This content sharing contest came at a fortuitous time; for a while, I had posted essays on books. I let that lapse because I decided to spend more time on photography. Like many others, I have opinions and have wanted to jump back into writing. Great thing for Photography Life to ask for guest posts!
Recently, I have come realize that Mike Johnston’s phrasing of photography as its own thing, is a profound statement of an approach and appreciation of the craft. He has a whole recent series on it at The Online Photographer. At the very least, it is something that appealed greatly to me.
I have been shooting, ever since I was a teenager. I wish I can pinpoint the precise moment when I developed this interest. I suppose I drew well enough (although I didn’t really keep maintaining that interest), but it wasn’t out of any progression of my artistic sensibility that I arrived at photography. I can say, however, that I have always felt an affinity for photography. My first photography book, when I was a teen, was “The Complete Kodak Book of Photography”. I thought the range of subjects was fascinating, but the images captured life. Although the book touched a little about feel, it was basically about how to shoot the best documentary photos you can. Something that not only provided a memento, but perhaps might also engage the poor sap you’ve roped into perusing your album.
For some reason, I had always approached photography as yet another artistic tool. Again, I can’t pinpoint this, but I seized on this idea that photography can capture a viewer’s attention the same way a painting from an Old Master does. I can say now that there are a few photographers who create such images. The pictures just hit all cylinders; superbly composed, developed/processed, with a depth of emotion and bears us projecting a story onto it. This is a difficult task, to be sure. I’ve only encountered a few of those on 500px (the vast majority are simply good enough for a like).
The problem is that many people beg to differ. This comes through in a variety of ways: we do it to ourselves when we chase gear as a means to improvement. We get it from our spouses and friends when they conclude that they could have gotten the same shot, were they there. We assume straight-out-of-camera images as the pinnacle of the craft, which suggests that we are pulling to the documentarian / verite approach to photographing.
I will use my wife as an example; I don’t think she cares too much for the idea of photography as an expressive medium. She grew up around photographers, and to her, it’s no mystery what it is used for: to capture a moment in time. She’s had a fair number of (good) portraits; her mom is also a good photographer, and they had family friends who did professional work. Her mom also took good shots of my wife and her sister, when they were kids.
In this scenario, she (and any other family photosnapper) is expressing a desire to create a memory. In this case, the mentality might approach photojournalism more than anything. This intersects with editing and framing as contributing to how we document: the majority of snapshots are geared for reminding us of the good times. Hence, we edit through rose-tinted glasses, in the expectation of creating something that will help us rejoice, reminisce, and feel nostalgia.
The point is that this approach equates, in most people’s minds, to moments being captured. This line of thinking quickly leads us to photography as a simple recording tool, like a stenographer’s pad. Users need a tool that can get the job done right. When people ask me for camera advice, the goal is to take pictures of their kids. They settle on a DSLR mainly due to focus performance and shutter response.
If we want to use photography as more than a life-capturing device, we need to focus on the entire process. And this is something that I just don’t see talked about in the forums dedicated to teaching the craft photography. I read about gear, like all of you. I read and enjoy learning new post-processing techniques. I do not really see people describing an entire process of making an image. Usually, an honest attempt to talk about the process as a whole are contained within books (Bruce Barnbaum and Ibarionex Perello come to mind), and from what I’ve seen, these books aren’t included in the common language of the forums.
Here’s what I mean: any number of photography blogs will tell you to not focus on the gear and that it’s the photographer that makes the difference. Yes, that’s strictly true, but that’s where it stops. Here’s another way of looking at it: how often do you go on a foodie website thinking about pots and pans? What you do think about is meal planning. Is it for a dinner party? Is it for a romantic dinner for two? Is it for a family dinner on a weekday? Do you go with a 5 course French meal for your guests? Do you want to impress your date with paella, with an bottle of tempranillo? Or is it a shellfish fra diavolo to add a little kick to a quiet night in with the spouse, after dropping off the kids at their grandparents? Are you interested in smoking some ribs?
The purpose of the meal is determined first, followed by finding the recipe, ingredients, and tools. This goes without saying for other crafts. In photography, it still seems to be driven by technology as a primary consideration; we usually don’t think in terms of aligning our tools to the effect we want.
Let me be clear, I am not saying something trivial like, use a 28mm lens for street photography. I’m saying that even within a genre dominated by a specific form of gear, it might make some sense to step back and consider how that gear might shape more than just the “look” of the image and in turn the statement you wish to make.
It is rare indeed to hear photos planned in the same way as a simple weekday meal. We don’t usually talk about what we want to show or express. It’s usually about the location and time, then something about getting the shot right (tripod and closing down the aperture), and then post processing (but not to much, because SOOC is ideal.) It’s assumed that the landscape is good, in and of itself.
It could be, of course; if you want to capture Adams-esque majesty, go right ahead. That’s a worthy goal. At the same time, don’t you get the feeling every photographer takes that approach? I know I take the same approach. It’s more work to think about some compelling new idea and a new way to show it.
There’s too much “I’ll take it when I see it”, not enough, “I have this idea that I want to express. Let’s put me in the best position to actualize my vision.” Frankly, we don’t spend enough time thinking about our vision.
Don’t get me wrong; a large part of photography is about capturing that “Stop! I gotta do something with this scene…” feeling that we all get. I’m simply talking about truly thinking on an image as a part of a whole photographic process. Everything from location, view, angle, light, timing, gear and post-processing. Surely we all have ambition to create something iconic?
I still do a lot of shoot first, worry about the rest of the steps later. Part of the issue is that I’m still learning the vernacular. I post on 500px, and I use a lot of those photographers as inspiration. Admittedly, I don’t see much street photography there, but there is a wealth of technically spot on beauty pieces. I also love the fantasy/surreal-fashion shots, high-fashion shots, Photoshop composites, landscapes, abstracts, macros, florals, wildlife, architecture (hmmm… what don’t I like!) shots seen on 500px. I think it is good to be able to hit those high-points before going my own way.
To a large degree, I understand that shot-planning is a large component – you have to be there to take the picture. I think non-photographers fail to appreciate how much digital photography has placed the idea of “negative” development back in the hands of the shooter. Film technology had been geared to simplifying things for the shooter, but film was tangible and visually different from the final product such that people still associate it with some alchemical process. Even they can understand that there is an obviously involved process to turn that negative to a photo.
Digital technology simplifies and hides the difficulties. The simplicity of it causes a disconnect for the user. They generally do not appreciate the coding that underlies image processing, the fact that their cameras are photolabs, and that to a large extent their vision is interpreted by engineers at Sony, Fuji, Nikon, Canon, Olympus, and Instagram.
Nothing wrong with that, but the process is discounted; it’s point, shoot, and apply a filter. It is that idea which is at odds with photography as a worthwhile expressive medium. I’m not sure how to combat it, since, in a way, they are right. The automated process can, in a technical way, achieve what we do in post. By their nature, the phone camera encourages snaps, and so long as you captured what you wanted, that’s fine! That’s exactly what people would shoot with their DSLRs anyway!
My guess is that, as the capabilities of phone cameras increase, it might get to a point where they have tripods, lens attachments, interval and long exposure capability… oh, wait. At the very least, they will begin to take the same care as the rest of us, to achieve a vision. Do create something new; to think and express thoughts in new ways. Which is basically my point. That’s the zone I want to be in, regardless of the camera I’m holding.
Let’s see how well I take my own advice: again, I’m not saying that I hit my ideal well, nor are all the photos taken with intent good. It’s just that we don’t talk about deep ideas that led us to take the shot; mostly we stay on the technical problems.
The easiest examples to discuss are shots that you want in black and white. I have 2 examples of this; both are well-trod subjects. The first is the Stata building of MIT, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, designed by Frank Gehry. It is an obvious photographic subject.
At the time, I was thinking of tonal abstraction to emphasize the odd geometry (umm… not that unique a goal, and not a “big idea”… but still…). That led me to think black and white. I wanted to avoid harsh lines and shadows, since the building had enough to spare. I went with morning because the sun would be behind the complex. Here’s already the first lie to my piece: while I was there, I couldn’t help but be entranced by the surprising amount of color on the metal. It was irridescent, with blues and oranges glancing off the surface. Naturally, I took other shots to emphasize the color. For this B&W shot, I wanted to emphasize tones; I wasn’t sure how much detail I would want in the shadows (I was in a high-contrast-liquid-black phase in my B&W style). So I probably didn’t expose to the right (although, generally, why not?). The post processing walked a fine line between too much and too little contrast. All the tonal variations you see there are natural; I did not do local dodge/burn. There’s obviously a lot of global fine-tuning once in Photoshop, but I felt that in gross terms, I was at least aware of what I had to do from shot-planning to post.
The second shot is another bucket list style shot. Here, I knew what I wanted, a street shot that also featured the full-of-character building facades in Manhattan. Again, I wanted something in B&W (whether you feel it is an homage or rip-off, copy or enough original features, is for another discussion). A large part of my photographic life, to date, is to show that I can make some of the images that inspire me. Street photography inspires me, but it is hard to make an impactful and excellent piece.
I do have an idea of the type of shot I want, and I knew I wanted high-contrast, amenable to bright whites and liquid blacks. The last bit was definitely luck (although I made it a point to wait): a pedestrian walked by, and I waited until he was centered before shooting. Tough to say if this can be a project, but my gut feeling is that people walking by geometrically arrayed background could be something worth revisiting. My hesitation is whether I am able to add enough quirks to enough images to avoid straight repetition. But in the end, it appears that depth in photography really might be achievable by photoessays.
Here are two more shots, and the thinking behind them. When the family went away to New Hampshire on a long weekend, I started planning some shots I wanted. Luckily, the wife planned this one by lakeside, in autumn. I was hoping for some dramatic sunrise reflection shots. So yes, there is what I wanted, and then there’s how I adapted to the parameters at hand. Nothing special; I’ve seen spectacular photos on 500px. The only question was whether I can execute.
The day began in fog, but I was prepared for something Zen and comtemplative, since I checked the weather reports prior to the trip. After the shot, I muted the colors in post, stressing the tones in the scene to bring out the structure of fog. The scene was calm, soothing, and really lent itself to contemplating nature and beauty; I definitely hoped to have captured that feeling.
The last image is of the Christian Scientist Church and reflecting pool, situated behind the Prudential Center in Boston. I had wanted to shoot this type of architectural reflection shot for a long time. The idea was simple; I wanted some different views of Boston. I see a lot of tourist images; there are the usual historical sites, usually shot during the day. Bright and colorful. There are the usual set of sunrise/sunset shots. I wanted to make my shots of Boston evoke someplace more exotic than what it is: a small city somewhere between NYC in importance and Paris for beauty. I wanted a different take on Boston.
Interestingly enough, despite the large buildings and great expanses of brick walkways, I wanted to hushed and intimate view of this area. I needed to fill in the space. Umm.. yes, easy enough, with the pool of water. Supposedly, tourists tend to argue that Boston is a fairly European city; I wanted to evoke precisely that: romance by association with Europe (Hollywood movies: lovers either fall in love in New York or Paris, or on a trip to a quaint, picturesque little village in Europe), and water helps.
I am not saying this is a unique shot (I haven’t seen, but I’m certain there’s a similar shot inside the gift shop). But at the same time, this isn’t what people first think when they think of Boston. I knew I was successful when people, who work down the street from this building, asked me where this was. A few comments – granted, I need to take them with a grain of salt – thought that I nailed that “somewhere in Europe” vibe.
The technical bits were simple: geometric symmetry at blue hour. These are shots that are not made often by tourists or people in a rush: blue hour is usually dinner time. So the number of people milling about tends to peter out. I did want to do something technically interesting, with the goal of matching exposure of the reflection to the building. I knew where the sun set; I have a bunch of high-key architectural details, but this was the primary one I wanted. Even exposure, top to the bottom, processed to minimize the highlights of the lamps and to bring out architecture details. Dusk and dawn are nice times to shoot, if only because of easier balance between natural and man-made light.
I am not afraid to say this: I think I am a good photographer – in the context of all people who use cameras, everywhere. I am also not afraid to admit that, compared to a site like 500px, good isn’t good enough. Good is simply the norm, the average, on that site, which is where I feel I am on 500px.
So what would take me to the next step? Framing is one; framing makes the mundane sparkle anew. A good photographer chases light and understands quality of light. A great photographer can use the light available to extract the best shot. Putting subjects at ease (for portraiture and street photography) is another area for improvement. Probably better integration with post-processing (i.e. digital “negative” development) – full understanding of the drawback of each routine used, and how to shoot to best extract quality from these different routines.
I think a lot of advice is shorthand for having a shot concept in place. Even in going back over my shot process, I understand there is a fair amount of deviation from my intentions. Going back to the cooking analogy: there is certainly room for improvisation if there is a fantastic looking bit of produce worth incorporating. Sure, one can always go food shopping without a plan for a meal. My thinking is that, to become consistently good, it helps to form some plan so that creativity has constraints to push against. Think of it as pre-shot editing. Choosing a sensor size, lens, filters, already limits the range of things you can do. How will you fulfill your vision given these tools? Focusing on the entire process – location, lighting, the gear, and the post-processing – should give anyone the potential to achieve artistic expression, creating something unique, striking, and resonating for the viewer.
This guest post was submitted by Dr. Man Ching Cheung, a clinical engineer working at Bringham and Women’s Hospital. You can see more of Dr. Man Ching Cheung’s work on his 500px page.