#599. When what you get is more than what you see …

By philberphoto | Opinion

May 26

When I shoot a subject, it is obviously because, with my eyes open, “I see something in it”. Then I look at the subject again through either the viewfinder or the LCD. And there a first culling happens, when this second look is disppointing, and a dead end.

Then, if I am still hopeful, I shoot it.

Second culling when I look at the results in the VF. Some subjects that just looked good before I shot them don’t any more in picture form.

The third culling takes place in front of my computer. Whatever happened to the shot that  survived the first 2 culllings and looked good on the LCD? In somes cases, they are just not that good (I am not talking about technical flaws, likes missed focus, but aesthetic ones).

I am sure many of you go through a similar process, but this is not what I writing about at this time, it is the opposite.

Sometimes, not that rarely actually, I open a picture on my screen and, -Wow!-  unexpected beauty unfolds! Sometimes it is straight out of the camera, and sometimes after processing. I don’t mean by that that they are “better than others”, but rather that they are a surprise, a positive, even very positive surprise. Which puts my process in question : Am I really in control of what I am doing?

This leads to a strange feeling, that of having captured a beauty that I didn’t even “know” -consciously that is- was there. So, if I didn’t know it was there, whom should credit go to? Chance, luck, whatever you care to call it? My subconscious? Pascal, after his having made me into his zombie-slave? A higher being? (no wait, the last two are the same, right?).

Many instances of such beauty “appearing out of, if not nowhere, at least the unexpected and unintended” come from PP.

The most obvious way in which this happens is cropping. Especially with high-resolution and high quality sensors, a deep crop, between 50% and 100% will show what was until then drowned in the overall picture. And some of it can be both beautiful and unexpected.

The second way is vignetting. I can already get rid of quite a bit of background with liberal use of bokeh. Vignetting gives me the ability to black out the rest. This focuses the picture in a way which changes from the “full-image” look, and creates a mystery as to what is actually taking place in all that dark space…

The third way is orientation. Sometimes you take a shot one way, because that is how your camera lets you best do it, but you want to look at it another way, and then the overall look changes.

Then you can use image-modification techniques. High-key, selective treatment, colour changes. Sometimes, it is the bokeh that “makes” the picture in a way I didn’t expect. Sometimes the effect of a longer exposure, very different from the way in which the eye “sees”. Sometimes the switch to black-and-white.

And sometimes it is simply the little “something” that happened just as my finger pressed the trigger, like the cloud over the Taj Mahal…

I could go on and on, but I won’t (whew!). My purpose, in concluding, is twofold. First, does this happen to you too? Do you find unexpected treasure? And, even more improtant, how do you (and I) fully mine what shots we have to reveal all that hidden beauty that we don’t even know is there?


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  • Fabrizio Giudici says:

    Yes, it happens to me too, all that sort of stuff. It also happens that sometimes I review old photos, already rated, and all of a sudden one that I rated as mediocre looks very good – it “pops” as very good, a thing that doesn’t involve a rational re-evaluation of the image qualities, but happens in an flash revelation – I think also in English you say an “epiphany”.

    Of course, often the opposite happens, that is I downrate old photos; but this makes sense, it’s expected because my aesthetic perception and shooting technique (hopefully) improve. It’s uprating that surprises me.

  • John Wilson says:

    In the same vein as Fabrizio, yes it happens to me constantly. Fortunately, things are not static. Our skills change (hopefully improve), our tools change and our sense of aesthetics change as well. There have been images that have sat in the file for years because I had neither the skills, tools or aesthetic literacy to resolve them, until one day “… hmm. What if I did this …” and bingo! Sometimes I fall down a “rabbit hole” and discover a whole new universe. My latest rabbit hole is using blend modes to recycling images I thought were OK into something completely new … at least for me … and a whole new visual and aesthetic adventure. In the final analysis, how you achieved an image may be a convoluted journey and an interesting war story to share; all that really matters is the final image and how you feel about it.

  • Dave says:

    This is what makes photography so interesting. Thanks for the good article.

  • Danny Burk says:

    Funny, I was thinking the very same yesterday. I like to pretend that I know what I’m going to get, but it happens too often that the result is a surprise. More often that not, a rude surprise, but occasionally a pleasant one.

    Some of this, I suspect, comes from the fact that I’m still not 100% comfortable using “small format”. I shot 4×5 for many years and only converted to digital in mid-2015. It’s been a big learning curve in so many ways…new ways of seeing, learning characteristics of lenses, using one eye through a tiny peephole instead of two eyes viewing a ground glass, and infinitely more. One of the most important revelations came only last year, with the discovery that not everything has to be in focus! I’ve now turned from a “large format everything-must-be-sharp” mindset to a bokeh fiend. Now everything must be soft…well, almost everything. The old me would be shocked. The new me is shocked that I actually like it!

    I mainly treat my A7RII as a mini view camera…always manual focus (and none of these new-fangled autofocus lenses, mind you!), slow and meticulous composition, and nearly always on tripod. From my reading here (love the site, BTW), I know that most or all of you will nod in agreement with manual lens choices…another Zeiss fanatic here. I loathe 3:2 aspect ratio and compose for 4:5, 3:4, or square. With all this effort put into the image, you’d think that results would be fully predictable…but the photo gods think otherwise! I do find the occasional serendipitous result by cropping differently than planned, which usually accounts for that rare pleasant surprise mentioned above…

  • Mark Muse says:

    Clear your mind. Your subconscious sees. Trust your intuition. Be curious and shoot as much as you can. As you work you will bring to the surface these ‘surprises’ to incorporate into your style and ability to see. If you are fortunate it will be a never ending process.

  • Sean says:

    It’s not what you look at, it’s what you see.

  • jean pierre {pete} guaron says:

    Down to the last of your comments, before your photo of the brontosaurus skeletons, Pascal, this is surely a common plight for all photographers, no matter how clever, and no matter what gear they’re using. Skill and selection of the most appropriate gear might reduce the impact of it, but it’s surely still there, always, for all of us. I’ve even seen a “review” recently of one of Ansell Adams’ most famous paintings, where he ran into problems of a similar nature and “reworked” a large section of the photo in making his final print.

    The rest of your comments reflect on the nature of the transition from what we are photographing, to the processes involved in transforming it into a two dimensional image inside our cameras.

    No matter how clever a photographer is, and no matter what the gear, none of us is in complete control of all of those processes.

    If we’re shooting in colour, there are zillions of different colours in the real world – which we capture using just 3 colours. If we’re shooting B&W, the colours vanish and the result is heavily dependent on our knowledge – and the application of our knowledge – on tints, ie shades of grey.

    We’re all urged to plan our shots better, but I’d bet money on this statement – nobody can claim they always plan their shots so that no cropping is necessary (ie, no cropping would improve their shots). Apart from any other consideration, most cams have a set format (2:3. 4:5 or whatever) and the world doesn’t.

    That said – we do need to give proper thought to our shots. I found one shot that I took about 2 years back in Place du Trocadero was OK, but! – and suddenly saw the real shot, inside it. A quick snip, and it turned from fair average to a really good shot. Unfortunately that costs, in terms of image quality, because none of us is shooting with 16inch by 20inch collodion glass plates like two of my great-great-uncles used in the 19th century for their photography. And if you snip too much from even a full frame DSLR, you’re reducing the effective size of your sensor and the MP rating substantially.

    Still – images DO pop out at you, after you press the shutter button. And if you are happily chimping away, you can often get that cropped image on the spot, using the first attempt to fine tune your work. Yes I know it’s heresy, but a little bit of heresy from time to time does wonders for our profession/pastime/hobby and I don’t suppose it qualifies for entry to the portal labelled “Abandon all hope ye who enter here”.

    • jean pierre {pete} guaron says:

      Sorry Philippe – I’ve done it again – YOUR photo of the brontosaurus! Suffering from jet lag, and not paying attention 🙂

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