Looking isn’t enough

You know I really enjoy taking photographs. I’m not sure I’ve come out and said it so clearly, but if you didn’t know, you haven’t been paying attention. Digital photography has been a boon to the amateur looking to experiment and take better photos. Once you have a digital camera, you can experiment without worrying about processing costs, and perhaps even more importantly, you see the results immediately. What you’re trying to do is an immediate success or failure.

That said, there is a downside to digital photography. A significant downside, I think. With the rapid advancement of camera technology, most discussions are about the equipment, and the number of megapixels usually trumps how one uses them. It’s a shame, but it’s the state of enthusiast photography today. In discussion forums, it’s plain many have bought expensive cameras thinking the greater price they paid for their new gear will result in equally greater photos, out of the box. Of course this isn’t true. A camera is a tool, like any other, and the results are only as good as the tool’s wielder. It’s for this reason I get so frustrated that the first thing someone says when they see a photo they really like is, “Wow, what a great camera.” I’ve seen it again and again even from people who know better. It’s as if the shooter is there only to hold up the camera.

Certainly hardware does play a role in photography. I wouldn’t deny this. A better tool simply allows more options. Nothing more. Given the choice between a photograph from a rank amateur with a professional camera or a brilliant photographer with a disposable camera, who would you expect to produce a better result? You’re allowed three guesses, and the first two don’t count.

Miss P. looks away in the National Gallery of Canada.

Miss P. looks away in the National Gallery of Canada.

Despite this, one certainly need not be a pro to take stunning images. I think the most important thing is to see what’s around you. Simple as that … but of course it’s really not so simple. We have our eyes open all day, but we usually see so very little. More than once have I been with someone when I’ve stopped to take a photo only to have them surprised because whatever I was shooting (and I’m sorry I can’t remember any specific examples) was right there to see, but they either didn’t see it, or hadn’t considered it worthy of a photograph. And I certainly don’t mean to blow my own horn because I know I’m not nearly as good at this as I’d like. This is the reason I take my camera almost everywhere. There’s always something interesting to photograph. You just have to see it.

Once you have a subject, the battle is not won. How will you photograph it? From what angle? In what light? The brain behind the eye looking through the viewfinder has a vision, and it needs to manipulate the camera to capture the vision. Even if you manage to do that, you’re still not assured a good photograph. This brings me to perhaps my biggest source of creative frustration. But what could this be? I’ve got my subject, composed exactly as I’d imagined, what could possibly be wrong?

Miss S. shyly smiles, avoiding the gaze of the lens.

Miss S. shyly smiles, avoiding the gaze of the lens.

What’s wrong is I’m again not seeing everything in front of me. I said my subject is there and composed exactly how I want it, but usually one’s subject does not fill the frame. There’s a background there, and it’s so easily overlooked. One of the easiest non-technical things you can do to get more engaging and interesting photos is to be aware of what’s in the frame besides the subject. If the background completely distracts the viewer from seeing the subject, which is presumably what you want them to see, what have you got? A completely ineffective photograph. It is exposed perfectly, focussed sharply, with beautiful colours, but it’s still a failure.

Look at the two images here. In the top photograph, Miss P. looks away from me. Is she shy? Is it a candid photo? There’s very little in the photo to indicate who she is to me. Also, the depth of field is very shallow, blurring the background and foreground. Her profile is the focus point, drawing your attention. Yet in front of her eyes, right to where your attention is most drawn, there’s a painting in the background. It’s in the worst possible place, and I think ruins the image. Of course the image has great meaning to me because of the circumstance, but you, not knowing who the woman is, look at it from a detached perspective. The intruding picture frame reduces the photo to just a snapshot.

In the bottom image, Miss S. doesn’t want to be photographed so I tell her I’m going to take a photo of her hair. She readily agrees. What makes the photo interesting to me is even though we can see so very little of her face, she’s obviously wearing a big smile. Look at her cheek and chin, and you can easily see it. Sometimes a hint is better than the obvious. I’d like to think this is the case here. She also does have absolutely lovely hair so I’m happy to see it form the bulk of the image. Even still, we see hair, but our eyes seek out her face … and our eyes would have a much easier job of it if the goddamned bookcase didn’t interrupt the background. Even worse, the shadow of the bookcase cuts across the background behind her face, distracting our eye.

In both cases, everything looked great to me through the viewfinder. Only when I returned home and looked at the images blown up on my computer screen did I realise my inattention ruined what should have been very nice photographs. Even on the camera’s LCD, I saw no problems after shooting them! My equipment worked to my advantage in that it’s very easy to blur the background with an SLR. If these images were shot with the typical point-and-shoot digital cameras available today, the backgrounds would’ve been far more focused, making them even more intrusive.

Avoid these problems in your photos. Force your eye to roam over the whole image before you trip the shutter. Not only will you avoid the worst mistakes (like branches and utility poles sprouting out of your subjects’ heads), but you can make sure everything back there works with your subject and not against it. If you see distractions, move the camera or the subject so they won’t appear in the photo. Of course this isn’t always possible, but it usually is. As in real estate, three important things is photography are location, location, and location. The camera’s location, the subject’s location, what’s in the background location, and how they work together to capture the vision you see in your head.

Don’t just look, but make yourself see.

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