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Monday, November 1, 2004

(Connecting) With The Subject

The digital camera helps us in making exciting, evocative images

How do you explain what makes one photograph jump out at you, grab you by the lapels and demand to be experienced? I’ve been helping a young student photographer take his images to the next level, to use today's sports mantra. He has a passion for photography and nature, and wants to better express that in his images. 

connecting with the subjectExplaining what makes photographs successful, even to an eager student like mine, can be difficult. So much of it is dependent on a specific shot, so any generalizations can be tricky. Yet photographers like Art Wolfe, Frans Lanting and David Muench consistently create photographs that grab our attention and make us see the world in a new light. Describing how they do it is simple on a superficial level, but difficult at any deeper level. If it was easy, photographers would match these top pros all the time.

Explaining how to create an image that connects you, the viewer, and the subject in some strong way always is a challenge. Even the best photographers can't do this with every shot. However, I think there's an answer because I've seen something special happen with many photographers today—the digital camera has the potential to help any photographer get a higher percentage of dramatic and effective photos.

Before I delve into the digital relationship, I want to explain this connection with your subject in a photograph. The late Galen Rowell used to talk about creating evocative images that had some emotion in them, some passion about the subject. He did this so well that his images still affect us, years after his death.

This contrasts with a lot of the work we see coming to us at the magazine. Don't get me wrong—we receive many wonderful photo submissions. However, there's a type of submission that we consistently receive: The images are competently done, with excellent quality that any photographer at any level would be pleased to have. Technique is great. The photographer shows a good eye for what's pleasing. The problem with these images is that they look similar—I could change the photographers' names on the images and no one would know the difference.

The market is filled with such photos, which is why the nature photography business is so competitive. These photos are sold, to be sure, but since there are so many images like them available, sales become more like a lottery than a real sales situation.

One reason for this type of imagery is that modern cameras and plentiful how-to instruction allow lots of people to take good photographs of pretty, natural subjects. The difficult thing to do is go beyond this "stand back and take a picture of a subject" mentality. These images only accomplish the noting of a beautiful, well-photographed location because the photographer hasn't looked for ways to use photography to engage the viewer. If you haven't read any of Galen Rowell's books, I'd recommend any of them; he frequently discusses how to grab the viewer's attention with an evocative image.

How do you make a better connection with your subject in your photographs? It isn't easy and it won't happen all the time, but you must make it happen enough of the time to distinguish your photos from other people's. This isn't about making a photo arbitrarily "better" or with "higher quality"; rather, it's working the scene to find something that speaks to you in a unique way about your experience of the scene. OP columnist Dewitt Jones refers to this as finding your first photo (the thing that first attracted you to the scene), then searching to find the next photo from the same scene, then the next, until you drill down to its essence.

You can do this with any camera, of course, but digital makes it much easier. Jim Brandenburg says that digital makes the connection with the subject more "organic," more fluid, and that we'll see future photographers with new and exciting work because of it.


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