I would hazard a guess that most working photographers will tell you that talent has very little to do with a successful photograph. Somewhere along the way, you've probably heard the words “Genius is one per cent talent and ninety-nine per cent hard work.” It's that hard work that brings about good photography. Let's explore the roles that effort and perseverance play in our photography today.
Let's start this discussion by asking ourselves when was the last time that the first image we took was the exact expression of an idea that we had envisioned. I'll be honest and say that it hasn't happened since I first began photography. In those days, the fact that I was able to focus the camera or make a photograph in low light were enough to make me believe I had succeeded. However, my demands on my images have risen, and my craft has had to follow. The only thing is, my craft always seems to lag behind and I see this a lot in others as well. I'm sure many of you can relate.
I began thinking quite deeply about this topic after running the Central Vietnam tour with Pics of Asia last year. Quite a few of our participants would see a beautiful scene, make a few images, and give up as if they could never make the image that was in their mind. I worked through several images with different participants who were on the verge of giving up on a composition. Invariably, sticking with it and attempting to photograph the scene in different ways led them to images that expressed what they had initially seen. That expression just needed work before it came to life.
I have been working full time as a photographer now for almost six years. I have seen my technical and artistic abilities wax and wane, contract and expand so many times now. The moment I think I have something figured out, my desire for better images outpaces my craft and I start all over again. I believe, on a smaller scale, that this happens with every image we consciously make. The image starts with an idea or inspiration and must be worked in order to result in something we are satisfied with. Let's look at some ways that I make use of myself and offer to my workshop participants for solving the issue of expression.
Why Did You Stop?
This is one of the first steps I take when I'm struggling to express what I see. I take a metaphorical step back and ask myself what made me stop walking and begin to make an image. I find that my workshop participants struggle the most with this part. They've seen something that amazes them, but they struggle to express it visually. Usually, they're providing too much or too little context or not waiting for a moment. To solve this, I ask them to consider what made them stop, and then consider what is important in conveying that to their viewer.
I spent a good 20 minutes trying to pick out characters in Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi before realizing that it was simply the chaos of the place that had made me stop. By redirecting my energy to what I initially felt, I was able to pick out people who were working quickly, moving goods from place to place. This gave me a new focus and eventually led me to slow shutters and panning to express the scene. We'll talk in the next section a little more about how a place feels.
What Does That Feel Like?
The next logical step after defining what it was that made you want to make an image is to define how it makes you feel. By doing so, you're then able to consider how you could communicate that feeling to your viewer. In this way, you're able to deliberately create images that express what you want them to.
In this example, I absolutely loved the texture of the wall and chair. However, that alone wouldn't carry the feeling of the place. The constant traffic of the streets of Varanasi is what I felt from the place. Every time I knelt down to make this image, I had to stand up and move as a motorcycle, passer-by, or even a goat would be trying to get through the alley. So, I waited until I had just the right passer by to complete my image. In this case, the color combination and the bare feet of a local religious man conveyed the feeling of the place far better than a simple texture.
Change your Position
Changing your physical position is a great way to work a scene for a better expression than what you're seeing currently. By moving around a subject, you are also changing the background and light that your camera will see. Not only that, but moving closer or farther away also changes how a subject is rendered in relation to its foreground and background. This combination of factors can result in very different expressions of the same subject very quickly.
With this example here, I was drawn immediately to the old man sitting in front of the closed shutters. The grittiness of them and the characters on the wall spoke Hong Kong to me, but the resulting image was very two-dimensional. I wanted something more to give you a sense of space. So, I took a few steps back and noticed a bicycle that I could photograph through. It took only a few frames to get my composition and depth-of-field the way I wanted them before I could simply wait for the man to give me some sort of expression.
Switch Focal Lengths
One of the more insidious boundaries to getting the image you want, especially for beginner photographers, is that the focal length you're using simply doesn't express what you're feeling. It can be tough to recognize this at first and so I always hint to my participants that there may be another lens that would express their feeling better.
In this image of the Taj Mahal, I was working at 65mm on the GFX 50R and making a panorama that expressed the beautiful light that was hitting this ancient monument to love. However, I realized that it simply wasn't my experience of the place. I had come around to the other side of the Yamuna River to express the building from that side, but wasn't at all entertaining that perspective. So, I decided to switch to a focal length that would express where I was an how far away the Taj Mahal actually felt from here. For this job, I switched to my trusty Laowa 9mm f/2.8. Finally, after considering why I wanted this frame, how I felt, and changing my position, the focal length gave me a composition that I am quite happy with.
Arriving at a great, or even a good, photograph takes effort and perseverance. Very rarely to photographers get a great image on their first press of the shutter button. Just look at the famous book, Magnum Contact Sheets, for a whole book about this idea. Giving up a composition because you're unable to immediately express what you want is a defeatist way to approach photography and will rarely, if ever, result in successful photographs. Spend the time to work on your compositions and you'll see great improvements in the images you make.
Although I'm looking at examples of candid photography here and discussing this in terms of finding compositions, you can apply these ideas to any form of photography. Rather than the found subject being physically in front of you, consider that as your idea. By doing this, you can apply these same thoughts to, for example, a studio fashion photograph.
We've talked about considering what made you want to make an image, how it feels, and a couple of ways to explore your compositions. What other ways could we change our approach in order to solve the issue of a composition that doesn't seem to work for us?