Photo by Linda

How to see a photograph

I’d like to take you through the process of looking at and analyzing a photograph, determining how best to display it as a photograph or on a website or blog.

Being an artist

I should start perhaps by explaining how I go about my photography. Like many people, I frequently take pictures for no other reason than to establish a “memory”. A reminder of where I was, what I did and what I saw. There is no concious attempt to be artistic or to create an award-winning image. It’s a momento, no more. When I look at it in the future, my brain will remember all the details of that moment and I most likely will not need any more than that.

The “other” photographer in me, the “artist”, will look at a scene and will want to capture it in a special way. I want it to tell a story or to  emphasize a specific point I saw and, of course, I want it to look good, with good lighting, from an interesting viewpoint and composed in a way that I find does it justice. In other words, I need to take care to observe the scene and make some decisions on how to best accomplish those criteria. While I have some leeway after the fact thanks to editing tools like Photoshop or Lightroom, I still need to “get it right” before I click that shutter. I believe that is the different between getting a “OK” shot vs. getting a “great” shot.

The process explained

Let’s illustrate this process using the following images, taken by Linda who has a superb “eye” for composition. She deliberately shot these three images to illustrate the process.

Here is the scene, an old, rusted car sitting in a meadow alongside a collapsed barn with a backdrop of mountains and dense forests.

Rusted car in mountains
Photo by Linda

At first glance, this may be an fine shot, but let’s analyze this a little deeper. What is the “story” here? Does this composition TELL me that story?

To me, as an artist looking upon this scene, the story is about the old car and the collapsed barn. Looking upon them, my brain immediately starts wondering “how long have they been there”? “Why were they abandoned”? “Who did they belong to”? “What stories and dramas unfolded here”? etc etc. But I find the surrounding area to be important to that story too. A rural area, possibly far away from urban areas, maybe even desolate, remote, etc. If you stand there for a moment, your mind will surely start to imagine all sorts of things.

So is this image right? Will it do as a true representation of this scene? Well, it certainly is not “wrong” and it DOES allow you to observe the placement of the car within the scene around it, therefore giving you some context. But I believe it could be better. For starters, the car is pretty small, there is a lot of forest on the left and there is a bunch of rubble on the ground on the left too. All this is somewhat distracting. It causes the eye to wonder around and pretty soon your brain is thinking “what IS that stuff on the ground there”? or “Wow, dense forest, how deep does it go, what is behind the trees . . . “? etc. All thoughts that are distracting you from absorbing the “story” about the car (which I feel is the main subject here).

So, if that is the main subject, let’s try another view. Let’s focus on the car and the collapsed barn and see how that looks.

Rusted car in mountain setting
Photo by Linda

Now we can clearly see the car and collapsed barn, but I feel this shot has lost the “sense of place”. If you looked at this image and never had seen the earlier one, you would have no idea where this is and that will cause the mind to (potentially) think of different things. In other words, the “STORY” this picture tells is now different. Quite amazing, don’t you think, that by simply narrowing the focus, the whole photograph can convey a different feeling and tell a different story. It is of course possible that is what you want, but in this example, it is not what I wanted to show you.

So let’s try this again and make the focus different again.

Rusted car in mountains
Photo by Linda

Now we’re getting somewhere! Here we still have the enhanced view of the car and barn, but we also have the mountain setting for that sense of place.

I feel this version tells that story better. The distracting rubble on the left is gone, the mass of trees on the left is gone and my eyes have little more to do than look at the car, the collapsed barn and the mountain. Everything is there for the mind to start doing its thing . . . THIS is what Linda and I saw when we stood here and THIS is what we discussed when we went through our photos.

Visualizing the shot

Taking you through these steps in this fashion is, of course, somewhat laborious, but it illustrates the process. A process that many photographers (and artists) do instinctively. They do not even “think” about these different angles, they just “feel” what it right, composing the shot they way they are experiencing the scene, right there before they click the shutter.

To drive that home a bit more, consider the following: Linda and I frequently stand side-by-side, with the same camera and often the same lens. We point the lens at the same subject, yet we almost ALWAYS come home with shots that are different. It never ceases to amaze us how we each “see” the same subjects differently!

And this is what makes it so wonderful. Visualizing the shot is completely PERSONAL and subjective and gives the photographer enormous freedom for a personal and artistic approach to the scene. When we have different shots like that, neither is “better”, they are just . . . well,  different.

This is what art is about. It is very personal and I believe it should always be that way.

Conclusion

If there is a conclusion to take away from this would be “don’t be afraid to be different”!

If you want to define your own style and develop your eye, you cannot allow the thought of worrying what others will think of your shot to influence your shooting. That is possibly the most paralizing and debilitating force you can unleash upon yourself. Therefore . . .

DON’T DO IT!

Set yourself free and make the shot the way you “FEEL” it should be taken. When you FEEL that the photo conveys the way you EXPERIENCED it when you shot it, it will give you a deeper sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.

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