“It’s elementary, my dear Watson.” Sherlock Holmes couldn’t have been more accurate if he had been a photographer. Elements are the building blocks to a great photograph, but you first must be able to identify them.
Approaching photography with a wide perspective can open your eyes to a new way to visualize a scene. Can’t see the forest for the trees is a good analogy for the tunnel vision a photographer may encounter when they can’t see the scene for the elements. The ability to recognize and utilize all the elements that are present and some that could be modified are key to the ultimate success in capturing an image to its fullest potential. Developing a keen awareness for all the elements gives you the opportunity to incorporate them into your composition or not. Not seeing the elements is vastly different than choosing not to include them, or to what extent they are included in your composition .
What is an ‘element’ ? By definition it is any of the four substances (earth, water, air, and fire) regarded as the fundamental constituents of the world in ancient and medieval philosophy. In photography we can take it a bit farther and include anything that it pertinent to enhancing the mood, composition, flow or visual appeal of a photo. This also is true in excluding elements that will weaken your photographs.
To a photojournalist covering an event featuring a speaker on a podium the elements might include the keynote speaker, the right position for lighting, a specific moment where a gesture or look captures the mood or tone, or maybe a significant sign or poster behind them that could be included. These are all elements that you can either consider or not, but must be aware that they may be there for you to utilize. There may also be elements like microphones or staging equipment, that a photographer may want to exclude from the composition to make the image cleaner or less distracting. The message is that you must be aware of every element so you can formulate your vision properly.
The landscape photographer must also use the elements as an asset when possible to make a strong image. Lighting. time of the year, weather conditions and the elements which help to compose the mood of a photograph and have to be factored in before the photograph is captured. Elements can help the flow of your images through careful composition and an understanding of the way a human eye moves through a photograph to the focal point you have chosen for the viewer. Shapes and textures increase the feel to your photo and lit properly can add another dimension to your work. The time of day is an element that can be modified somewhat for mood and texture. While the weather conditions, like storm clouds, wind or billowing clouds in a blue sky can add drama and a completely different feel to the same scene.
A photographers camera position, both laterally and vertically to his focal point will alter the view and perspective of a scene or subject. I would also suggest that your position is an element that should be recognized as key to the success of your photography. I always find it interesting when a photograph from another photographer, of a place I have also visited, is virtually within one square meter of where I stood for my photo and is composed almost identically with the elements provided. Of course this is only true if neither photographer has seen the others photo.
Only when a photographer is able to become aware of their surroundings and recognize the elements that are available to them, will their choices be informed and decisive regarding every aspect of the image they are about to make. Photography is by definition a visual endeavor and you must open your eyes if your want to see the elements.
“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”
If you can think about an image more than your camera does then you will move forward in photography. When digital replaced analog in photography there was a sudden rush of people thinking the secret had been revealed and they could now enter the world of the professional photographer. That it was the digital camera that would elevate them to the next ‘rock star’ in the photography world.
The truth is that for most it is not happening and the realization is that it was never all about the camera but more about themselves. That new piece of gear is just a complex piece of technology that has no ‘minds eye’ or intention. It does not know where to stand or what time to be there or what to include or exclude from a composition to make it better. It knows nothing of timing and capturing that precise moment as it happens, not before or after. It is no more than a tool to a professional photographer. An instrument placed between the photographers eye and the scene they wish to capture, that’s all.
The camera has evolved since the first photographic image was taken in 1827 with a camera obscura and will continue to advance as technology progresses. What is in front of the camera and behind it are the true secret to great photography. The ‘minds eye’ is where the vision, idea and plans for execution are born. Without intention there is only luck and chance to being in the right place at the right time and knowing what to do when you are there. The sun still rises and sets, the tides come in and out and the seasons change in front of the camera.
If you look at all the great photographers and the images produced over almost two centuries it can’t be all about the camera. The instrument was invented and the photographer evolves from it. The same camera in two different hands does not create the same image. There is no instinct within the camera body.
I think the hardest point to instill in the amateur photographer is that they must look within for the great photographs and then utilize the camera to show the viewer that vision. Again and again they attempt to capture a moment without seeing the picture first in their head. The camera today has been given far to much responsibility in the production of outstanding photography due to the lack of understanding by the operator. Yes, the operator. It would be a better designation for some to call themselves a Nikon or Canon camera operator. Even then they know little about the functions of the system they choose. You cannot call yourself a photographer if you do nothing more than aim a camera. You contribute very little to the outcome when you consider the subject, camera and photographer are the key elements to all images and that the great photographs are what the photographer imagined and executed as he intended. If any of the elements are discarded the process will fail. You must have a subject to photograph and a camera to capture the moment but first you have to make an effort to provide the creative input. The photographer has to in control of all the choices not the camera.
The modern DSLR camera today has given people a false sense that it has the capability of understanding the operators intent and knows how to compose and where to focus, transforming the operator into a successful photographer. I realize that society is moving farther away from learning a craft or trade that requires an effort and learning curve to be successful. The ‘quick fix’ least amount of effort mindset is the mainstream today and I can’t see it changing in the near future. Good for those of us who still know that success comes from discipline, dedication , effort and the knowledge that you can always do more to improve.
Best advice for amateur photographers who want to improve. Turn off your auto focus until you learn where to focus. Use aperture or shutter priority only. Understand the relationship between F-stops and depth of field and between shutter speed and desired effect. Shoot lots , edit later. Bracket when you can. Use the lowest ISO possible. Slow down and really look at what you see, then see the image you want to create in your mind. Finally, make the camera dance to your tune not its own.
By putting yourself in charge you will have total control over every aspect of the creation of an image and the right to call yourself a photographer.
‘There is nothing worse than a sharp photograph of a fuzzy idea.’
When are photographer immerses themselves into a project or subject they unknowingly reveal a piece of themselves to the viewer, allowing others a glimpse at something more than the photograph that is produced. A persons style can say a lot about them.
A relaxed and natural portrait comes from a mutual trust and respect by the photographer and the subject alike. Emotions in p0rtraits can be nervous and guarded by the subject and require a delicate sincere demeanor on the part of the photographer. We see the photo in our minds eye but not the person and a lack of people skills will rarely produce the vision you saw. Uncomfortable with the idea of being photographed or a lack of respect for the photographer and his/her approach show in the eyes and will not bring the inner person to the surface to be photographed.
The collaboration between a photographer and his/her subject, whether a landscape or a person, is a patient promise by the photographer to nurture a given opportunity until they see the true nature of the moment reveal itself.. This may involve returning to capture a landscape or earning the trust and respect of a person you wish to photograph. Patiently and professionally allowing the subject to get a glimpse of your inner self before they relax and are comfortable with you and your intentions.
Photographers without patience rarely take the time to see the real moments they seek. Instead, they capture technically good images of poorly executed ideas either because they lack the dedication to the craft or have not developed the non-technical skills to excel in their chosen field. There are photographers who can approach a stranger in the streets, in another country with a different language and still be able to capture the inner self of this person by the way they conduct themselves. While there are many who will not even have the courtesy to ask permission to photograph a subject simply because they are insecure with their people skills and unwilling to work at it. Sometimes you have to shoot first and ask later if the moment dictates it but you can’t work as a magazine photographer, regardless of your technical skills, without getting releases from your subject and that requires a personality that is approachable to strangers.
A good photojournalist has to develop fine tuned people skills and have the ability to interact with a wide variety of subjects under sometimes stressful or rushed circumstances. One’s ability to make a good first impression and earn the respect of the subject is key. But earning the respect is not the same as demanding it. I have seen many photographers who can provoke a negative response from the subject simply because of their lack of respect and aggressive pushy personality. Other photojournalists will not gain the respect of the subject because they show-up without a preconceived idea of what they want to accomplish, wasting time, and are unprofessional in the execution of the assignment. I have always had a vision in my mind of what I want to accomplish with an assignment before I even arrive. Whether I can achieve this is not important as I will be able to adapt to either a time constraint or the surroundings faster because I am mentally prepared and armed with an array of solutions from years of experience in similar or worse situations. While their are moments where you will have to be aggressive to a degree to accomplish an assignment, each must first be assessed quickly to determine the approach that will best help you succeed and then execute the task efficiently, timely and professionally. News paper assignments are like a box of chocolates in the sense that you never know what your going to get, how much time you have to eat it and who you have to eat it with.
Remember that your degree of success with a subject is directly related to the approach you take to accomplish what you have envisioned in your minds eye. Not all unsuccessful shoots are the result of a technical failure.
‘There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.’ ~Ansel Adams
Less than a decade ago the average National Geographic assignment would produce approximately 500-800 rolls of exposed film over a 2-4 week period. This translates to about 18,000 – 28,800 frames for a layout in the magazine that will publish only 10-15 photographs for the endeavor. Those images that are chosen owe at least some of their existence to the images that did not survive the edit, but were an integral part of the process that produces the great photographs of NG Magazine Where a photographer would pack 50+ bricks of film on assignment, they now carry a fistful of 8-16 GB memory cards, a laptop for downloads and editing and a back-up hard drive for insurance. The volume of photographs are limitless with digital memory, so why are people still conservative when photographing with this reusable resource.
Professional photographers, on average, consider maybe 1.5% to 1.7% of their images will be keepers. At last years Superbowl , approximately 16.000 images were shot by 12 photographers for Sports illustrated and only 75 were considered SI quality. Getting the great photos is a game of percentages and odds. You’re only after that one great image, you may capture it in the first few shots or it may show-up after an hour of working the subject through. When shooting ‘fat’ you are not aiming for a specific number of frames but rather resisting giving yourself a limit. Ansel Adams is said to have left behind hundreds of negatives that he regarded as not up to his standards, just to get the few that embody his work as we know it. A good photographer is not measured by the volume of photos, but by the size of their computers Trash folder.
The mindset a ‘Fat’ shooter exercises allows them to work a situation to its fruition, explore every option and angle with a subject. This does not mean firing away randomly, hoping you catch something in the lens. There is never only one definitive way of photographing anything. I have seen new photos of many famous places and people where the photographer engaged the subject with a fresh approach, capturing a moment, emotion or scene in an interesting and unique way. This is not accomplished by sacrificing just a couple of frames here and there, but by shooting with a blind eye for anything but your subject. Resist packing-up until you ask yourself what else you could do here and now, instead of wishing you had shot more later. A good photographer could shoot less frames to capture great photos, but doesn’t. Not letting-up until your camera won’t shoot only to realize the memory card is full, then continuing the shoot on another card puts you in the zone where outstanding photographs dwell. I am no stranger to quick in-camera edits when I have used all the memory available to me and still want more. Thankfully memory is relatively cheap and a 16 GB card is the same size as 8 GB in your pocket. If you let yourself become absorbed in the process it allows your mind to see and identify new possibilities and focus on little else until you are satisfied with your efforts or out of memory again.
There are those who choose to shoot JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) files to maximize the amount of images that can be acquired. The Jpeg does have the advantage of smaller files, sufficient quality for many applications, are more easily transmitted and suit photographers with neither the time or inclination for post processing files. The downside is your photography will always fall short of the images potential. Then there are those not willing to shoot more than a couple frames of anything, usually from the same position and perspective. Somehow the idea of maximizing the quantity of captures available yet hording empty memory space, like it was a scarce commodity, is becoming commonplace, when the opposite could not be truer.
Why RAW (unprocessed digital negatives) instead of JPEG ? First, with digital memory there is no difference in cost to the user while they benefits are substantial in post processing. Of most importance is the fact that a JPEG is a degenerative file which discards information immediately to create smaller file sizes, while a TIFF (Tagged Image File Format), from a RAW file conversion is not a compressed file and contains all the data that the cameras chip recorded plus some additional information tagged on (i.e. sharp, settings) from the initial capture. What this means to a pro or serious amateur photographer is that in post he will have 65,536 levels of brightness with a 16 bit TIFF (from RAW) versus 256 level of brightness with a JPEG file, which the camera converts to 8 bit mode to reduce the files size. This is extremely important when working with shadows and highlights in any significant way. The bottom line is you can always convert a TIFF to a JPEG if you need to reduce the file size, but by shooting RAW you will have the advantage of working the image with all the information the camera initially recorded.
If you are going to shoot ‘fat’, editing is a necessary and vital part of the photography process. A heavy shoot will increase the chance of capturing that one great photo and strong editing skills will allow you to process large volumes of images to find those gems in the rough. The hiking society I am affiliated with has a website where members can upload photos from hikes they attend. There are a few who shoot plenty of frames, 150 -200, but insist on uploading the entire unedited camera onto the website while most members upload an average of 10 select images. Members who log in to view the event photos are quickly overwhelmed with 250-300 photos. A seemingly endless barrage of boring repetitive images that bury interesting creative photography within it. Most ,including myself , can’t endure looking further than 20, as the essence of the event is lost. If the best were being saved for last they would never be seen. Less is more when you are trying to show your skills as a photographer, but to have a few great images sometimes requires shooting past the line most are content to stop at, selecting the few that stand out and deleting or archiving the rest. It takes less than 3 seconds to formulate an opinion of a photo and less than 10 images to evaluate the photographers skill and creativity. The saying, ‘your only as good as your worst shot’, is good advice before you seek viewers time.
The editing process has also been streamlined with software specific to the editing task. Although every photographer has there own work flow most will do a quick pre-edit, rotating images and quickly selecting, or flagging, those that immediately draw attention or were of importance. The second edit is where flagged images are opened and scrutinized, while similar photos are compared to further reduce the collection. Being your own worst critic is a tough hat to wear when editing your own work, but if can see some direction from the rejected images it is not all in vain.
How many times have we had to view someones unedited photos only to hear excuses like, ‘I don’t know why that ones there’, or ‘those are just more of the same’. It is only with an audience that these photographers suddenly realize we do not want to see uninspiring photography. The aim is to be able to show your best, not your best 10, then 30 satisfactory photos followed by 50 bad ones. To leave them wanting more rather than a poor opinion of your editing and photography skills. If you’re going to show a bad image to your viewers, in their eyes, you must think it’s good. You will be judged, better to do it to yourself while editing instead of by others later.
The skinny is to allow yourself the opportunity for great photography by utilizing all that is available to you to make the photos that deserve to be seen. Most of the shots that survive the edit are not frames one or two but images captured later when you engaged the subject from a different angle. See the opportunities and commit the time and digital memory necessary to maximize and exhaust your skills and creativity. Edit. Then edit again, and finally edit again honestly. If it’s not interesting now it won’t be any better when you show it to others.
Make it RAW! Shoot it ‘Fat’ and trim it later.
“I am always satisfied with the best.” -Oscar Wilde
I believe every point in ones life is arrived at through a series of choices each of us makes either consciously or subconsciously. That opportunities arise when we are making the choices that deliberately put us onto the paths we are destined to take. Choosing to wait for the moments to arrive is allowing yourself the excuse that it just wasn’t in the cards rather than taking the deck and dealing yourself a hand. But you must learn the skills to play the game right. Taking a path that is not your calling will eventually lead to excuses, resistance from within and wrong choices. Listen to your inner voice and choose wisely.
Luck has nothing to do with ones ability to be at the right place and the right time when the images you seek to capture become reality consistently. Dedication, discipline, instinct and subject knowledge, when applied, make great images. There will always be ‘one hit wonders’ in careers requiring a level of skill and creative talent. Repetition of a skill and creativity, or style, deserves recognition beyond simply ‘luck’. Do you think Sidney Crosby would be called a great hockey player if his only goal was during the 2010 Olympics. It would still be a memorable goal but would lack consistency and Crosbys status could not be considered among the best to play the game. We know otherwise that Sidney found his calling and learned to play the game with dedication and discipline to his path and is rightfully considered one of the best in his field.
I make it a point every year to view a photo exhibit at the Calgary Stampede. A friend and old hiking buddy of mine exhibits his wildlife photography in the show. What was once a hobby has now become a passion and career. I am amazed by comments from viewers lacking an appreciation of the skills required beyond technical mastery, some credit the cameras abilities more than the photographers. It does not register that there is a dedication to knowing when, where and how a subject can best be captured and the discipline to make sure you ‘re there for that moment regardless of how many trips it might take. I have been to locations over and over again to get the image I have in my head transferred to the camera. When it all finally comes together and I have captured the image I had imagined to the best of my ability I am satisfied, but only for the moment.
When taking groups out hiking in the mountains I prefer to start the hikes as early as possible, some 5 am. This in itself deters some who can’t grasp getting up so early for photography. Those that do make the commitment are amazed at just how different everything looks. Their eyes open a little wider with a glimpse into the career of a professional photographer. The difference between a dedicated professional and an amateur lies in the mastering of skills, an understanding of the subject and the vision to make exceptional photographs by placing themselves right where they want to be. Never accepting that this is the best you can do or are willing to do with a subject. Be it a landscape, sports, wildlife, editorial or portrait. The business of photography and the hobby share many commonalities except that a professional must make a living in photography while an amateur does not.
Accept the fact that a camera and lens are just tools, like a brush, piano or canvas. By themselves they are not art but with knowledge and creativity the photographer can produce images to be admired for a lifetime. As photographers we fine tune our visual senses to see the world with our eyes wide open. Much like a musician or singer strives to have perfect pitch. To be tone deaf for a photographer would be akin to ‘never seeing the forest for the trees’, when the trees are the photograph.
As with most things, the more you do something the less conscious you become of actually doing it. Visual skills become a part of your subconscious. When teaching students, the leap forward comes when they start seeing the finished image in their mind before the photo is taken. The ‘minds eye’ seeing the focal point, foreground, leading lines, framing, textures, rule of thirds and quality of light not as rules spelled out in a book but as an auto response to the visual sense that stops you and triggers you to raise your camera.
To me a photograph is like a recipe. The type of dishes vary with taste. Some recipes are tried and true, some can be made numerous ways with a combination of different portions of ingredients and still be tasty. Most will attempt to create mouthwatering photographs but leave out key ingredients and have less than palatable results. There are no rules to photography just guidelines that when applied in varying degrees have proven to produce appealing images when mixed with a few tablespoons of creativity.
The real secret that a professional photographer knows is that it is not the actual photographing that is hard, it’s putting yourself where you need to be when you take it and resisting any thoughts that will distract you from that goal.
For the record. Lucky, is the guy who happens to show-up by chance where you ‘chose’ to be one day.
I spent a good portion of my career as a photojournalist mastering the lighting of assignments without knowing the locations lighting constraints or time I would be allotted to produce a professional photograph for publication. Daily newspapers provided considerably more stress than magazine deadlines, sometimes scheduling conflicts and unrealistic expectations can add pressure to complete assignments on-time regardless of the publication dates.
The ability to quickly scan your surroundings and literally ‘see the light’, or absence of , and adapt is a necessary and vital tool when time constraints work against you. A good photojournalist has a large repertoire of mental lighting set-ups available in their arsenal to fit each assignment and situation they may be confronted with. This also implies that you ‘learned from your mistakes’ and recognize scenarios that do not work.The best approach is to keep it simple, in relation to the time you are given, so you can spend as much time shooting the subject as possible if time is not on your side. This may be flash on or off camera when time dictates or two lights adding more creative set-ups when time allows. Once a few images are captured you can then afford the luxury of tweaking or adding lighting and using what time is left to build on the images you already have. Life is not always fair to photographers needs but your results are expected to be professional none the less so every second counts.
The old adage less is more works in most situations. The less time you spend setting-up the more time you have to shoot and using less lighting allows a more natural feel. Lighting can portray mood and texture to a photograph depending on angle and intensity of each source. A subtle shadow can say a lot about a photo. Everyone will eventually develop a style of their own. I look and feel that is their signature, recognizable as a style not the lack of.
Every interior I have had to shoot required a slightly different or radically new approach. No two rooms are exactly the same. To apply one standard set-up to every interior would be like putting ketchup on everything until finally a plate of French fries was placed in front of you. Approach everything with a blank lighting canvas with past experience and lights as your palette. If forced to speed paint or time create a masterpiece you can adjust your style to the situation.
Natural or ambient light is the first source of light I try to utilize in most photos either as a main, fill or backlight. Unlike daylight, ambient light can be mixed lighting , daylight, tungsten or fluorescent. A sturdy tripod will allow you to use both natural daylight and ambient mixed light without sacrificing either depth of field or low ISO. A tripod is an essential part of my approach when lighting. Always try to balance the room with one light source or mixed lighting that compliments one another. Todays environmentally friendly CFL (Compact Fluorescent Lights) do not compliment mixed lighting and should be changed to standard tungsten when photographing.
Food photography lighting should be minimal with attention paid to both texture and detail. Generally I will use one main light source and a reflector for fill. A good tip is to use an identical empty plate to compose and light your photo. When the chef brings the plated dish switch the plates and shoot.
Whatever the subject, portrait, architectual or food the best advice is to remember that great photographs are a combination of light sources and fill or highlights and shadows. That lighting angles and intensity create the mood, textures and dimension in photography. That in a perfect world every photo would get as much time as it required and you would never feel rushed. Until that day keep your flashes charged, softboxes handy and a tripod on the floor.
I have always enjoyed photographing rock formations, giant boulders, slabs of weathered ancient marble, canyons, rivers and streams. I think I first realized it on a trip to Italy where I found myself in Carerra. They still mine marble in quarries up in the mountains. I spent some time shooting old scarred pieces of marble that fascinated me. The photograph I produced is till a personal favorite of mine today.
I do quite a bit of hiking in the Canadian Rockies year round and have an abundance of mountain and valleys to satisfy my mild fetish for ‘rock and water’ any many more yet to be discovered. With most adventures I am only able to take a preliminary shot and return when the lighting has the quality I seek to capture the vision in my minds eye. That photograph waiting to be dug out of the landscape and polished to perfection.
Water is a humbling force in nature, carving canyons out of rock with a sheer will to travel downstream, yet soft and fluid to the touch. It smooths, polishes, exposes, gorges ever deepening the scar as it continues it’s journey. Rock slowly begins to reveal its many layers, colors and hues as it is eroded away over thousands of years. To me the rock, in all its forms provides the face, shadows, shapes and dimension necessary in sculpting my image. The water provides flow and motion in contrast. be it from a stream a raging river or a shoreline, adding the direction and feel to the photograph. Water takes on many moods in the hands of a skilled photographer with a vision. The result to me is a photograph with both soft and hard edges, smooth and rough textures and a quality of light that nurtures the subtle warm colors hidden within the scene. With the application of creativity, skill and dedication I am able to put myself exactly where and when my vision can be fulfilled.
Arriving at a location, that may be anywhere from 2-8 kilometers away, for first light can be a bit unsettling when it requires starting down a trail in the dark while traveling in grizzly bear country. Note to self: Add ‘fear factor’ into the pricing of the prints. I have taken to packing my fly fishing waders and boots as part of my outdoor arsenal, adding considerable bulk and weight to an already heavy backpack. Never will I be stuck on the shore when I know the shot is in the middle or opposite side of the stream or river. My personal payoff comes standing ready to shoot in the flowing water of a stream or river in a slot canyon as the sky begins to glow with the anticipation of sunrise, no wind, only the sound of the water running out of the canyon. Okay, reality check, by this time my feet are getting a bit cold in glacier fed water and my coffee long gone. That inner voice, on particular days, lets you know you will come back with your photo. Everything in nature is cooperating, the alarm went off at 3 AM, your truck didn’t break down and the fact that your gear is still dry and functioning makes it all worth while as you capture the first image. I tell friends that if I can come back with just one great photo I am content and consider the venture a success. They usually agree when they see the results of my efforts, but most are content to let me trek down the dark trails while they slumber. My day is usually done, my gear packed and I am already heading back to the trailhead when I greet the first hiker coming up the trail.
This year I have already accomplished much and amassed a shot list for next spring. I will be repelling about 50 meters into a canyon next year with more experience in rope skills and the aid of mountaineering friends. A few snowshoe trips in the coming months are already planned to locations that deserve a second look in a different season.
“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.” Elliott Erwitt