Philosophizing on how to approach an image

[NOTE: this is a copy/paste from a photography forum I belong to. I originally posted it in the “What Is Art?” section, but decided it would make a good blog post as well. But I didn’t want to rewrite it to fit the blog, so here it is, as I originally wrote it.]

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First of all, this may be in the wrong forum, as it’s more about technique than “art”, but I think it’s the best category anyway because I’m going to talk about how to approach an image to make it say what you want it to say, which is more about art than about technique.

Secondly, this may be basic and very unprofound. But I’ve never read it or heard it stated, so I’m going to post my thoughts. “Good” photographers have mastered this, either consciously or subconsciously. But this might be something for the rest of us “aspiring to greatness” to think about, since maybe we haven’t.

Thirdly, I’ve had no formal training in photography, so if this is College Photography 101 stuff, please go easy on me.

Here goes:

I’ve been thinking lately about the difference between photos as “art”, and photos that simply record a scene. I think it’s all in the way you approach the image before you take the picture, the questions you ask yourself, that make the difference. I’ve seen so many images of places people have been, or flowers, nature, architecture, etc. and I say to myself, “okay, now I see where you’ve been,” but I’m uninspired by the scene photographically, even if the person has perhaps a technically sharp image or is otherwise flawless.

So many people (myself included) see something neat and say, “hey, that’d make a picture!” and then put the camera to our eye and *snap* (of course trying to compose the image as best as possible). And then later we look at it and wonder why we didn’t manage to capture the emotion we felt at the moment we decided to take the picture.

I think there’s a critical question to ask of oneself before taking any picture, and that is, “What is it about this scene that impels me to make it a photograph?” And then, when we’ve answered that question, then ask oneself, “What technique should I use to capture and enhance that particular quality to convey it to others?”

Perhaps a flower has a particular milky white color that I’d like to convey. So maybe I’ll choose to overexpose it just a tad, to bring out the whiteness. Maybe there’s a foreboding nature to a place. So maybe the shadows should be enhanced to give it mystery. Maybe a bridge seems heavy and imposing. So I’ll choose an angle to emphasize that feature. Is what I like about this scene dependent on its three-dimensionality? Maybe I should think about trying HDR, set up my tripod and bracket so that I can at least give it a shot later. Maybe a field seems particularly endless. I’ll choose a wide angle, down low, or whatever.

So my point is, I think it’s critical to engage the mind BEFORE the shot, actively analyzing what you want to achieve, and then making conscious choices as to how to achieve it. I know that’s extremely basic, but it’s not something I really spent time thinking about in the past. I thought pointing a good camera at an interesting scene and making a good composition were enough. I never really engaged my mind to a deep enough level, though. I’d get a few really good images, but I now consider them to be accidents.

I’ve often heard the advice that a good photographer has endless patience. I know I’m guilty of impatience, and I’m working on slowing down, THINKING first, and then spending the time needed to get what I want. And I think I’m seeing my pictures improving, at least in the way that my end product is matching more closely to my initial intentions. I still love following my gut reaction, but I hope that by spending more time in the practice of thinking first, that I’ll speed up my thinking and someday be able to seamlessly incorporate it into shooting from the hip. That’s my ultimate goal.

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