Last week I did a Program for the New Orleans Photographic Society. The talk was on the Role of the Photographer versus the role of the Camera. I though I would write it up as a blog post as well.
I've been doing photography full time since April 2000, in that time I've created a lot of Good images, some Very Good images and very few if any great images. I've been spending some time reflecting about what a great image is and how to go about making them.
Tell a story, connect with their viewer, and convey a feeling, mood, or emotion. Looking at timeless photographs from photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson or Ansel Adams, the photograph put you into the place through their eyes, you can definitely understand their feelings looking at their work.
What it takes
It seems to me there are three things a photographer must do, have, or master to create great images:
- The skill of visualizing the final result prior to taking the picture
- A Great deal of Luck
- Practice and Preparation
"Visualization is the conscious process of Projecting the final photographic image in the mind before taking the first step in actually photographing the subject."
This is a photograph of the Old Man in the Mountain in New Hampshire. On many of my fall trips into New Hampshire I often noticed this Iconic landmark to the West of Route 3. I awoke very early one morning (around 2am) and thought about how sunlight would strike the mountain and put only the face into sunlight. I loaded my truck with my camera bodies and my 300 f2.8 lens and arrived in time to capture what I thought about hours earlier.
This is one of the first times I remember thinking about the result I wanted and being able to select the time of day, lens, film and camera settings to capture what I thought about many miles away hours before.
Developing this skill enables the photographer to create a body of work fitting within their vision.
“Of course it’s all luck.”
– Henri Cartier-Bresson
This is a shot of a Juvenile Forked-Tailed Flycatcher. Native to Mexico and Central America, I photographed this one in Massachusetts. During the Spring and Summer I rarely missed a Sunday Morning at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. Normally arriving at the parking lot of Hellcat Swamp around dawn I would find very few cars. This Sunday morning the parking lot was full. Getting my equipment out and setup, one of the people with spotting scopes said he's over there. I asked who is over there. The Forked-Tailed Flycatcher was the answer. I spent that morning trying to get good shots of the bird, and only managed to get some shots with the bird small in the frame. I came back the next week and spent the time on the trail having similar luck. I came back to the truck and started to pack away the gear, looked up and there he was in the tree above the truck. I managed to get quite a few very nice photographs.
Of Course in Nature Photography you can increase the odds of getting a good shot by constantly being in the field and by knowing what to expect. But the greatest shots are often those that are unexpected.
Practice and Preparation
“If I have any ‘message’ worth giving to a beginner it is that there are no short cuts in photography.” – Edward Weston
“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
Practice and preparation are in my opinion the most important things a photographer can do to increase the odds of creating a great photograph. In his book "Outliers", Malcolm Gladwell, makes the case that anyone can master almost anything as long as they are willing to devote 10,000 hours to learning the subject. While one can certainly quibble one way or the other with the number of hours, there is no doubt the photographers best work comes when they have practice enough that they are one with the camera.
In the book "Talent is Overrated", Geoff Colvin goes one step further and says that great performance in any field is a result of deliberate practice where the person analyzes their weaknesses and designs a practice routine to overcome those weaknesses. The best in any field will seek out feedback from those they trust and demand and accept brutal honesty on where they need to improve, and then go about designing a routine to address the issues.
The Role of the Camera
There is no doubt todays cameras enable a photographer to create work he was unable to create in the past. high resolution, high iso sensitivity with low noise, great autofocus systems, etc. all have an impact on what can now be done.
That said, many of my better images were take with older cameras that lacked many of the refinements with todays cameras. Not to mention photographs of the masters taken long before the digital revolution.
Lessons & Exercises
1. Make the best use of what you have and only upgrade when there is something you need to do can't be done with the equipment at hand.
2. Spend more time with the camera and less time looking at equipment. Create self assignments that push the boundaries of your ability.
3. Practice visualizing photographs you wan to create and do your best to create that shot.
4. Try shooting with a minimum of equipment. Take only what you need and use some ingenuity to create shots rather than relying on the equipment.