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

Free App Guaranteed to Improve Your Photography

Shortly after moving to Congress, I joined the Wickenburg Art Club (WAC) or more specifically, the Photo Group of WAC. I joined for multiple reasons. Being new to the area, I wanted to meet like-minded people and I felt that being a club member would open doors to show my work. Joining met both of my expectations, but now there’s a price to pay. When you tap into the benefits of any organization, you’re also expected to contribute and, in my case, I’ve been “volunteered” as a committee member whose mission is to organize a half-dozen photography seminar. The goal is to share our experiences with members looking for help. They’re essentially photography classes taught by journeymen.

Sunrise at the Bridge
One of my snapshots of Friday’s sunrise.

I spent a small part of my technology career as an adjunct faculty member teaching community college computer classes; including Adobe’s Photoshop. In a structured education system like that, students start with a history lesson where they’re taught about Atget, Stieglitz, Weston, et al. but we’re going to blow that off. Instead, I think we should start with a fundamental that transcends all cameras. It’s a skill that every photographer struggles with and few (including myself) ever truly master—the skill of seeing. It’s not a binary thing where you either got it or you don’t, but a continuum. We’re all somewhere on that spectrum and some of us sweat to improve.

At art shows, an occasional customer will comment while rifling through my bins, “Wow! You must have a fabulous camera.” Although I assume that they appreciate my work, it could be construed as an insult.  It’s like saying Alton Brown is a great chef because of his pots and pans, or Renoir had magnificent brushes (not that I put myself at that level). The fact is that I do have a couple of good camera systems, but they’re just tools. On their own, they won’t make me a master photographer.

A camera is a key tool in photography, but you can make good pictures without spending a fortune on fancy cameras. For example, look at the fabulous work being done with smartphones. To be a good (on the way to great) photographer, there is an app that’s even more important than a camera. It weighs about three pounds and you need to lug it around all the time. I know it sounds cumbersome, but you already do. The app lives at the back of your eyes between your ears—it’s your brain. OK, maybe that’s the hardware part which is a state-of-the-art processor. My point is that you need to train yourself to see like a photographer. It takes practice, but like they say about Carnegie Hall, “Take the subway.”

For these seminars, I’ve gathered some thoughts on how to start your journey. There are too many for a venue like this blog, it’s more suited for a book, and I’m too lazy to write one of those. In my upcoming posts, I’m going to take each idea in turn and write about it. That way you can take a break in between and think or practice what we’ve discussed—in the grown-up world they call that method distributed learning. After that, I’ll get into camera techniques and explain what the buttons do—and why. Instead of a lecture, I’d like a discussion knowing that some of you are more advanced on these topics, so I ask you to chime in. Ready or not …

Till then … jw