Seeing Photographs

How you use your LCD can get you better photographs
This Article Features Photo Zoom
Click To Enlarge An LCD monitor is a real asset in digital photography because it provides a helpful check on all of the elements in an image, both technical and aesthetic.

Digital cameras can help you take better landscape photographs. If I had said that even just a few years ago, OP would have received lots of letters. People would have challenged that statement, defending film, and basically telling me I was crazy. I may be crazy at times, but not because of this idea.

This isn’t simply an opinion. I’ve seen it to be true from what I’ve observed of participants in workshops around the country and the world, from talking with many top pros, and from watching my own work evolve over the last few years. I’m not talking about image quality, color, noise or lack of noise, or any technical aspects of a digital image. I’m talking about the aesthetic of a photograph.

Capturing exciting and beautiful landscapes challenges photographers. Their experience with that landscape is so overwhelming that the temptation is simply to point the camera, press the shutter and think a landscape photograph is made. Yet what often happens is that one gets an attractive snapshot of that scene, but not necessarily a better photograph.

I often bring up Andreas Feininger, the LIFE photographer who wrote popular books about photography during the 1960s and ’70s. That’s the period when I was growing up as a photographer, and I was influenced by his ideas. His books are no longer in print, but you can find them in used bookstores and over the Internet.

Feininger talked a lot about the difference between a photograph and a snapshot. A snapshot comes from simply pointing a camera at a subject. A photograph comes from using the craft of photography to create a unique image that says something special about the way you saw and interacted with that subject. That means using such aspects of photography as recognizing good light, choosing focal length for perspective and finding a unique composition. A photograph is something that stands on its own as an interesting visual interpretation of a scene, but isn’t simply a record of that scene. You can spend a lot of time studying photography, including reading every page of OP to get ideas for your photography. But you have to get outside and photograph if you’re going to implement those ideas. The challenge of film always used to be translating what you saw in the world into a photograph. You had no way of being certain that what you captured on film would be satisfying as a photograph until the film returned from processing.

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.