Composing and capturing compelling photographs requires some special ingredients. I am referring to photography as a whole, but with particular emphasis on natural light, landscape photography.
This is my personal take on how I approach my craft, and certainly, it may not sit well with others. Thanks be to God we are all different and what works for me doesn’t necessarily work for others.
Let me say from the outset, I never studied photography in a formal sense. Any references to artists by way of examples in this blog is by no means an attempt on my behalf to align myself with greatness. I have merely used these examples to illustrate my view. While there are certain laws and principles in place that govern the art, being self-taught by immersing myself in everything I could get my hands/eyes on, I probably haven’t been constrained by some of these rules. Perhaps this freedom may have contributed to my personal style. Photography, or any art form is hugely influenced by one’s signature style and to my mind, of paramount importance is the ability to create work that connects on an emotional level. A work that can be ingested over time, revealing subtleties as the viewer savours the piece, is the whole point of the exercise – to arouse one’s emotions.
It is well known that there are probably three key elements that make a compelling image – Timing, Light and Composition. When these three harmonize, the image graduates to one that can be savoured. I agree! However, I would like to add passion to this list. If we were to look at any success story, be it a sports star, artist or entrepreneur, their common key ingredient would be passion. A subset of other qualities that fall under passion are, self-discipline, commitment, focus and determination. Talent is an intangible that, if built upon, will separate you from the rest – provided your passion is running at maximum revs. Talent can be overrated and oftentimes lulls the recipient of this gift into mediocrity.
When the final image is presented the emotions that are stirred are what I would refer to as being the ‘whole that is greater than the sum of its parts’… this is the enrichment one feels in one’s soul when savouring the piece. It’s all the essential ingredients infused into one complete whole.
But, of all the ingredients that go into the making of this photographic ‘cake’, passion is the one key ingredient that will make it rise.
If we look at Jamie Oliver, the celebrity chef, I’m not sure if we have ever seen him meticulously measuring out the ingredients. When we look at the guitar playing geniuses such as Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jeff Healey – did they continually look at their guitars while playing? If we want to see an example of passion and ‘living’ and ‘feeling’ one’s craft, we need look no further than SRV shredding to Leave my Little Girl Alone or the gifted but blind Jeff Healey playing While My Guitar Gently Weeps.
Do we see an NBA basketball player bouncing the ball and looking at it? Do Lionel Messi or Rinaldo continually look at the ball when they dribble or run with it at their feet? The answer to all of these questions is ‘no’. In fact, an interesting exercise would be to freeze–frame these footballing greats when they strike for goal. You will notice that they mostly do not ever even look at the target. Their peripheral vision allows the ball to become an extension of them. The guitar becomes an extension of the great guitarist. This is what separates the exceptional from the average.
With photography, the camera must also become an extension of the photographer. The technical or principle laws that govern photography, in most cases, must be a ‘given’ at a subconscious level. It is unwise to be found pondering over exposure and focal lengths when one is composing in fleeting light. (I am making the assumption that we only shoot manually). D.O.F., ISO, shutter speed and aperture require instant, intuitive analysis. The feel of the image, accounting for light, arrangement and composition will, over time, become commensurate with one’s personal style – and become less of a thief of time as one gains in experience. An infusion of all of these characteristics will contribute to the final work.
We need to achieve a level of unconscious competence!
“Thinking should be done before and after, not during photographing.”- Henri Cartier-Bresson
Also, importantly, one has to have a mindset of zero tolerance for compromising on quality. Starting with capturing the image, if you feel it can be improved upon, don’t settle. Obviously, with event photography, one can’t recreate scenarios that exist only for a moment in time and once the opportunity has gone, it cannot be revisited. With landscapes and studio shoots, one can revisit. One may get lucky and crack it first time (and, believe me, luck or divine providence can play a huge role in producing something exceptional), but if it means coming back to the same spot a few days in a row to perfect an image – then so be it. If there is a hint of compromise – don’t expect your art to be impacting and compelling. And, even if everyone who has seen your work is bowled over; if you know you could have done better, you will forever have that irritating niggle when you look at the piece. This attitude can be taxing. On the wrong side of 50 years of age and having being involved in the craft for some twenty-four years – I can honestly say that only a handful of my images are compelling – and only in my opinion. Sure, I have captured many memorable moments and above-average images, however if I am honest with myself, only five stand out – in my opinion. The famous reportage photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson once said that if you have taken ten outstanding images in a lifetime, you have done well.
If we look at the master painters of old; Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Frederic Church, etc, they are all famously known for a little more than a handful of their works. While they were prolific painters and produced substantial volumes of work (Van Gogh created some 900 works) – they were only renowned for a handful.
Likewise with some of the great composers, musicians and movie directors; we will notice a similar trend. While Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, two of the great British rock bands of the 60’s and 70’s created many albums – only a few of these were considered definitive or masterpieces.
I’m not sure if this ‘feel’ can be taught. I have often deliberated on whether to follow the course of many other photographers, by hosting workshops and getaways. In truth, those attending would get far superior instruction on the laws and principles of photography from my more learned and tech savvy colleagues out there. I think if I did attempt such workshops we would all just end up listening to Little Feat and Alison Krauss, drinking red wine and smoking Cuban cigars.
Feel and becoming one with your instrument is something one can only develop over time. Good judgment comes from experience, but experience comes from bad judgment. A regarded legal mind once said that only after 20 years of practice did he learn to think with penetrating discernment.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to include forums and getaways that focus on developing minds to explore and think deeper – to ignite passion that fuels creativity. This exchange of ideas and creative processes would encourage lateral thinking outside the realm of the technical. I understand that the immediacy and convenience of the web facilitates on-line chat forums, but, similar to the revolutionaries of the Parisian art scene in the early 20th century, there is still something more tangible when like-minded people get together. New movements are born and the courage to experiment and make mistakes fosters change.
The saying ‘there are many practitioners, but few masters’ certainly rings true. I suppose that is the way it’s meant to be, otherwise nothing would ever stand out. What also rings true, is that in my particular world of photography, I have some way to go to achieving master status.