Not a day goes by without a blog post or video describing tips, rules or techniques to make better photographs. 99.9% miss the mark, and it’s not always their fault. Here’s how to use them better.
Disclaimer: The following is purely based on personal experience and isn’t sanctioned by any of the official schools of arts / photography, not even by any self-respecting author in yer average bookshop 😉 So, if you find my photographs interesting, here’s how I make them. If not … caveat lector 😉
My passion, in photography, lies largely with composition. My guess is that storytelling is my real passion, and composition is photography’s main (only?) tool for real storytelling. Most other aspects can inform, document, set a mood, but don’t tell a story created from scratch in the photographer’s mind.
So, I’ve looked at *a lot* of books, blog posts, magazine articles and videos about composition. Most, frankly, are utter tosh, repeating one after the other information created for painting in the 19th century (remember painting is an additive process, where you create from scratch, and photography is a subtractive process in which you eliminate from the frame anything that doesn’t serve your story) and serving up information that can only confuse the poor soul trying to apply it in real life in a moving scene. Golden spiral in street photography, anyone? C’mon, be serious 😉 Here’s what I propose instead.
If you were going to start a business building robotic dogs for Elon Musk and his pals as company on their martian colony, would you focus 90% of your training efforts on learning to type faster? Or even on mastering Excel? Probably not. I’m guessing robotics and psychology would be the priority.
So why are so many photographers obsessing over the latest photoshop layer blending mode or similarly arcane feature that not one of the 1000 most famous photographers in history have any clue it even exists? Remember that “management” story about fitting big stones, small stones and sand into a jar? If you start with the sand, there’s no more room for the big stones. Start with the big stones, then the littl’ans and the sand will find a spot in the negative space in between.
What are the big stones of photography? It depends on your priorities, I guess. But composition is definitely up there. As is collecting the photographs of others. I have a folder with thousands of photographs downloaded from the web (including 6000px wide files left unattended by crazy galleries that dishonest people could print or mint as NFTs …, rant over) that serve as a reference for my tastes. This evolves over time but constantly trains my eye to styles, use of colour, composition. Post processing is also important. Not the type that relies on some guy’s 20 layer formula on sale at £59.99, but the important principles (global first, local second). And, on that front, let me reiterate that Ansel Adam’s trilogy will take you further than most uni degrees (which, on the other hand, will also tell you why you love the photographs of others, see above, and will provide feedback, see below). Gear? Yep. Understanding depth of field, compression, perspective. Again, let me refer you to Mr Adams, whose books cover this and will free you of FOMO marketing forever 🙂
This is hard. Really hard, because it’s deeply personal and mostly unspoken. We create stories in our minds without them ever reaching the threshold of consciousness. So, how do you analyze those stories? In retrospect. See below.
Storytelling is difficult because it’s a soft science, with every non specialist on the planet freely handing out his flaky two cents. But it’s important to be able to draw a line between the technique of storytelling, and the introspective work of knowing the types of stories that appeal to us. There are common narrative plotlines, such as the hero’s journey (writing and filmmaking’s equivalent of our rule of thirds: used, overused and abused). But most are totally worthless for photography. There are major differences between the storytelling capabilities of artforms that develop through time and photography. I wrote three posts on the topic, starting with this one.
The most common story in photography is “look at this”. The photograph below is one example. Look at this statue. That’s it. Why I chose to photograph and show this statue says stuff about me, it isn’t a story. The statue is one of three standing just opposite Casa Bozo, at 10 Downing Street, London. The English’s fascination with war always surprises me, after 50 years of regular visits. Films, books, artwork, statues … I don’t know of many other democracies so obsessed with war and soldiers. That’s why I took this photograph. But it doesn’t tell a story other than “look at this statue”.
That is the mistake many amateurs make: the confusion between their motivation for taking a photograph and the story told by the photograph. Both are valid reasons for taking a photograph!! I’m not judging. If you photograph to document, or for yourself, motivations are essential, and you should do your very best to understand them. If you photograph to communicate with others, story is what matters. So, if you’re hoping to convey something and get applauded by others, beware of the curse of knowledge. Assume the viewer knows nothing of what’s in your head and ask yourself what the photograph, standing by itself, tells them. I’ve already broken this rule by telling you my motivations. Without those, would you find the above photograph rich in storytelling? Probably not, although it could still speak to you if you were personally interested in soldiers, statues, trees … This, in itself, could create a bridge between you (viewer) and me (author), but it is not a story. It can, however evoke something in you. That’s less directive than telling a story (through elaborate composition), but can let you start your own story in your mind.
So, if you want to create powerful photographs, understand which actually tell a story, which are evocative and which were triggered by inner motivation that can be powerful to you, but likely not to others. The latter is typically my type of photography, so I’m not dissing that. Just understand the difference between the three. I’d wager that, on the web, in forums or dedicated websites, if 1 photo actually tells a story, 10 are evocative and 100 are personal (and 1000 are totally random acts of snapping).
This is the kicker. It’s by far the simplest step and the most powerful!
However, simple doesn’t mean easy, as most of us erect powerful mental blocks around the notion of feedback. Case in point: multiple readers asked me to provide a space to send in a photograph for peer-review. When I made this possible, not a single photograph was sent!!! This, in spite of DearSusan being one of the safest places on the web to seek feedback. That’s the first reason why I recommend you provide feedback for yourself rather than seek the feedback of others.
The second reason is more important. Seeking feedback from others is a brilliant way to make progress, IF those providing the feedback are masters themselves. That’s a big IF and is what I was offering – through gallery and museum curators – in the layer cake workshop (which didn’t sell, go figure 😉 ) More often than not, feedback from others is not that useful. Thankfully, you have permanent access to someone that may not be a master, but is becoming one and is better than you: your intuition.
So, let your photographs sit for a few days, a week, whatever it takes for you to forget the excitement of the moment you took them. Then, just review them and set aside those you like (not for the memory, but for the photograph itself) Don’t analyze, just pick your faves. They probably won’t be those you expected when making them, and that’s fine.
Then, just review those faves and try to get a glimpse of why you like them. Don’t force it. If nothing comes, that’s OK. But for a few, maybe you’ll recognize that you nailed depth of field. Or that the framing reminds you of one of those in that folder of great pics made by others. Or that the colours are so lovely. Or that you accidentally overexposed and the sky looks sooo nice. Or that, wow, you see something in it you hadn’t seen in the original scene. Or that the use of a vertical frame was really a good idea. Or that the overcast light was a Godsend. Or that the subject is really fascinating and you want to do more …
As you do this, you’re creating neural connections that will have two consequences:
Of course, you can (and should) still show your photographs to others. But you’ll have a firmer footing from which to digest and cherry pick what piece of 3rd-party feedback you find useful or not.
All those photographs were made last Sunday in London. After 5 days of confinement, a negative PCR freed me and allowed me to legally visit the capital again. After 2 years since my last photos there.
London is my permanent photographic muse. The pace of change there means every new trip meets a blank canvas here and there, or some finished building that was still wrapped up months before. And the refusal to keep ancient and modern separated give the city a distinct Enki Bilal vibe, without the permanent gloom of his creations.
The story of those photographs is thus simply: “This is the London I walked through” after two years of Covid-enforced absence”. It mainly speaks to me, but I hope you like the photographs nonetheless. All were made in a couple of seconds, as my eye saw something that appealed, without me really knowing why. That analysis will come later 😉
So, there it is: my process. With it, you can build your own workshop everyday. The Malcom Gladwell trope states that it takes 10 000 hours of practise to become a master. Of course, those catchy phrases serve only their authors. For one thing, becoming a master isn’t the goal. End goals don’t lead to life satisfaction or happiness. Continuous progress does. And that’s what I’m offering with this process.
Then, there’s the matter of practice vs deliberate practice. A million random snaps won’t make anyone good. But building a process of trial and evaluation takes you to the fast track of deliberate practice. All those lovely portfolios, all those how-to videos, all those educational blog posts mean nothing in the field, but the better ones become super useful, in retrospect, to guide how you give yourself feedback.
Pick a few that really speak to you and study your production in the light of what they teach. Then forget about them when you head out. Remember photography is a right brain process. Let the rules build your intuition (through feedback) and let your intuition be your only guide in the field.
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