Timing is key, but patience is a virtue for every photographer. Very often, we see some rather stunning images of a place we’ve been to before – and wonder how on earth we managed to miss the shot; the reality is even for a static location, there’s at least one factor in play – light – and often more. But I find it often goes beyond that: we ourselves change, and this plays a part in how we perceive the world at any given moment in time. If we’ve only got the opportunity to be in a given location or shoot a certain object once – how can we ensure we at least get a shot we’re happy with, and better yet, something defining?
Note: the images in this post fall into three groups; all were shot from the same camera position, some even with the same framing. Compositionally, the images in each group all ‘work’ – as in have the four critical elements of light, subject, aesthetics and idea – but we perceive one to be better than the others. Pay attention to how different a message each scene has; ask yourself which one you prefer, and why? We’ll revisit this later at the end.
Photography is really fundamentally all about psychology; the photographer is having a conversation with their audience, but beyond that, they’re really first having a conversation with themselves. We observe, decide – consciously or subconsciously – that something is visually interesting, within our abilities to capture, and then proceed to the technical act of recording it in a way that represents our perception as accurately as possible. But in the course of observation, we may not be taking every piece of information into account simply because our duration of observation is very short; often instantaneous. Here we rely on experience and personal biases to dictate what we deem interesting; the act of framing itself should be conscious exclusion/ inclusion.
Herein lies the first problem: our experience might fall short, or not take into account the things we might possibly observe. This is not a bad thing, because it usually means we instantly notice what’s different: our brains are wired to notice breaks in pattern, whether it’s something as simple as discordant colors or an object that does not fit our experiential expectations. This is the fundamental reason why travellers often notice different things to locals: they are simply not accustomed to seeing them repeatedly on a daily basis. But it also means that we may fail to capture the essence of a scene, simply because we do not know what that essence is.
Personally, I find when travelling that my best work is produced towards the end of a trip: I’ve had enough time to subconsciously absorb the place so I know what unique characteristics I should be looking to capture; but not so much time that familiarity dulls my powers of observation. In fact, it’s almost as though every image I capture up to that point is practice of sorts. I notice this when leading workshops in familiar territory: my students sometimes see things I don’t. Consciously conditioning yourself to be an active observer is a very important skill for a photographer.
We don’t always have the time or opportunity to revisit a given scene many times in order to make ourselves happy; however, we should at least be convinced that we have produced the best possible image given the limitations of our own visit. This means that even if a scene is immediately interesting/ arresting, the first image may not necessarily be the best one. Sometimes our instincts are right, sometimes our timing is lucky, and it is; more often than not, there’s always something to be improved. If you take a look at the work of great photographers immediately before and after a famous image – the Magnum Contact Sheets book is highly recommended for this because it puts the chosen frame in context of what happened immediately before/ after by showing the rest of the frames on the roll – you’ll see that they all have something in common: they spend a lot of time experimenting with variations on the same basic idea, exploring options, and usually end fairly soon after getting the shot they want.
There are two important things here: firstly, the experimentation portion. It might take five minutes or five hours (how long you spend depends on your patience and available time). And secondly, knowing when to stop. How do you know when to stop shooting? Simple: when you’re happy with the image, and feel that the work stands on its own against any other images of the scene without any further explanation. You must feel that the image is representative of your intention: what did you see/ feel when you were there, and does this adequately translate through the image? Is the essence there? The answer must of course be yes. This is something to keep in mind when sorting through the resulting images: unless the overall feel/ content/ subject/ story is dramatically different, I see no good reason to keep multiple variations of the same scene*.
*Reportage and client work are slightly different: firstly, you never know when you might want to submit an additional image for something else due to licensing reasons, and secondly, clients may want to see variations for reasons that might not be immediately apparent at the time of shooting. For my personal work, I keep one final frame only. For my professional work, I keep everything I shoot; it’s saved my bacon several times in the past.
Here are the main things to consider:
Time of day
This affects more than just the direction and quality of ambient light: it also changes the atmosphere of the overall scene by nature of there being different movable elements, e.g. people, cars etc. An empty street in the middle of the night lit by a few dim signs or lightbulbs has a very different feel to the same street at rush hour. Whilst ambient light isn’t likely to change over the course of a few minutes (but it can do if there are big puffy clouds moving quickly and obscuring the sun) – but it is something you can consider even before you get there – no point in trying to capture neon during the daytime, for instance. But similarly, there isn’t much point going in the middle of the night either if your objective is to retain some color in the sky.
The inclusion or exclusion of movable elements affects the story: you simply can’t tell a story about something if it isn’t present; the dominance of temporal elements relative to the scene itself can change the focus of the image dramatically, from being merely a recording of the place itself, to being entirely about the temporal element with the place as a contextual backdrop. Motion, if captured, lends a sense of relativity, speed and time – something that’s completely absent in a photograph that appears to be static.
Here, I refer both to the foreground-background relationship (wide vs tele) and the physical camera position. Forground emphasis vs. background context changes the story by conscious inclusion/ exclusion; the viewer of the photograph simply cannot know whether an element was present or not if it isn’t shown in the photograph. Furthermore, things often look very different from ground level or overhead – especially if the subject is human-scale. Even something as simple as forcing yourself to go with a different piece of equipment will result in compositionally very different images: the types of subjects you’ll shoot with a pro DSLR and fast telephoto will be very different to medium format film and a wide angle lens. Trying alternatives – whether in reality or through visualization/ imagination – will yield a surprising variety of results.
Processing treatment and technical considerations
I think this one is fairly obvious: even if shot from the same vantage point with the same focal length on the same format, something with shallow depth of field and cinematic color treatment is going to have a very different impact to black and white, high contrast and pan-focus. In essence, this is a question of style.
The final consideration is one of personal bias: what I ‘see’/notice isn’t going to be the same as what you see, even if we’re standing next to each other: this is a simple consequence of the fact that we all have different life experiences, preferences, likes and dislikes; it’s also what gives photography its infinite variety. We can photograph the same location again and again for ten years and not repeat the same image twice; every single moment is a distinct instant never to be repeated again. Yet I don’t feel we need to do that to decide we like an image, and we’re satisfied with our interpretation of the scene; what we need is to know ourselves. I bet most of you will have had a different pick of the three locations photographed here; that’s to be expected. What’s important is that over time, you pay attention to what kinds of scenes you’re drawn to, and why; this helps shorten the observation/ experimentation time required before you produce an image you’re happy with. MT
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