There are many different types of photographers; all the way from the fully spontaneous use-whatever-falls-to-hand-and-just-hit-the-shutter-so-long-as-I-get-an-image, to the people who only photograph under 100% controlled situations – think still life in a studio, tethered. I’m somewhere in the middle, though definitely much further towards the latter end of the spectrum. The reason I’m writing this article is because during a recent workshop, I was asked by a student if I really kept all of the ‘four important things’ (and sub things) in my head and under active consideration even in a split-second instant; the answer is yes, and there’s quite a bit more on top of that – but I’ve been doing it for so long that the vast majority of the whole capture process becomes second nature.
By and large, professionals know this part of the job as ‘workflow’; when you change something in the workflow, you have to devote part of your mind to consciously managing it, which means you are no longer concentrating on observing, and that will be visible in the form of a weaker image. It is the reason that I always advocate being familiar with one’s equipment before going out to shoot something important or unrepeatable: you don’t want to be caught surprised or fumbling at a critical moment, especially if you’re not in full control of the action, or your client is watching. Tried and tested is safe.
With any action – not just photography – do it enough and it becomes second nature. Remember learning how to drive? I certainly do: I was scared as hell the first time, and 20mph seemed quite fast. And you had to remember to watch for other traffic, not stall the engine, signal, check your mirrors, and do all of that under the sternly critical eye of your driving instructor. That would be like changing formats just before a big shoot. Now, on the other hand, I’ve been driving for long enough that it’s mostly second nature; I have to pay a bit more attention (and do get slightly nervous) when driving overseas, but in my home city, it’s 100% intuitive – even avoiding the myriad drivers in Kuala Lumpur who seem to have trouble maintaining speed and direction.
Like driving, if you photograph enough, the ‘core’ stuff becomes part of your muscle memory. And again, like driving, you still need to pay attention, otherwise you might run into unscheduled/ unexpected territory. Except losing control of your camera is not very likely to kill you. Bottom line: it’s all about practice.
The part of photography that can’t really be ingrained into automation is the act of seeing, or specifically, conscious observation of the world and noticing things that are worth photographing or of personal interest; that’s the part you will always have to work on; it’s also the part of photography that’s highly individual, interpretative and will evolve with you as your own experiences and preferences evolve.
But I digress. Here’s the list; the items in bold are part of the ‘four things*’.
*I really need to write an article on this at some point.
- Light. Always interesting light first; no light, no photograph. A mundane subject can be turned into something arresting under the right light. The key is to look for both shadows and specular highlights.
- An idea: what do I see? More importantly, what do I want my audience to see? Note: this doesn’t always come second, sometimes I see light, subject, then an idea presents itself that fits with the subjects I’ve got to hand, and sometimes the idea can be as simple as abstraction or aesthetics alone.
- A subject: what is the photograph about? If there’s a story, what/ who is the protagonist? Does it stand out enough? Is it something that interests me personally, fits my assignment, or is just interesting because it is unusual?
- Secondary subjects: does the single image have to tell a story on its own? Do I have subsequent or preceding frames to set up context? Is it about a definite chain of events, an idea, or merely a suggestion? How much of the background context do I need to include?
- Perspective: do I want to emphasise my foreground, do I need context, do I want abstraction? Which perspective renders my subject in the most aesthetically pleasing manner? Am I storytelling/ reporting? If so, then do I want to portray the point of view of an observer or a participant? Note: if in doubt, I will always frame with a wider lens: I can always frame to include more context, but I cannot put it back in later if my angle of view is too tight. Related to this, I may need to decide to change lenses or not: I run the risk of missing the moment whilst doing so, or being caught short later. Or if I pick a zoom, compromising image quality.
- Framing and subject isolation: where am I going to put my subject? Are there any other devices in the frame that I can use to help lead my viewer’s eyes to the intended point, through the frame in the intended order – such as leading lines and frames?
- Edges: have I cut anything off? Is there anything distracting that I shouldn’t include? Remember: framing a photograph is about conscious exclusion.
- Depth of field: how much do I want in focus?
- Related to depth of field: what aperture should I use? I have to take into consideration both the format, the lens’ available apertures, the tradeoff against shutter speed and ISO/ noise/ diffraction/ image quality, and the optimum aperture of the lens – plus where in the frame my subject is located.
- Focal point/ focal plane: where should I focus to manage my depth of field properly? This becomes especially important if you’re trying to push the limits of image quality; even more so if you’re using a larger format that requires camera movements to obtain complete focus across the entire frame. And to complicate things further, there’s the issue of field curvature on certain lenses to consider if you’re shooting at wider apertures.
- Exposure: there’s a lot of sub-things related to this. Firstly, choice of high or low key; what do I want to show or hide? This is important because you will need to adjust your composition accordingly depending on your final output exposure choice – even though you are going to shoot digital and expose optimally to the right. Secondly, do I have enough shutter speed to avoid camera shake, and manage subject motion? If not, how much of an image quality penalty will I incur by raising the ISO? Or do I have other tricks I can use to keep ISO low, and manage low shutter speeds – like bracing, tripods, VR or burst shooting? On top of that, the sensor type matters: CCDs must be exposed precisely; later generation CMOS has more latitude in shadow recovery. And then you need to think about white balance: if the ambient light temperature is too extreme, you risk blowing a channel irrecoverably if you don’t get it reasonably right in-camera first. And then you’ve got to think about how important colour accuracy is to your image.
- One last double check of focus and composition.
- Timing – wait for the right moment; if the action is happening now, I’m shooting now both as insurance and as progressive recording; if the action is something that hasn’t happened yet, then I wait in position, ready, shutter half-pressed. If it’s a static frame, exhale and release between heartbeats/ breaths.
- Hit the shutter, usually in a burst. You will know intuitively if you nailed the composition or not; people often wonder why I’m shooting sequentially (not bursts, but sequential single images) on static subjects: I’m fine-tuning my composition, until I know the edges are perfect. That means no need to crop later.
- Check framing and sharpness. Move on if OK, wait if there’s likely to be more action, or try again if you flubbed.
And we haven’t even started to talk about shooting under controlled (studio) situations…MT
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