when you study all of the different models or forms of composition that give you a starting point for creating framing your subject. When you understand the purpose of those models and when you practice applying them relentlessly with different scenes you will begin seeing everything that I pointed out above. In other words, creating stronger compositions by “cropping in the field” instead of the darkroom occurs with time and practice and diligence – (James Moore, 2010)

To me, this has meant a bit of a change in my fundamental approach to shooting. In previous years, it was almost a “badge of honor” to count the sheer number of images I was bringing home. And likewise, almost a given that the vast majority of them were destined for the trash can. With digital, there is certainly potential for it to be even worse, as there is really no tangible cost to taking and “wasting” images. However, I think snapping away many shots of the same image is in many cases directly counter-productive to this concept of visualization. As advanced-skill photographers, we really ought to be able to compose an image and take a limited number of exposures, with each having a specific purpose. With the tools we now have (notably, the histogram) for measurement immediately post-exposure, and the confident knowledge of our technical skills, we should be confident that we will bring home the image we visualized.

Instead of snapping away, we should be taking time for contemplation, discovery, and application of the principles of good composition. We should be thinking about how our particular choice of lens and capture mode will depict the image in front of us, and how that will ultimately look to the viewer. This is, in a word, visualization.

Visualization as Part of the Planning Process

Visualization doesn’t begin when you reach your scene. Visualization may even be a constant process, which is part of your subconscious. And it is certainly a process of thinking about what you want to present, emotionally, during the planning process of your photo shoot. Planning my fall, 2010, trip to Vermont for my third Fall color trip there in a 5-year period, it occurred to me that I wanted to take something “more” away from the trip than I had in previous years. I wanted more than just some “record” shots of some of the iconic scenes New England has to offer. One of the Scenes of Vermont Forum participants is a professional photographer from Massachusetts. He made a comment one day on the forum, quoting Jay Maisel. Maisel speaks of the something extra that separates a technically good scenic photograph from a really remarkable photograph. He calls it “gesture.”

Call it what you want, but I began thinking from that point about being more contemplative and deliberative about my approach to each planned photographic scene. I learned from that trip was that if you don’t step away from the camera and shutter button and take in the scene, you are likely not to see those things that contribute to truly remarkable images; things like unusual or animated cloud formations, reflections of objects you might otherwise miss, and the like. My best images from Vermont, 2010 have an extra “something” that came from taking a more deliberative process at each location and “seeing” things I might not have seen in a previous time.

This doesn’t mean there won’t be instances when you will make use of the ability to quickly capture many images. Nor am I trying to discourage a photographer from taking as many good images as they feel. There will be times when the circumstances to not allow for long periods of contemplation before taking the shot. When I was in Alaska in May of 2010, we traveled up into the Yukon on the White Pass Railroad. Moving at 25-40 mph, with view after breathtaking view coming into view and then quickly back out of view, I set up my VR, handheld, at as fast a shutter speed as I could get away with in the light conditions and just fired away. I got some images I will never be able to duplicate in my life time.

But more and more, I am finding myself using much less digital space and taking fewer images. At the same time, I believe that, for the reasons above, they are generally better images. The process of making a good photograph needs to be deliberate. It must be based on a good foundation and a well-internalized understanding of the fundamentals of good composition, applied in the field.

4 Responses

  1. You honor me with your kind words, quote, and links, Andy. I’m not at all sure that I deserve them. Thank you kindly.

    You have written a splendid series of articles that will be very useful for photographers of all skill levels contemplating reaching for the next rung, myself included. I have already referred a photographer who wants to mentor with me to this series as I admonished him to be sure of the sacrifice it will required. My advanced photo students will be next in just a couple of weeks: this series is their first reading assignment. I am quite confident that there will be others who find their way to your blog for the wise and sound advice you offer.

    This Spring, one of my mentees gave me a wonderful photo book of images she created during workshops and mentoring sessions. Each photo referenced what she terms “Jim-isms”: my little sayings and quotes that seem to fall from my lips like raindrops from an eave. One that I am continually uttering to keep folks focused,,,

    “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear of an image in the darkroom. Great photographs are conceived in the mind’s eye and created in the field.”

    I am looking forward to doing some image-making with you in October, my friend.

  2. Andy, I just finished reading the entire six-part series. What a well-written, actionable set of writings this is for the budding photographic enthusiast. Bravo!

    The part about tripod use in this–the sixth installment–reminded me of a blog entry I posted roughly five months ago. See if this doesn’t resonate in some way, shape or form:


    • Kerry: I absolutely resonates! Perspective is so all-important. And the “foot-zoom” is the most effective zoom lens. Your linked article is a great read and a nice complement to my series, for those who want to move even another level. Hope readers here will foolow the link – and Kerry’s blog

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