The media, commercial entities – camera companies, software companies, cellphone companies – are all trying to convince us that anybody can take great pictures, and is therefore a photographer. Right and wrong, I think. Being a photographer is far more than equipment, more than luck, more than intuition, more than practice…it’s an attitude.
Let’s start with the obvious: if you don’t go in with the intention of making pictures, then you’ll never do it. Even if you’re carrying around the necessary tools, you’re never going to pull them out to use them unless you’re consciously thinking about it. I personally find this is the case, too: if I’m going out specifically to shoot, be it for work or personal reasons, then I’ve got the camera in hand – any camera – and I’m walking with ‘the eye’ switched on. If I happen to be carrying the same camera but the primary purpose of my outing is not photography, then I almost never take it out of the bag; only if I happen to be bored or something really exceptional breaks routine.
The cause of this is fairly simple. Very few of us can really, truly focus on more than one thing at a time; the level of attention required to photograph well is rather high, which means that you’re either consciously doing it, or you aren’t. You’ve got to be constantly observing, looking for light, subjects and trying to translate that into ideas and balanced compositions; on top of that there are the technical considerations: what perspective? Which focal length? What exposure? Etc. This really leaves little extra bandwidth for anything else, or conversely, if you’re doing anything else that requires a substantial amount of attention, you’re probably not going to have much left over for photography.
We can, however, over a period of time, train ourselves to be sensitive to the one or two critical key things necessary for a good image – it almost always boils down to light, actually. Ignore subject for the moment; that can come later. In a street/flaneur scenario, you can almost always find a subject; one consequence of having the signs of civilization is that there’s almost always the people to go with it. If you’re photographing static objects – landscapes, architecture, still life, etc – then you’ll already know that quality of light makes all the difference in the world; it can turn a very boring, ordinary object into the most compelling image. So you’re pretty much all set. I suppose action and portraiture are exceptions to this rule, but then again one generally doesn’t happen to ‘coincidentally’ see a sporting event, or a rare species of wildlife. These are the kinds of events you go prepared for – both mentally and photographically.
With the exception of the first image, all of the photographs in this article were made by me when photography was not the primary objective of my outing – I went out to do something else, but happened to come across a compelling scene. In a lot of these cases, I wasn’t even carrying a proper camera, or the ‘right’ one – I used whatever I had at the time, which was probably my phone. Does any of that change my ability to see and compose? No; that’s completely equipment-independent anyway. It’s entirely subject independent, too.
It should be, for a true photographer: perspective does not change; a given angle of view may render slightly differently on different formats due to the relationship between real focal length, format size and depth of field, but the relative prominence of foreground is going to be the same for every 90-degree angle of view, regardless of the camera used to capture it. Good light is always going to be good light; unless you’re creating it yourself in a controlled environment (which renders this argument moot anyway, since you’re already in a dedicated photographic frame of mind) – is again a property of scene and subject. All the photographer has to do is be open and receptive towards these things: the rest – i.e. the images – will follow, providing he or she is also reasonably in control of their equipment.
This is perhaps an odd analogy, but sometimes I think of the true photographer’s* mind is a bit nervous, a bit paranoid, always looking, always anticipating, always evaluating, judging, and analytical; I hate to say it, but the only thing that comes close is perhaps a criminal, or a military agent. However, though both types are looking for targets and evaluating ‘the payoff’, it’s a different kind of target and a different kind of payoff. Regardless, it’s situational awareness that pays dividends in all three…er…professions; we get the shot (or don’t); the criminal makes his mark or doens’t get caught, and the special forces guy takes out the surprise enemy before he gets shot**.
*One who can shoot anything and produce a strong image, be it in a controlled situation or an uncontrolled one.
**There are other parallels we can draw between good firearms technique and good photographic technique, but that’s another article for another time. Perhaps I’ll title it ‘Shooting and shooting’.
My guess is that the majority of amateur, hobbyist and even professional photographers go for a period of varying duration where they’re trying to force the shot in every scene; I know because I see lots of people do it, I can see the results in competition entries and the email school submissions, and I’ve experienced it personally. You’re experimenting, searching for the composition that causes everything to fall neatly into place; rarely you get it; more often you think you got it, but know you didn’t when you evaluate the results later or see the work of others; or worse, you leave frustrated and unfulfilled. But there comes a time – how long this takes is dependent very much on how much practice you put in – after which somehow, everything just clicks into place; the compositions naturally form themselves, and you experience the anxiety of infinite composition.
Then, the challenge reverses: you see so many possible frames that you almost go mad trying to capture them all, and then again when you hit the editing suite to decide which make the cut and which don’t. The most frustrating thing is that there’s probably nothing much wrong with any of the individual frames, and they’d stand up fine in isolation – it’s just that you have so many of them. Time will almost always distill the cohort down into one or two standouts, but I feel the next step change comes when you can get to the endgame at the time of shooting, and don’t bother with the alternatives that might not work. (As for what follows after that, I have no idea; I’m not there yet.)
Once a person has made a conscious choice to be a shooter, the rest of the mental state ties in quite neatly with the four stages of creative evolution of a photographer; it’s almost inevitable that you will reach a point where you can think of nothing other than photography and photographing; it’s all-consuming and occupies your free time and free thought capacity. Again, I’ve been there and am perhaps a bit too familiar with the feeling; it’s different from being ‘in the zone'; rather, it’s all-consuming and somewhat obsessive.
But staying in that state leaves you blinded by the trees and unable to see the forest; speaking to other experienced hands and looking back through my portfolio, I’ve found that the best images come to you. You have to be observant, receptive, and prepared, but not trying to force the situation – that almost always results in compromise, and weaker images. The more I photograph, the more I’m convinced that an enormous portion of the success of an image is in the patience of the photographer and their ability to observe and translate, independent of subject, equipment or technical execution.
I’m going to leave you with one final thought. A photograph is a conversation between the photographer and his or her audience; like any conversation, clarity and reasoning of the intended message and the tone of the delivery greatly affects the impact. If we do not take the time to see the message and have it clear in our own minds before attempting to communicate it, there’s no way anybody else is going to be able to see what we do. A famous photographer once said – and I forget who – “a camera is merely a device that trains us how to see the world”. How true. MT
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