A friend of mine just bounced into a photographer’s equivalent of a marathon runner’s wall. That moment when your look at you work and think to yourself ‘Something is missing from my work; I’m no good at this.’ It is probably something that anybody that takes up a creative hobby – or for that matter profession - like art, photography (if you want to distinguish the two), or music, suffers from time to time. Sadly, I also suspect in many cases it does become the death knell for that hobby or profession as well.
Thankfully, said friend already has the mind-set that this should spur him on to improve, but being the interfering git I am, I wanted to offer some encouragement and was mindful of a quote by Imogen Cunningham – “Which of my photographs is my favourite? The one I’m going to take tomorrow.” Now I love my photography, more now than ever before, but I have never been one for remembering great and influential photographers. Ask me who inspires me and it is more likely to be some of my personal friends than the likes of Ansel Adams, Don McCullin, Henri Cartier-Bresson and many more. Consequently, I confess, I had to look up exactly whose quote that was! This inevitably led to me finding and being reminded of many other quotes from famous photographers designed to inspire us. Can the words of a 19th century photographer still cut the mustard?
“It is more important to click with people than to click the shutter.” – Alfred Eisenstaedt 1898 – 1995.
Eisenstaedt famously took the picture of the sailor kissing the girl in Times Square celebrating V-J Day. As for the quote, yes I think that is very true. On the face of it you might think it just relates to shooting people and to an extent that is also true. Since I started producing a lot more portrait work it is very evident that the better the relationship you have with your subject, the better your image will be at an emotive level. I’d argue it does not even stop there though. Do you want to get on a piece of land for that ‘distinctive angle’ or accessible wildlife? If the land-owner does not like you or trust you, then you can probably forget it.
“I think that emotional content is an image’s most important element, regardless of the photographic technique. Much of the work I see these days lacks the emotional impact to draw a reaction from viewers, or remain in their hearts.” – Anne Geddes 1956.
Geddes is known for her distinctive and stylised photographs of babies which often have strong floral content. OMG as the youth would say. This style of photography does not appeal to me – unless there is some money in it – but with a quote like that I think Anne probably jumps to the top of my list of inspiring photographers. This is what it is all about. We quite often criticise ourselves and fail to realise the impact we have on others. We also reject things on a technical level when the subject, or viewer, will not even notice, let alone care about an imperfection. We throw out or ignore what to some may be a beautiful image.
This is not just a photography lesson either. It is funny because my wall hitting photography friend is unhappy with his work, whilst the subject of some of his work, a musician, is elated at the memories the photographer is creating for him. In nearly the same breath the musician is berating his own skills failing to realise the way he and the rest of his band can give you goose pimples where many of the perceived technically perfect bands can leave you cold for all the wrong reasons.
I was recently asked why I enter marked photographic competitions. Well primarily I like to win! Print competitions force me to print my work and not let it languish on the hard-drive. Last year though I stopped trying to find 12 images that followed all the ‘rules’ and started putting in pictures I liked. It didn’t matter if the shadows had no details (that happens in the real world, why not in photos), it didn’t matter if my ‘high-key’ was a judge’s ‘too bright’. The picture is too green? Well guess what, it was shot in a woodland which tends to be, well, green! Does my texture layer add anything to the picture? Well, in my opinion yes otherwise I would not have added it. My purpose here is not upset Judges, I have great admiration for the tough job they do. My point is I stopped trying to chase perfection and, as I mentioned earlier, enjoy my photography now more than I ever have before. I hope that at least some of my work remains in the hearts of people who see it.
“Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.” – Ansel Adams 1902 – 1984
Twelve in my life would be good! My first question though would be significant to whom? Let us put that to one side for now though as we have already discussed other peoples’ perceptions of our work. Ansel did not have the luxury of large memory cards and 14 frames per second shooting speeds and, despite being excited by the prospect of digital photography, would probably not want either of those.
Should we see a proportional rise in good ones though? Well it would be nice wouldn’t it but in reality we just throw a load more away. I am not saying we are all guilty of this but we can easily fall into the trap trying a couple of exposures, doing some exposure bracketing for good measure, zooming out, zooming back in, trying it in landscape format then in portrait format, finally repeating the whole process because there was something in the image we had not seen and did not want. What we should be doing is looking before we go hammering away on the shutter like there is no tomorrow. This, in my opinion, is the one place where traditional film photography wins hands down on the ‘using film makes you a better photographer’ argument. Having 12, 24 or 36 exposures at your disposal possibly for the whole day will certainly focus your mind on how many times you press the shutter.
I do not believe that argument holds water anywhere else. You can learn the principles of photography using either medium if you choose to do so. You do not need a film camera to learn how to use the basic controls of shutter speed, aperture, film or ISO speeds, or even focusing. If you want to learn, take the camera off auto mode and go and take some pictures – loads, experiment, what are you wasting? I have wasted loads of shots trying to get things like high speed flash photography working and watching the effects of varying flash, shutter speed and aperture to understand how they affect the mixture of ambient light and flash.
For landscapes and portraits it is true that we can carefully consider our setup before pressing the shutter but in other areas of photography that is not always so easy – street, stage, wildlife, and reportage spring to mind immediately. In this instance advancements in technology are a God send for capturing ‘the moment’. A mountain is a mountain and is unlikely to move, save for earthquakes, but a guitarist or wild animal will for sure, and a stage light will change when you least expect it to regardless of how carefully you are watching and listening to the action. I can take 400 photographs of a band in one evening, on a good shoot I might deliver 100-150 photographs back to the band, I might even like 1 or 2 of them myself. If I was shooting with film I probably would not get any.
Ansel’s quote, and I admit I have strayed slightly from what I suspect he was alluding to, is not quite so clear cut. Yes, modern cameras have made us lazy and wasteful but they have also given us a better chance of catching ‘the one’.
I didn’t introduce Adams in a similar way to previous photographers because even to non-photographers he is probably recognised as one of the greatest landscape photographers of all time. As such we can probably extend him the courtesy of another quote – You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”
Sometimes, not often, I will post a picture and people will make comments along the lines of they would never have seen that; theirs would never look like that; or how did I make it look like that? Well, believe it or not sometimes I do actually put some thought into what I am taking. I have a myriad of phone applications telling me sunrise and sunset information, tide times, an even just the weather. With my model and portrait work I am now looking to photograph themes and develop styles. In short pressing the shutter is only part of the process. Strangely I have found this even more the case with the model work I have done in the last few years. I could be callous here and say if you are a half decent photographer or even have a good quality camera, you could rock up at a pretty location with some good weather and light, press the shutter and walk off with a landscape you could be proud of with very little skill. You do see it! The reality is though good landscape photographers will research locations; wait for the right weather; carefully evaluate exposure settings and use of filters and accessories, and take their one or two pictures. I do try to do this, it does not mean I get a good photo but I would like to think I get a better one.
The model work though seems to have taken things to a whole different level for me though and is probably why I am currently enjoying it. Take for example my reasonably simple desire to do a ballet style shoot. Pretty straight forward you would think. Get a ballet dancer, stick them in front of the camera with maybe a flash gun or two and fire away. Well, for me it started after seeing a ballet photo and thinking how I would like to replicate it. That’s fine, I do not have an issue with trying to recreate something somebody has done before if for no other reason than to see if I can. But, if you are going to do something like that, it is not worth just taking one photo. This inevitably leads you onto researching the genre and other options. I moved from a single detail shot of ballet shoes into looking at poses and even full dance movement. I use Pinterest to create mood boards for shoots allowing me to ‘pin’ images on the digital equivalent to a wall board. Great, so now I have some ideas but I need a ballet dancer to make them, or at least some of them, reality. I’m registered with a modelling site (not as a model you will be pleased to hear) but not all ballet dancers are made equal! Having found a ballet dancer, I am now looking for locations to shoot in. Some of the ideas work well for a dance or photography studio, some for a nice period building, some even outside. Once I have got the location, I just need to get model and photographer there at the same time and then we can start the actual photography bit!
I have no sense of guilt saying that the making of the photo comes in post-production either. I use a number of photo editing software packages but on the whole do no more than film photographers can do in a darkroom. The processes are no doubt simpler to do digitally, and I have absolute respect for people that master them in film, but they are essentially the same – cropping, dodging and burning light and dark areas to balance the tonal ranges and maybe adding textures. Yes of course you should try and get it right in the camera but sometimes it is not even possible.
Okay, let’s throw in some quick ones to round up with.
“Photography is a love affair with life.” – Burk Uzzle 1938
Uzzle is an American documentary photographer and holds, at the time of writing this, the title of youngest photographer ever to be hired by Life Magazine.
This is a very easy one to relate to. I love being out in a country park, woodland, or shoreline, pre-dawn and waiting for the sun to start lighting early morning frosts or dews. I love just going out and capturing nature. I love working with people to capture portraits or fairy tale like images. I love being able to capture good quality pictures of my family when they are dancing on a stage or just swimming in the sea. I love being able to capture some of those more special pictures on holidays that just pack that extra punch for creating memories. You get the picture.
“Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.” - Don McCullin 1935
McCullin is a documentary photographer especially renowned for his war photos and images of urban and poor lifestyles and I think it is easy to understand why he would say such a thing. Clearly the things he has seen would have had a great impact on him and if you look at his work I think you would feel it too.
Once we start to feel a relationship or an emotion with or for a subject I think we start the process of getting a good photo.
“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson 1908 - 2004
Cartier-Bresson is widely regarded as one of the greatest photographers of all time. He is known as the father of photojournalism, and coined the term ‘The Decisive Moment’.
It would not be too much of a stretch of the imagination to think of 10,000 pictures being nearly a lifetime’s work in respect of shooting with film. However, I have just started ‘trimming down’ the 29,000 images in my Lightroom catalogue and strongly suspect there is scope for Henri to increase his estimate!
“Don’t pack up your camera until you’ve left the location.” Joe McNally 1952
McNally is an internationally acclaimed photographer known for his work with the National Geographic Society and he is not wrong. I have had several missed opportunities because I had put my camera away to walk back to the car. Wildlife has an exceptional ability to know when your camera has gone into your camera bag!
“Of course, there will always be those who look only at technique, who ask ‘how’, while others of a more curious nature will ask ‘why’. Personally, I have always preferred inspiration to information” – Man Ray 1890 – 1976
Ray was a fashion and portrait photographer, active during the Surrealist art movement. His style of photography would have undoubtedly left many asking how and why? I believe there is scope for both questions but I cannot tell from his quote whether that is implied or not. We should ask how if we want to improve our own techniques. Knowing how something is done and using that knowledge is not the same as copying it. Why was the photo taken, is quite often something I ask myself when looking at some work – sadly in the context of ‘Why did you bother?’ Flippancy aside, asking why before taking a photo may not be a bad idea. What is it you think you can see in the image?
“Only photograph what you love.” – Tim Walker 1970
Walker is a British fashion photographer whose work has been in titles such as Vogue. That’s all well and good and certainly don’t photograph things you hate but how will you even know if you love something new?
So, where do we stand with the quote that started all this, which of my photographs is going to be my favourite? Will it be the one I’m going to take tomorrow? Oh, I certainly hope so – I must start improving soon surely?