The art and science of observation

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Pigs sometimes fly – if you look at the right moment.

Curiously, the question I’m most frequently asked (right after ‘what camera should I buy?’ and that ilk) is ‘how do I make my photos better?’* This is a dangerously loaded question: for many reasons: it assumes firstly that there’s something wrong with your images (in whose opinion?); that I am the arbiter of judgement (I am not, and cannot be, because like all audiences – I am biased); that my personal taste and opinion is in line with yours (inevitably, we all differ) and that you didn’t already manage to get the best possible image to your own taste given the circumstances under which the image was made. My point is that ‘better’ is always subjective: nobody can pass absolute judgement on an image. We can merely give suggestions as to why we may prefer one variation or adjustment over another. But I do believe there’s one thing we can all do more of – and never enough of.

Think of today’s post as a coda to the compromise of the decisive moment article from a few months back.

*Of course, the question is often asked as a thinly veiled way to seek justification for a hardware purchase, but we’ll discount such instances. In very, very few situations is hardware truly the limiting factor, and if you’re good enough to maximise your current setup, you’ll already know it without having to ask.

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This ‘one thing’ is of course observation: a photograph is a very tightly curated view of the world from the biases and preferences of the curator-observer. It eliminates whatever the observer has determined to be irrelevant or unimportant, and forces the audience to focus on that which the observer personally finds interesting (or guesses the audience might find interesting**). There are two important things to take away from this: the observer can only consciously capture/photograph what they really see; and the audience can only see what they are shown.

**The disconnect between the audience you get and the audience you want is something for a future article, I think.

This of course means that there’s going to be losses in translation between each step of the process: if the observer-photographer didn’t have a clear idea of what it is they wanted to capture, or wasn’t paying attention to the collateral and context – elements may have been included in the frame that conflict with the intention of the image. Furthermore, it’s almost impossible to eliminate confusing/conflicting elements entirely: there will always be somebody in the audience who interprets the image a different way from what was intended, regardless of how distilled the remains are. On top of that, the photographer may lack the necessary skill to structure the image in the desired method: for instance, if the background behind the intended subject isn’t clean, then the intended subject may not stand out. Or if the lighting is unflattering, then it may be highly challenging to express aesthetic beauty.

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Even if the stars align, and for an ideal audience, the photographer has done everything they can to compose according to the way most people’s visual cortexes work: the audience themselves may not have the necessary local knowledge or cultural/ local context to read the image in the order intended by the photographer. Or they may simply be more responsive to different visual stimuli – a dog lover, for instance, may notice the tiny dog in the corner first, instead of the enormous bright red bus that takes up most of the frame.

Given all of the potential disconnects, it’s actually remarkable that we have any images that work at all in the way that was intended – fortunately, there are some things that are hard-coded in the way our brains process information (the rules of vision, again) and we can ‘force’ the rest by completely and ruthlessly eliminating what isn’t necessary. At this point, I’m forced to circle back again because I can’t adequately reinforce just how important the first point is: your audience is limited by your presentation, which is limited by your powers of observation. If you didn’t see it, you can’t consciously have shot it, much less presented it in a way that is unlikely to be misinterpreted.

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If anything, the biggest mistake I see most photographers make is a failure to observe and understand the subject before beginning to use the camera. That said, I think there’s a very thin balance between overthinking and responding instinctively and emotionally to something you see; but not many people have enough of the structural and compositional mechanics instilled at the subconscious or reflex level to be able to consistently make successful hail-mary-spur-of-the-moment type images. Fundamentally though, it’s not good to have your imagination constrained by your tools. The kind of thinking that’s inevitably going to result in a conventional image (i.e. the opposite of different, or special) is where one asks first “what kind of lens should I use for a portrait? Or a landscape?” before simply taking a few moments to look at the subject and decide conceptually (‘the idea‘) what you’d like to say first, and how to translate that into visual elements.

This may seem like a fairly basic thing, but I’m 99% sure of how my final finished output image will look before pressing the shutter – I may have a couple of different ideas for presentation, but I can still visualise them. I won’t take the shot ‘just to see what happens’. If you’ve shot enough, experimented enough, (and of course remembered it all) and have the idea clear in your own mind – then this is quite easy to do, and results in far fewer images that get lost in translation because you yourself aren’t sure what you’re trying to say. Such miscommunications still happen to me, of course – and it’s usually because the idea wasn’t translated properly, either because the concepts may be too abstract and require too many other references to recreate, or because I underestimated the impact of other elements in the frame from the audience’s point of view.

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At this point, you’re probably wondering why I’ve selected this particular series of images to accompany the article. There are two reasons to this: firstly, to show you that with sufficiently long observation – over the course of several months, in this case – there’s a very real chance of getting something exceptionally unusual, and secondly, because presentation and context matters. The images come from an as yet uncurated set of a much longer term project; but without the balance of necessary context and explanation, it’s nigh on impossible to guess what that might be – it’s another loss in translation which is the fault of the photographer in this case, despite extended observation. It becomes only possible to appreciate the images in isolation. Lastly, there’s the audience gap: sunsets just may (or may not) be your thing πŸ™‚ MT


Ultraprints from this series are available on request here


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  1. Jorge Balarin says:

    The quality of your skies is extraordinary. Top of the class. Amazing color gradation and light.

    • Thanks – highlights thanks to workflow III πŸ˜‰

    • Word. This is TRULY something which got my eyes to read the whole post. The 1st image (especially) is a masterpiece, the combo of that sky & those greens, the vividness and everything. One does not see these things often.

  2. Nice spotting Ming on title photo!!

  3. Beautiful series! 2,3,4 would be keepers for me, but it’s 5 that hits the mark. Can’the really explain why. Because the man made subject is not in center? The specific colours of the sky? It just keeps my attention much longer.
    For me sunsets aren’t so much about having survived another day, but more about celebrating life and our luck of being conscious of the beauty of it all. A little story comes to mind.
    A father and his infant son are sharing a sunset for the first time. From the moment the sun hits the horizon until complete darkness they are enjoying in silence. It’s the son who breaks the silence when, looking up at his father, he asks: “Can you do that again? Please?”

  4. Looks like you are doing a Richard Misrach “Golden Gate Bridge” type series from your front porch. One of my favorite photography books:

  5. Thank you for reminding us that clarity of vision is primary, and for explaining it with clarity.

  6. Martin Fritter says:

    I like the second one best!

    I ran across the following: “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.” Heidegger’s notes on Paul Klee from 1957. I’ve been reading Teju Cole’s “Known and Strange Things” which includes extensive writing on photography. Includes an interesting discussion of Google’s Search by Image, where he suggests feeding it one’s images and seeing how it responds. Very annoying. Almost everything I do has been done better endlessly. There are some images that it can’t resolve (“tree”) and I get a wide range of disparate responses. Some of these are actually pretty quotidian (“mountain sky”). For example, two boxers slugging it out and it responded with a number of Renaissance court tableaux, which made me quite happy. Or women that it thinks are men. Cole suggests that in theses cases – the surprises – Google is seeing the images formally rather than in terms of content. Which might be useful – especially for color?

    • Interesting…the algorithm probably looks at color and some degree of pattern recognition, but it isn’t so straightforward to tie that to emotional impact of the two together…

      • Martin Fritter says:

        Oh absolutely. You should play with the thing – fun for you at a minimum. Cole’s point – he’s an art historian – is about the purely structural elements of photography and specifically color. In some way, the notion is that the structure is the armature of the emotional or narrative content. His book is all short essays and reviews – ideal for reading whilst sitting around in airports.

  7. As one who rarely ventures far from home to photograph, I can appreciate the accumulated power of a long-term project involving a single, familiar scene – if we are truly seeing it, it’s never the same. With that in mind I would contend that if you are willing to live with the underestimation of elemental importance within an image, then you should be willing to accept the possibility of surprise in shooting “just to see what happens.” I’m not sure we can/should rule out a different angle or composition based an believing we are 99% sure of what that final image may look like. We should, instead, be open to the magic of the one percent.

  8. richard majchrzak says:

    pix out your living room window , wild guess. i am so envious and practice hard to copy , and steal your style …..not much success so far but it helps improve my efforts..

  9. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Rara avis is about the only description I can give you, Ming. You put so much into sharing with others – you may deny it, from your perspective, but I see you as markedly more objective than most – every time a thought starts to germinate in my mind, as something I could possible contribute and add to the discussion, I find you’ve already said it better than I could, in the next few lines.

    And PS – I LOVE long term studies of sunsets – I decided to hit that, a year or so ago, and I’ve been doing it on & off ever since. My inspiration was Monet’s series of paintings of a haystack – I thought to use the idea to train my eye, focusing my mind on sunsets – they are amazing, and it’s not just the view looking west – the sky at that hour is fascinating, too, when you look north, south, east, or simply upwards. On occasions, also when you look down. I feel the need to think beyond the square, which is why those other thoughts hit me during my sessions on sunsets. And I’ve learned so much about color, light, the triangle of camera settings, skies, clouds, and so on, in the process. So it hasn’t just been about photographing a “sunset”.

    Thanks once again for yet another great article – I look forward to each of your articles, and I’m still combing my way through the archive on your blog. πŸ™‚

    • Well, there is a lot of tine put into the site – can’t deny that!

      As for sunsets – I think we all like them; it’s probably one of those human impulses that has roots in being happy we survived another day or something of that nature…

  10. Globules says:

    The pictures reminded me of Richard Misrach’s book, “Golden Gate”. It contains about 50 out of hundreds of pictures he took of the Golden Gate bridge, all from the same location (his porch), but under different weather and lighting conditions. Clear days, in fog, at night, sunset, etc.

    • And puts paid to the whole ‘decisive moment’ question, in my mind. We will never observe an object for long enough to make a 100% certain determination short of destroying the object in question…


  1. […] And since our own experience, vision and preferences continue to change as we evolve as observers and photographers – methods and style cannot stay static, either. If you only ever […]

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