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Friday, August 1, 2008

Seeing Photographs

How you use your LCD can get you better photographs

Digital photography changes all of that. The LCD on the back of the camera is a huge benefit in helping the photographer focus on creating a better photograph rather than simply getting a better snapshot of a pretty scene. A live LCD can add even more to this experience, but you can get a lot from a standard LCD. And there’s no question that the new, big LCDs are a great benefit for photographers. If you’ve seen the latest Nikon LCDs with their stunning, high-resolution screens, you have to believe they’re in the future of all digital cameras.

There are three factors that tend to make photographers lose sight of the “photograph” that they’re making. First, the viewfinder makes it easy to sight on a scene. You look through a quality optical system that’s indeed like a sighting device. But lining up or sighting on a scene encourages a snapshot more than the creation of a photograph. Second, the challenge of visualizing a big scene as a stand-alone photograph can be hard. Third, seeing the LCD simply as a way of looking at exposure or sharpness encourages taking the snapshot rather than making a photograph.

Using the LCD helps a photographer to regain a vision of a photograph. This is especially true for landscape photography. Wildlife photography is a little different because, as the animals move, you can’t always check your LCD, nor should you. But the landscape isn’t going anywhere. Even if the light is changing quickly, you generally have time to check your LCD.

This makes your LCD act like an instant Polaroid picture. You can look at that little picture on the back of your camera as a photograph, not simply a confirmation that you got the picture. You can look at the composition, the light, the color and all the things that go together to make your image special. You can look at that image and decide if you like it as a photograph or not. Is this something you’d like to see on your wall? Is it something you’d like to share with others as a photograph instead of a record of where you were? Does this picture work as a photograph, an entity that’s separate from the world in front of you?

Over the years that I worked as editor of OP, I saw a lot of pictures, as you can imagine. I also saw all sorts of images in the contests that we judged. And I’ve seen a lot of photographs from participants of my workshops, both on location and on the web. Something that consistently limited many of those images was that the photographer was trying too hard to capture a subject and not hard enough to create an interesting photograph. I’m not saying that a beautiful record shot of a wonderful scene can’t be an enjoyable part of photography. But if you want to improve your photography and create images that aren’t like everyone else’s, going beyond that record shot is important.

What to do? Use your LCD to look at your images as little photographs. When I first started taking digital photographs seriously, I began to note what the images looked like in my LCD, but I usually did it after I had taken the camera off the tripod and folded the tripod, getting ready to go to the next location. I often discovered that I missed something. So I’d set up the tripod again, attach the camera and take a new picture, but hopefully a better picture because it was affected by what I saw in the LCD. This same thing has happened to many pros as they have explored the possibilities of digital photography.

I’m sure some photographers think this isn’t a good idea. “You should know your craft of photography so well that you never have to do this,” they admonish us. I don’t get that. We have a great new technology that works well in the LCD. Why not use it? We didn’t have it with film, so why should we base our working with digital photography on the way we used to shoot film?

Landscape photography has a rich history. Photography started with landscape subjects because they didn’t move. Much of the West was first seen by people through the lenses of adventurous photographers. Photographers like Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Eliot Porter defined landscape photography for many generations. Adams, in fact, made a big deal about the difference between taking a picture and making a photograph.

One note of interest about those three photographers was that they shot with view cameras. Yes, such cameras gave them unique capabilities with large film sizes, as well as moving lens and film planes for sharpness effects. But these photographers also talked about how important it was for them to see an image on the ground glass, which gave them a look at a photograph isolated from the scene itself. They often felt that having the black cloth over their head isolated this image even more.

The LCD on a tripod-mounted camera gives much the same experience. This is especially true with live-view LCDs. Some photographers even put a black cloth over their heads to better see the LCD, just like photographers using view cameras. The experience is very similar.

I’ve found that using the LCD as a way of thinking about making a photograph has improved my photography. I see photographs better, and it helps me refine how I photograph many subjects. Think about how you use your LCD, and you may start getting better photographs, too.

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