The Photograph and the Quest for Something More

Taking a photograph for the sake of taking a photograph rarely leads to producing something worthwhile. It can by luck, but more times than not, it’s just an image of nothing.

As you scroll through the barrage of photos that come to us by way of social media, you will notice a great many that seem like they were taken just for the sake of taking some kind of image to post. And although they may be visually appealing, I’ve come to realize something very important: really good images are rare even for seasoned photographers.

Photography history has taught us that compelling images are indeed something that may only come along a few times in a lifetime. And many of the great photographers have said you’re doing well if you get ten good images in a year.

So this brings us to then ask, “Just what constitutes a good image?”

There are many images that are well done. There are many images that may appeal to us one way or another. And after all, this is art. It’s subjective. What one person likes another dislikes. But a compelling image has to possess a quality that the others don’t: that is, it has to be significant.

Significance at least in my mind, means that the image must have something to say.

Ask yourself these questions:

Is the image poetic in some way? Does it represent a commonality of a shared experience?

Does the image contain irony or humour or something that makes us actually want to stop and consider what’s going on?

Does the image describe a place and a time? And if so, does it do so without error or false representation?

Does the image say something about human nature?

Is the image something more than technically proficient, or visually appealing?

Understanding that it is the very nature of still photography to leave you with questions when you look at a photograph, it would help then to try to take photographs that have something to say, and that can describe a time and place, but not quite explain everything that may be happening.

A photograph is only a very brief moment of time that is still, has been frozen, or has been extruded from our life lines. And this is why it is so hard to make a photograph that is not only visually appealing, but also has something to say that is worth saying.

Make your images significant.

Happy Shooting,

Doug

Looking at a Photograph

A few weeks back I blogged about a some of the things you can do to make your photography better. If you haven’t seen it, please read https://dougkeech.wordpress.com/2016/12/27/ten-things-to-strive-for-in-your-photography/.

Further to that post, I’d like to add a few more observations to each consideration and some of the specific factors that can influence such.

1.) Does the photograph possess a beauty in and of itself?

Influential factors: composition/balance, subject matter, light, tonality/contrast, colour

2.) Does the image shock you in some way as to keep you wanting to look?

Influential factors: subject matter, compositional technique, timing

3.) Does the image have a universal appeal or value?

Influential factors: shared experience, subject matter, timelessness

4.) Is the photograph poetic or symbolic of something larger?

Influential factors: shared experience, subject matter, photographic technique, processing

5.) Is the image interesting to look at?

Influential factors: subject matter, compositional technique, frame, moment

6.) Is the photograph significant in some way?

Influential factors: subject matter, uniqueness, relevance to the time, descriptive ability

7.) Is it useful in that it documents a place and time or describes a human condition?

Influential factors: relevance to a certain event, descriptive ability, encompasses a story

8.) Does the image spark an emotion in you?

Influential factors: gesture, intimacy, shared experience/memory trigger

9.) Does the photograph have enough context for you to know what you’re looking at?

Influential factors: distance, frame

10.) Has the photographer confined the significant detail and rid the image of the unimportant clutter?

Influential factors: frame

Garry Winogrand was quoted once as saying that it’s the photographer’s problem to figure out a way to make the photograph more interesting to look at than the thing actually being photographed. And obviously there are many more criteria that go into making a photograph than the ones mentioned here. However, I have found it a good exercise to go through each of the above things to strive for in your photography and try to think of examples of images that illustrate the points as a good example and as a bad example.

Happy Shooting,

Doug

Nobody Writes About This Stuff

Nobody writes about this stuff…

All across the internet you’ll see an endless supply of information about the latest and greatest cameras. You’ll see all the technical stuff about megapixels and sensors. But at the same time you see next to nothing about the importance of seeing and visualizing what it is you want to do with your image.

The way it works is like this:

1.) The photographer

2.) Situation

3.) Light and atmosphere

4.) Choice of lens

5.) The camera

What does this mean?

1.) The photographer

Everything you’ve ever seen and experienced in your life contributes to the way you see the world. Your feelings about things and your interests come into play. The way you’ve been treated by others and your own little personality quirks – your sense of humour and humility influence your vision. It’s the total package. It your likes and dislikes. It’s your fears. It’s your emotional state of being. It’s the sum of who you are that has a huge influence on what you take photographs of and how you take them.

There is also all the things you’ve ever learned about photography – including good habits and bad ones, that influence not just how you compose and shoot the image, but how you process it after it’s shot. It’s a collective recollection of all the stupid mistakes you’ve ever made and all the almost invisible tiny little details you’ve learned along your road.

2.) Situation

The success of a photographer has a great deal to do with not only your personal set of circumstances, but also on your work ethic. How much are you willing to sacrifice to get a good shot? Are you willing to put up with being cold and muddy? Are you patient? Are you prepared? Do you practice your photography on a regular basis? And then, as a result of these things, your photography depends on the opportunities you create for your pictures and the situations you put yourself in to get the image you’re after.

I’ve always said that it’s important to consider the photographer’s own personal situation and take that into account. Remember that the next time you look at photographs. If someone works a demanding shift job at a steel plant in Pennsylvania, you can’t really expect them to have the world’s finest collection of Burmese Tiger photographs.

Always take into consideration the effort that the photographer may have made to achieve the image. And consider where they are in their photography evolution.

3. Light and atmosphere

There are numerous ways you can draw attention to the subject you’re photographing such as contrast, colour, light, focus, motion etc., but light and atmosphere have a enormous effect on the impact your photograph has. When you think about it that’s what you’re doing – you’re recording values of light and darkness (contrast or lack of contrast). The atmosphere determines the overall mood of the image.

4.) Choice of lens

How do you see the scene? How do you wish to render it – like your eyes see perhaps? Or, do you wish to bring out the importance of the foreground? Perhaps the background needs to be emphasized. In short, how do you wish to tell this story? Choose a focal length that helps you to achieve this.

5.) The camera

Do you notice how far down the list this is?

A camera is just a box between the film plane/sensor and the lens. It has a shutter. It’s real importance is that it is easy to use and functional. It should get the job done and it should be minimally obtrusive. What I mean is that it should not be a distraction to what’s really important – what’s going on in the world in front of you.

When you choose a camera, choose it for the right reasons. Choose it for its simplicity. Choose it for its ability to accomplish a certain task. Choose it for its convenience. Don’t choose it thinking that it’s ever going to give you better images. Because in almost all circumstances it won’t. (I’m not going to mention the specific exceptions because you probably already know what they are.)

Anyhow, put that in your pipe and smoke it for awhile…

And happy shooting always,

D.

The Magic Shoebox

Image

Most of us who take pictures these days seem quite content to upload our digital images to our laptops, iPads, or smartphones without ever a thought of doing it any other way. We share our photos mostly via the social media sites like flickr, Facebook, and twitter. We get some feedback – a few likes perhaps, then go on to the next pursuit before starting the process all over again. The images are buried deep in some folder on the hard drive lucky to be ever viewed again.

 

In some ways, the digital photography age has hindered our appreciation for the art of the image. We can now mass produce images without much thought or process, and it is getting more rare to see someone who cherishes an image for it’s aesthetic beauty or for it’s artistic value.

 

Art galleries have always been special places. Why? Because we go there with one purpose in mind – to be enlightened. The art is displayed large in print, canvas, acrylic, or metal, and is carefully arranged spatially, then lighted to bring out it’s magic. We stop, we study, we look again. We think about how it makes us feel. We pause, we smile or shake our heads.

 

The point is, images in print, whether they are 5 by 7’s or giant wall hangings,  have a certain magic about them. They become a tangible slice of life that we can relive – a piece of what it means to be human. We can touch them, experience them, share them and talk about them.

 

A print hanging on your living room wall is there for you to experience every day. It becomes a part of the home. It becomes a part of daily life. Because it is there, it affects everyone in the room.

 

In my office, I have a cork board where I pin portraits of people I have photographed. Each time I go in there, I think about the joy those images brought to the person the first time they saw them, and what they will continue to mean to them years from now.

 

That simple scattering of 4 by 6’s on the coffee table, or the shoebox full of old polaroids taken when our kids were little, has more meaning to us than any digital file on a hard drive could ever offer.

 

Embrace the new age of digital photography, but don’t let it rob you of a life enriched through a photograph that you can touch and experience on a daily basis. Try printing a few of your images and putting them somewhere where you’ll actually see them. As a photographer, you will learn from them. As a person, they will bring you joy.

 

 

Happy Shooting,

 

Doug

 

Slowing Down

From time to time, I like to read quotations about nature or the environment. Some of them are quite profound, and they’ve given me much pleasure and allowed me to re-visit my thoughts if you will…putting them back into proper perspective.

Today I came across a quote by Eric Berne who said, “The moment a little boy is concerned with which is a jay and which is a sparrow, he can no longer see the birds or hear them sing.”

I thought it is quite true that often as adults we tend to over-analyze everything, desperately trying to see more into things than they often demand. And, as we age, we tend to apply labels to things, in an attempt to compartmentalize objects and place them into little boxes our brains can easily deal with for organizational purposes.

This can be true with art and photography as well. I think many photographers, myself included, are guilty of breaking an image down into components or trying to reverse engineer the process that went into making it to such an extent, that we never really “see” the image. And this is all fine if we’re learning about composition or post-processing etc. However, we must never forget that the essence of fine art – photography included, is not to reveal accuracy necessarily, but to make our souls rise above all that we know in our daily lives. Fine art will make us feel. It will produce an emotional response and convey a different kind of truth that perhaps we don’t ever entertain except for those few brief moments while viewing the piece, taking it at pure face value, and simply allowing it to enrich our lives.

Sometimes we need to slow down. We need to stop to smell the roses. We need to see the beauty before us.

Happy shooting,

Doug