My thought process when shooting

One of the more common questions I’ve been asked recently (aside from what my Photoshop workflow looks like) is what my thought process is when shooting. This basically breaks down into two streams – am I in control of the situation photographically, or not?

By that I don’t mean whether I’m out of my depth or not; it’s about whether I have the ability to direct exactly the elements in my frame. The order doesn’t mean that one item is hugely prioritized over another; it isn’t. It’s more a case of if I have no choice,then which comes first?

In a controlled setting – studio, tripod, portrait, macro, landscape etc
Lighting
Perspective
Framing/ composition
Subject positioning
Reflections/ specular highlights
Edges
Exposure
Focus

The first things you’ll notice is that the subject doesn’t even enter into the equation – why? Well, it might as well be taken as given the there will be a clear subject to the image if I’m going to bother setting up lights to photograph it! This too, is the main reason why one would work in a controlled setting – the ability to perfectly light your subject, as well as control the composition precisely. You’ve got all the time in the world to perfect focus, and the exposure you select falls out of your lighting choices; this is why some minutae like reflections and subject positioning take precedence: simply because they can.

Perspective comes before framing, because you’re working in a situation where you have the luxury of choosing and fine tuning your perspective for every shot – no matter if that requires a ladder and telephoto. Your subject and light will wait for you.

It’s also worthwhile nothing that the processing I do in Photoshop for controlled images is very different to uncontrolled ones; I don’t have to use gradients to even out light; I don’t have to do shadow/ highlight recovery to control my dynamic range; I don’t have to spend time getting the color balance perfect. It simply isn’t necessary, because if you know what you’re doing, you should have gotten it right in camera in the first place.

In a non-controlled setting – photojournalism, street, travel
Lighting
Subject (interchangeable with lighting)
Framing/ composition/ perspective
Edges
Secondary subject
Exposure
Focus
Shoot a burst
Reset camera settings to a neutral position

Without light, your subject is invisible. And without a subject, framing is pointless; if your composition is poor, then the edges don’t matter; if you don’t have a clearly defined primary subject that’s supported by strong framing and well lit, then secondary subjects are meaningless.

There will be situations in which you’ll see the shot, and have not much time to react; this is where having a strong working process helps. I shoot aperture priority; I’m always adjusting aperture, exposure compensation and focus distance on the fly (if I’m using a manual focus camera) depending on the lighting conditions. When it gets dark, I frequently kick over to manual mode, take the camera out of auto-ISO and rely on my internal light meter. It’s not that difficult to get a consistent exposure when shooting manual; do it enough and you can usually judge the right exposure by eye – more often than not getting within 1/2 stop or so of the ideal exposure, which is well within the post-capture adjustment latitude of digital. This continual ‘fiddling of the dials’ does have the downside of making it look as though I’ve got some sort of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but it does result in my camera always being ready to shoot – and this makes me pretty quick on the draw.

This is why I place the technical execution – exposure and focus – last, because a strong composition will always be a strong composition, regardless of whether it’s tack sharp or somewhat grainy. If you capture something amazing, nobody will care what it was shot with because a) they’ll be too busy looking at the subject, and b) it’ll probably make the rounds via the internet, which as we all know, isn’t exactly a high-fidelity reproduction medium. When photographing under conditions where you are continually responding rather than being proactive, it’s better to get a shot with a strong idea rather than one with strong technical qualities but no idea. Nobody ever criticized Robert Capa for camera shake; but by the same token, I don’t think Annie Leibowitz was ever rushed on a shoot, either.

I want to add a note on the framing/ composition/ perspective portion – I do the majority of my work with just one or two focal lengths – 28/85mm; especially when it comes to travel and reportage. The simple reason is because I’m so familiar with the perspective and field of view of these lenses that I can frame without having to bring the camera to my eye; it’s as though I’m always walking around with the frame lines suspended in my field of vision. Sticking to one or two lenses and training yourself to see this way can also hugely improve your response time – being able to previsualize/ precompose the shot hugely improves your reaction time, and avoids having to waste time in framing. I then usually take a burst of a few images both to alleviate camera shake (the middle one is usually sharp because your shutter finger isn’t moving) and to perfect composition, especially around the edges.

In summary, controlled situations are all about getting the picture perfect – because you have the control and ability to do so. Reactive situations are about being always prepared and ready to get the shot – some things can be done in advance, such as setting exposure and anticipated subject distance, some things can be done in parallel, like looking for light, subject and framing; others you have to adjust for afterwards, for example, uneven exposure across the frame – there are gradients in Photoshop to take care of that.

How you choose to take care of the details is up to you; but the general advice is to make sure you take control of the things which have the biggest impact on the audience of your image first. MT

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Enter the August 2012 competition: Compact Challenge – here!

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