#432. To train your photographic vision, exhaust your subjects

By pascaljappy | How-To

Dec 01

No!! not that exhaust, silly …

Motorcycle exhaust in monochrome



πŸ˜‰ One way to work on personal photographic vision is to exhaust subjects completely. And no, I don’t mean that either …


Sleeping beauty

Sleeping beauty


What I really mean is this : we arrive at a location, spot an interesting subject, capture a good photograph and walk away. Mission complete, satisfaction high. End of story, we can move on.

And that’s perfectly fine when we’re out enjoying ourselves and capturing a few moments as we go along.


A haunted house in Provence, photographed with a Zeiss Distagon 35/1.4 ZM and Sony A7rII

Haunted house 1


But, when we’re out practising the difficult art of self-expression, we need to go a few steps further.

Our first image often suffers from at least one these two problems:

(1) It’s made from a convenient place that may not provide the most interesting angle or story. The candy store colours above may not convey the gruesome story of this house in Provence, where it is said that a man hanged himself in 1756 and his ghost still visits the neighbours.

(2) It corresponds to our current state of photographic know-how and preferences. It results from the intuitive process that our previous practise has helped create.

In order to (1) make a better use of the current subject-matter and (2) become better photographers, we need to walk around and make sure there aren’t other interpretations of it.

For instance, this:


A haunted house in Provence, photographed with a Zeiss Distagon 35/1.4 ZM and Sony A7rII

Haunted House 2


In this second view, on the right hand side of the one above, I went for the backlit, low-angle shot that makes the colours less charming and makes the house appearΒ  more towering and menacing. It almost looks like it’s staring at me from above.

Continuing anti-clockwise (this is an evil theme, after all πŸ˜‰ ), we get to this …


Small haunted house in Provence with gnarly tree by its side. Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 35/1.4 ZM

House and tree, no cookie


… and, meh!

As in version 1, the gnarly tree isn’t menacing, and the house is simply that … a house. It’s impossible to anthropomorphize it or feel threatened by it or tell any form of story other than “here’s a small derelict house next to a dead tree”. In fact, it doesn’t even look that derelict, it’s more cute than anything.

So, let’s continue the exploration …

And I like the one below much better. The decrepit nature of the small house is plainly obvious, the tree’s trunk is severely bent and the tortuous branches fall back onto the house, touching the roof as if feeling for life. Even the contrails look like arrows, although that is pure luck.

That version is my keeper for this series (although number 2 is appealing as well). It feels bleaker than the others and there is also much less in the way of the “scary” message. No golden afternoon light, no leafy bush …

Knowing that I like that sort of stark look, the choice of lens was also natural. I used the Distagon 35/1.4 ZM, my fave, which is so transparent and neutral that it takes very little contrast enhancement to make the photograph become a strong visual. I’ll let that one lie for a few days, then will post process the heck out of it in my usual unsuddle manner πŸ˜€ I might also crop the top 10% of the image, which adds very little other than clutter.


A haunted house in Provence, photographed with a Zeiss Distagon 35/1.4 ZM and Sony A7rII

Haunted House 3


Which leads me to … also experiment with post processing.

Walking around a subject gives you different angles, but also different lighting scenarios. So post-processing can lead to very different results.

For example, the first colour shot conveys a different feel to the second two. And the black and white below, while nice, doesn’t work perfectly as there is not enough separation between the house and bushes that hug it.


A haunted house in Provence, photographed with a Zeiss Distagon 35/1.4 ZM and Sony A7rII

Haunted House 1 in Monochrome


Theory is nice, but it’s only by experimenting that we become expert enough to no longer explore every possible framing and post-processing avenue, sticking to those with the most interesting potential. After a while of messy hit-and-miss, we come to develop the vision that guides us much more quickly to the better decisions, both on location and at the computer.

Here’s a final version. A decent middle-of-the-road portrait, where the old tree is masked and the story is no longer menacing but simply about the ruin in its environment. A weaker story, but a pleasant photograph. Capturing different versions of the same subject lets you create different narratives and gradually decide what your photography is all about.



Haunted house and tree 4, monochrome


Try it out and let me know πŸ™‚


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  • scott edwards says:

    So I’m not crazy after all! Gracias, Pascal. Feel like I just hung out on a photo shoot with great satisfaction instead of just walking in from the office, smiling that I have a few hours without chains…

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