On seeing a photograph — Part 2 What Did You Just Say?

It was nearly a century ago that Fred R. Barnard coined the phrase, “People say a picture is worth a thousand words.” I wonder if that statement is always true. Sometimes I look at photographs and they speak volumes, while others are silent. You may look at the same body of work and feel differently. That’s because we have different backgrounds, values, and tastes. We’re all unique. My point is that photographs, paintings, and art, in general, are a type of communication. They connect the artist with the viewer—sometimes across eons. We save art important to us on our refrigerators and in our museums because we like what they say.

A Story Not Well Told
This is a photograph that would have thrown away but for the file name. It was taken at Yellowstone NP several years ago as we watched a pack of wolves try to separate a calf from the buffalo herd. Their efforts failed when the herd turned and stampeded into the Yellowstone River. I was in the right place at the right time with the wrong equipment. I only save this file because the moment was so great, but I’ve never published the image until now … as a bad example.

There are no language-like rules to help us understand this type of communication; it’s up to personal interpretation. Some messages are simple while others are cryptic. They may sooth or repulse the viewer. With most photographs—or snapshots at least—the story is simple, “At some time, I was here and this is what I saw.” There are millions of photographs just like that posted online and they have little interest to anyone but the person who pushed the camera’s button. When I was in a Pasadena City College class—more than a half-century ago—my professor called them Record Shots. They were a simple record of time and, on the spectrum of art, they belonged in the big pile on the left. On the opposite end of that imaginary line is a short stack of Masterpieces, and everything else fits in between. What separates the two extremes is how good the story is and how well it’s told.

Another NP Wildlife Tale
In Denali, a tour bus trapped us inside while we watched this grizzly sow trailed by three cubs. In the series of shots that I took, I didn’t get one that included all the family members. I finally gave up and concentrated on mom as she climbed out of a swale. I don’t consider it a prize shot, but definitely better than the one above. At least I’m progressing.

An artist’s job is to see a good subject and be able to skillfully capture it on a medium, photographers included. There are skills to help you along, but none are more important than thinking about what you’re shooting. I can plead guilty to mindless shooting, and I don’t know any photographer that isn’t also guilty. Unlike paintings, we create photographs in less than a second. We can squeeze the button and then walk away, never giving it a second thought. But when we look at the contact sheet or RAW image on the screen, we often ask, “What was I thinking?” The answer is, “I wasn’t.”

The idea that I’ve been leading up to is this: To move your work closer to the right-hand stack, begin to think about what you’re shooting. There is something in front of you that has caught your eye and it’s moved you enough to raise your camera and snap the shutter. Fine, go ahead. Maybe you’ll beat the Powerball odds and have one of those remarkable snaps that make the evening news. Odds are against you. But if you stop and think about your subject, you will improve your chances of capturing that lucky shot. What stopped you? Why did it make you stop? Think: “Is there something I can do to make the shot better?” Very few people shoot film any longer and certainly, you can afford to waste a few million electrons on extra frames. Here are some questions I have on my mental checklist:

  • Can I fill the frame—can I move in closer or zoom in to make the subject more prominent?
  • Can I get the subject to stand out better—if I walk to a different angle, does the subject become more prominent?
  • Could the light be better—do I have time for the light to change or should I come back when the light is better? This is difficult in travel photography because you’re usually on a one-way train.
  • Can I simplify the composition—do I need to change angles or wait for people (birds, cows, glaciers, etc.) to move, or maybe I need to pick up some garbage or close the bathroom door to hide someone on the toilet? Remember the discussion about scanning the entire viewfinder and deciding what to include.
  • Is there something that I’m leaving out that would make the shot more coherent?
  • Is the subject about to do something interesting—if I time it right, can I shoot when the subject jumps over a puddle?

To paraphrase a line that we saw on Mr. Robot last night. In the show, they were talking about the game of chess, but it works for photography as well. “If you see a good shot, look for a better one.” You’re probably thinking, “Great! Now I have to hang around for days for that to happen.” If you’re on assignment for National Geographic, you bet you do. That’s what you’re paid to do but unfortunately, neither of us works for them. Most of the time, what I’m saying takes an extra minute or two and, with practice, it eventually becomes second nature. With experience, you even save time because you don’t learn to omit the record shot.

Finally, I have a hard and fast rule: When you’re back at your desk, instead of a bunch of snapshots, you will have a photo series. Some better than the others. When you edit them, be ruthless and pick out the very best then get rid of the rest. If you can’t do that, keep them to yourself. Never show them to anyone. Only show your best. Of course, if you have an editor or art director that will be their job and you won’t have a choice. Then again, if you had an editor, you wouldn’t be reading this.

Until next time – jw

On seeing a photograph – Part 1 If you want to shoot something, just use a gun.

I’m a visual person. I learn quicker from one YouTube video than reading a stack of manuals. I like looking at pictures whether they’re drawings, paintings, or photographs. I look for several aspects of images; the locations, light quality, and creativity. As a photographer, I get inspiration from seeing other people’s work. I try to understand what the artist saw and learn, so I can blend those ideas into my work. As you would guess, a lot of frogs get tossed back in the water before a princess appears.

At times, when people find out that I’m a so-called photography expert, they’ll pull me aside to ask for my advice about cameras or shooting. I’m not a big equipment techie as I think most cameras are more capable than their users are, so when they ask me which body to buy, I just usually steer them to the brand they want. I really believe that newbies get more from learning technique first. Those skills transfer across camera brands. If my coaching is successful, the next thing that usually happens is that they treat me to a pile of their vacation photos (vacation, kids, pets, goats, etc. are all interchangeable here).

As I look through their image stack, I have so many suggestions that it’s hard to know where to start. A common thing I notice is subject placement, or more specifically, consistently centering the subject. It tells me that instead of composing, they’re aiming. I sometimes get in trouble when my stupid mouth automatically blurts, “Well, if you were using a gun, you would have killed (him, her, it).” As an example, I found an image on Flicker’s Public Commons section titled Christy Mahon on the Telephone. In spite of what I just said, I like this image; it works regardless of what I’m talking about, so I’ll use it to illustrate my point. As you can see from my markings, the poor ol’ railway signalman would have “taken-it” in the left nostril. The composition makes me wonder if the photo is a picture of the office or of Christy?

Christy Mahonin the cross hair.
In this photograph from the archives, the photographer has centered the subject’s head. Is this the best subject placement for the story you’re telling?

It’s easy to fall into this trap because cameras often have visual clues that trip you. The focus screen below is an example of what I mean. Although the circle is a focusing aid, it acts like the bull’s eye on a rifle scope urging you to center on your target. It’s a common beginner’s trap that photographers quickly learn to avoid.

Nikon Split Ring Focus Screen
Good or bad, many cameras have subtle cues that can encourage center placement.

So, what’s wrong with centering? Well, err … nothing, and if that’s what you want, then have at it. Centering is actually how we see. We go through life looking at a series of scenes on which our eyes stop for an instant before moving to the next. Our brain processes the information so fast that it seems to flow—like in a movie. We focus using our vision’s center, while our peripheral vision is fuzzy—out of focus. If we detect movement in the corner of our eye, our eyes instantly flick in that direction. For self-preservation, we need to know what was moving. If the movement’s not a threat, then all’s well and we relax. The brain is constantly centering the world around us. If a subject is centered and balanced in an image, we experience calm before we move on … or take a nap.

Now, if we move the subject off-center, our brain tries to restore equilibrium. In this micro-struggle we sense tension and that creates a wee bit of emotion. Remember back to your Psych 101 class when you learned that people remember things more intensely when there’s an emotional attachment. You want your viewers to stop in their tracks when looking at your work and that’s why artists have learned to intentionally use this tension in their work for centuries.

The point that I’m making is that the center of your viewfinder, screen, pad, paper, canvas, or whatever is unimportant. Instead, concentrate on how your subject relates to the edges or frame. Stop aiming and think about composing within that frame. Train yourself to scan the entire area and become aware of what you’re including in your composition. Equally important, is knowing what to leave out. Where are you placing your subject? Where is the horizon (if there is one)?

A question often asked at this point in this discussion is, “Where should my subject be if not centered?” Fortunately, it’s not a secret. Leonardo Da Vinci, Rembrandt, O’Keefe, et Al., used this technique. The ‘feel good’ spot is around the one-third mark, and recent scientific studies seem to confirm its validity (a topic I’ll save for another discussion). An accepted guideline is to divide your canvas into thirds—in a tick-tack-toe pattern. Where those lines intersect, are your composition’s power points and the most effective place for your subject. X marks the spot if you will.

Christy Mahone in vertical composition.
The shot is a vertical crop of the original moving the signal-man off-center. How does this story compare to the original?

Returning to the example photograph of Christy, I have two versions of the image cropped using the so-called Rule of Thirds; one horizontal and the other vertical. Look at the versions and see what you think. Each revision has the same two players; Christy and the depot. For you, how does the story change between the editions?

Christy Mahone in Horizontal Crop
In this version, I’ve cropped the original image horizontally while leaving Christy off-center. Has the story changed? Is it for the better or is it worse?

In this post, we’ve discussed the camera’s viewfinder. Every camera has one and often it’s misused to aim the lens at the subject. I argue that it is a more powerful tool when used to compose your image as intended. A first step in seeing a photograph is intentionally placing your subject for the best impact on the story you’re telling. By choosing where to frame your subject, you’re beginning to see like a photographer. I know, the process seems cumbersome and tedious, but you wouldn’t still be here if you weren’t willing to try. I assure you that with practice, this skill becomes ingrained and you’ll stop thinking about it.

Until next time … jw