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.
Explaining 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.
This is a result of the LCD monitor, a tremendous resource for the photographer. On a technical level, it works like a Polaroid print, only better, since you can see everything faster, from exposure to color, and the image is the real thing, not a test. On a creative level, you can see how the subject translates into a photograph right there while the subject is still in front of you. You don’t have to wait until you get photos back from the processor to decide if the image works for you.
You can experiment with different angles, exposures, white balance and more, and see what any choice looks like, then take that information and immediately apply it to the subject. The learning and application is instant. This is what Brandenburg means when he says the digital process is a more organic way of connecting with the subject.
I like Dewitt Jones’ approach of “Where’s the next photo?” too, where you find new approaches to your subject beyond the first way you saw it. This is ideal for the digital world, as you can compare shots as you go with the LCD monitor. What did that first shot look like again? Is my second really that different? Am I getting an image that shows how special I think the subject is? Or am I relying too much on modern technology to capture an impressive scene in a way that anyone could do?
This approach can be unnerving at times. At some point, you’ll see an image on the LCD that you know is unique to you, that’s so tightly connected to your personality and your experience of the scene that it makes you uneasy. That’s because you realize that you’re sticking your neck out—not everyone will like that photo; some people may even dislike it. It’s always safe to take competent photos of pretty scenes; it isn’t so safe to take images that provide a fresh point of view on the world—yours.
At this point, we may want to pull back, be cautious about such new photos. Do you want to show them to others? And, if you do, there’s a tendency to want to qualify them—”I was trying to make this image moody, but I don’t know if it works.” When presenting photos to others, you should never qualify or apologize for anything in them, although there’s a tendency in all of us to do this. When I look for a photo to illustrate this column, I think about how many people will harshly criticize my choice, whatever it is. We have to let our special images stand on their own and accept that not everyone will like all of them, or even any of them, and that’s just the way people are.
If this process of looking for better, more evocative photos of your subjects can be unnerving, why do it? Why not play it safe with the technically perfect, good image of a scene? I believe that such an image can be satisfying to a photographer for many reasons. If that’s what a photographer wants to do and it makes him or her happy, then he or she should keep doing it. We all deserve to enjoy our experience with photography.
For me, and I know a lot of OP readers feel the same way, photography goes deeper than that. We search and strive for images that connect us with the world in highly personal ways. But even that’s not the whole story. I’ve seen an interesting phenomenon again and again: Photographers who use the digital camera’s LCD to explore their subjects have more fun! That’s right. It’s exciting to see that photograph develop and evolve right in front of you while you’re still there with the subject.
Your journey as a photographer isn’t the same as mine or anyone else’s. Your explorations of the subjects that matter to you can take any course that gives you joy (at least, that’s my hope). The LCD on a digital camera will make those explorations more productive.