Working the scene: interpretation, timing and storytelling

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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*.

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*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.

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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.

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Movable elements
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.

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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.

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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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  1. 95% of my images are almost reflexive…brain says “hey theres an image there”…camera moves up and shutter finger pushes down, I move on and hope I got it. Sometimes I have the luxury of a few goes with a bit of chimping in between to reiterate and refine, shifting position and exposure. But thats because my photography usually takes place whilst out and about with the Missus and is (officially at least) a secondary pursuit to the shared experience of being wherever it is we are. And I think this is the way it is fated to be for me, as I found on the Prague Workshop, and every time I try and catch an image like an angler catches a fish. I find a great “stage” with colour, texture, light, frames, leading lines, etc…as I am approaching, but before I am in position, humanity in all its glory is busy getting on with life, subconsciously doing interesting things…my pulse quickens, my mind starts mapping the scene, my eye latches onto the most likely subject, my fingers work the dials on the Nikon…and as I approach…POOF! Ghost town! Where did everybody go?! I take up position and wait, taking a few test shots to ensure exposure and consider pre-focusing, looking for secondary and tertiary elements and adjusting perspective…I wait…and I wait… Eventually I turn and leave, I walk 50 yards and turn around to see the most moving, humanity-defining events* taking place where I stood before… bugger…

    *reality may have been somewhat less dramatic, artistic license may have been taken in this narrative…

    • I think you just need the patience to outlast Murphy, or faster fingers to out-reflex him. I’ve found the same thing myself; I suspect it’s because time becomes relative and dilates somewhat when you’re engrossed in the moment of shooting…

  2. Ron Scubadiver says:

    I hope what I see is what the viewer sees, or something close to it, because if I see something and it isn’t in the photograph then the image is a miss. An junior college art instructor friend told me to think “what, why and how”. Bjorn Rorslett says the process is what, why and when. His view is how (arrangement) follows from when. I am still trying to completely understand that. There are many scales to timing. It can be years, seasons, hours for the light, and split seconds in street photography and other fast moving situations.

    It isn’t possible for me to say that I improve during the last days of the trip. Once I arrived in Maui and went straight to the beach where one of the first frames I took was a real winner. But, I can see how it might be true, and there are some places that finally look right after passing them a few times. Where I do improve is after about the first half hour or so of shooting. To capture more of the same subject experimenting with different compositions and techniques is about the best advice there is. I need to heed it more myself.

    Ming, thank you again for another reminder to stay on the ball.

  3. randomesquephoto says:

    Curious. While shooting film. And having a more “restrained” number of shots. How does that effect how many frames of a scene you capture? You’re certainly not going to shoot in bursts ? Or shoot many varying perspectives? I’d think maybe more pre planning, even in the moment before the “trigger” is pulled. Probably keeps one on their toes more to capture things at the exact moment to create a great image?

    • I land up with more absolute keepers, I think. Fewer shots in total, but a much higher hit rate – at worst, 50%; on average, 60-70% and as much as 80%. I suspect it may also be because film is a little bit more forgiving of technical errors than digital…

      There’s unquestionably more thinking and planning; if you’re slightly in doubt with digital, you’ll probably still go for it. With film…you tend to let the shot go rather than risk it.

      • The street corner is a fine preview and analysis of what you can do with one location. (“More thinking and planning.”) This reminds me of using large format view cameras like a 5X7 Cambio I used to lug around. Setup and wait and experiment, the framing, the shutter speeds. And DOF like at f72. I like the crowd at the red light as we’ve all been there. The slow shutter impressions are beautiful too.

        It’s nice to see you do big pictures with a small cam.

        This is the thing with big slow cams. Helps you to use small fast ones. And if you want the poster size image, large format is it. Or is it?
        I know you’ve proved that a 16MP Olympus m43 is big enough when you have sparkling glass. But then you’re also in love with a 2 1/4 Hasselblad.

        To understand that magic of B&W film and what digital should be aiming for, maybe we need a gold standard. You’ve got the latest greatest 35 full frame Nikon D800E at 36MP. Good enough in 5 years? What are we aiming for anyway.

        Maybe a test would help. Say the oldest and best and still in production Leica F2 Summicron 50mm? On your D800E vs
        the same lens but on a Leica film body or on your Nikon Titan shooting the finest grain B&W. Wonder what you’d get? 80MP for film?

        Some pros I’ve known have said they preferred the Leica setup to anything even to 2 1/4 except the Blad and bigger.Wonder how many megapixels the Summicron resolves in B&W? How many stops lattitude? Can it win the megapixel wars right now? If the D800E can match a film print then we’re there and for 35mm shooters they could stop buying the same camera over and over again for a better sensor. The biggest and most expensive hassle today, endless upgrading.

        Not gimme a Titan please and a Nikkormat for banging around. That was it. Remember too that sensors were dirt cheap in the old days. Just buy a new roll of film. Forget Pan-X, get the new Ilford HP4.

        Then there’s the magic bang of B&W. Is film still better? Hope you’ll find out for us.

        • The D800E with good modern glass already beats 135 on resolution, and matches 645. 6×6 has a bit more. It isn’t the glass, it’s the tonal response of the recording medium. I definitely prefer the tonality of film, but the resolution of digital. We’re not quite comparing like to like here, so your proposed comparison doesn’t really make sense.

          • I’m not so sure that digital wins over film in resolution. There is perhaps more detail say of an ophthalmologist’s Eye Chart shot at 300 feet, alphabet letters better formed, but you might find the much finer texture of the paper stock showing better on film, or call it tonality or microcontrast.

            As you’ve said that is why you like film. Digital doesn’t get it. It’s flatter. It doesn’t resolve microcontrast as well. Why? How far has it to go in ever finer pixel pitch and sheer numbers of pixels before it matches film? So why not a real world test? Especially at 35mm as most of the billions of images pre-digital including movies were shot on 135.

            Why is film so special? Silver halide crystals on film emulsion are already very fine, maybe smaller than a Nikon D800E pixel, but a cluster of only 4 silver atoms in a crystal can become a latent image when hit by photons. So potentially one crystal pixel can have a fantastic number of subpixel clusters, beating digital many times over for sensitivity. To see this you need to print very big. Realistically you save paper and print a tiny swatch of the negative at say a magnification of 100,000. But you loose your frame, your composition, your subject.

            There is an easier way. I used to process Kodak Pan-X as a reversal film. The result fantastic quality B+W slides. Then use a projector and cover a wall with the image.

            Easier still go see a movie, a fresh print shot on 35. But remember you’re seeing, not an original film image but usually a copy of a copy, an Interneg and a print from the Interneg on the screen. Even so the resolution on a giant screen beats 4K digital video by miles, B+W or color.

            The idea here is to explore.

  4. Reblogged this on saturn1ascends.

  5. Good timing with this post; I just resumed watching How To See Ep 1 at the bit where you’re shooting these today (needed a couple of weeks to assimilate everything I learned in the first few videos!).

  6. Very nice article. Congratulations.

  7. It’s always entertaining, educational and inspiring to go through your blog every so often Ming. Especially when I feel the need, as I am sure a lot of other photographers do to get re-inspired in their photographic journeys. Your writing is never overly technical that it would bore but rather an intellectual discussion backed up by your vast experience of crafting visually pleasing and oftentimes thought provoking imagery. Your images and writing have me simultaneously admiring the aesthetics of the photo , asking myself what it took to produce the shot in terms of the technical aspect and also placing myself in the frame of mind that you had when you envisioned the shot–the decisive moment.
    I also like the fact that most of your shots have an easiness to them; not overly polished or contrived images as a lot of art photographs are nowadays. If you look at a lot of photos on the web and in books, especially art photography—the photographers tend to try too hard to be clever; relying on strange compositions, bizarre images and technical manipulation. Some of your shots remind me of William Eggleston’s work, they have the same relaxed and easygoing quality about them, which I like. That I think is the essence of a great photograph.
    It was great to have been a participant at the workshop that you conducted recently in Manila via Maybank, I hope to see some of the images you took while here in Intramuros. Great work on your blog, keep it coming and best of luck.

  8. Cosmin Munteanu says:

    *at least

  9. Cosmin Munteanu says:
  10. The combination of your images and text are thought provoking. Your experience, insights, perspective and talents are all wrapped into this post, and allows the reader to see through your eyes and thus add to their own layers of experience.

  11. Very interesting. For me, the key is to try to be in a state of mind where it’s always like seeing it for the first time, wherever I am.

  12. Dirk De Paepe says:

    Great article again, Ming. And I have a specific question. In this article you talk about different views, taken from the same viewpoint. But what about the same subject/object taken from different viewpoints. The harmony within the composition changes dramaticly when changing the viewpoint. We always “finetune” our VP before shooting, but I’m more referring to really bigger differences: really drasticly changing the angle, in horizontal and/or vertical direction. Looking at your pictures, I’m always admiring the “power” of the scene as a result of the composition (amongst others of course, but this question is about composition). What I try to do when composing is “imagine” how a specific scene looks from different VPs, in what kind of composition it would/could result and than choose the best VP I have in mind. Of course one could try out a series of different VPs, but sometimes there is no time to do so, whereby it’s mandatory to decide fast. And this “ability to imagine” is where I’d like to improve. So if you have any hints or excercises that could help, I think many would be extremely grateful. Of course one could say “just practice”, but practicing in the right way makes a huge difference. The better one is able to imagine/predict a composition from a different VP, the more accurate one can register a certain event – result: better pictures. You probably know that I had an education in music, not in photography. For comparable issues in music, I can give you specific excercises. But I don’t know such in photography. Hence my question – for further and faster skill improvement.

    • That’s a slightly different story. The same subject with different perspectives/ viewpoints/ lighting can be hugely different. I could certainly do something on that; however I suppose that is perhaps along the lines of what I do when I post a photoessay of a specific object (albeit rarely).

      There are specific exercises, but it depends very much on the subject and starting point. ‘Move your flashes’ might work for a watch, but not a building. 🙂

  13. Kaspar Pflugshaupt says:

    Hi Ming,

    great article! This is stuff that lets me make progress in my own picture-taking.

    Could you do an article where you follow one of your successful images through from the triggering idea/impression to the experiments, the decision wich shot was the most successful, and the final processing?

    I just love to “get into the head” of other photographers and learn how they go about making decisions. That’s more inspiring to me than technical how-tos.

    Cheers & best wishes

    Kaspar Pflugshaupt

    • I tried, but found that a post was not the best way to show the ambient context and explain the decision making process, so we created the ‘How To See’ video series (available here) – I’m actually going to be filming episode two in Tokyo this week…

  14. Reblogged this on whatsupinoscarlandnstuff.

  15. I agree with you when you say that you find when travelling that your best work is produced towards the end of a trip. It happand to me and I Think it’s for the same reasons you explain: You have had time to “absorb the place”. Great post and nice pictures!

  16. It is interesting, in the series with the woman at the entrances, how the individual images taken out of context will tell different stories, depending on in which order you view them;
    and in the group at the pedestrian crossing, how the images can be made to tell a story if you reorder them – and perhaps allow one or two of them to be mirrored right-left.

    ( Thanks for mentioning the Contacts Sheets book again, I had missed your review, definitely interesting! )

    • Yes – intention, order and words (or lack of) imply a lot of things about the back story and causality.

      I really need to review more books, but I’m running out of shelf space 🙂

  17. randomesquephoto says:

    Great thoughts Ming. It definitely got me thinking. I really have to start trying different things in photography. All of my shots I take are generally on a tripod. In dark buildings. And I can take my time to set things up. Besides lighting changing throughout the day. There’s not much variables. So generally. I take my time. And take one shot. Putting myself in situations where you have to consider the moment would be a great learning curve. I have to try it soon.

  18. avatarinstructordesintesis says:
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