Tuesday, March 22, 2011

What's the Point of a Photograph? (Part I: The Capture)


East Meets West, originally uploaded by Jeffrey Sullivan.

It's a simple question, and to most people, the answer may seem simple, obvious, and automatic: "to take a picture of something!" While that's a great way to get a quick snapshot of some thing, if that's all you're thinking about when you trigger the shutter, a simple snapshot is all you're likely to get.

One of the first things we notice in an image is the presence of any flaws in the technical process of capturing the image. But getting distracted with technique in shooting or editing may challenge your ability to focus on a more compelling opportunity: the opportunity you have to present something specific in an intentional context which affect your viewers in some way. Perhaps you want to teach or convey a message, perhaps you want to entertain or inspire, or perhaps you simply intend to document and illustrate the subject in its surroundings. You may want to shy away from the added responsibility of being accountable for any such intent, or think that your photos are "just for yourself," but if you're reading about photography (as you are now), if you're posting photos online, if you like to get positive feedback on your images, don't cheat yourself; admit that you want your photos to elicit some reaction, and your chances of achieving that goal are far greater if you admit and embrace that intent up front.

The first thing photographers need to conquer is not the camera, but their apprehension, their fear of failure. Everyone has insecurities to some degree, even the most successful people in the world (they probably have them worst, because they feel more pressure to meet external expectations). But try thinking of it this way... one of the most important secrets of good photography is that there is no such thing as good photography. As Ansel Adams put it "There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs." Learn and practice the beginners' rules for good photography, then by all means, break them every chance you get. The good photos will stand out, and I'll bet that they succeed not just in spite of breaking the "rule of thirds," but because they break it.

This brings up another useful approach for successful photography: you can make your odds of capturing a good picture go up with practice and development of knowledge and skill, but no one captures a keeper with every release of the shutter. In many if not most genres of photography, the photographer is not in complete control of everything that happens on the far side of the lens. So let go of your desire to control. Let go of perfectionism. Accept that most of your shots will not be your best. It's far more productive to assume that it's a numbers game... some percentage of your tries will turn out well, so dive into your next 100 shots to get the one that stands out from the rest. The beauty of this approach is that the other 99 are still extremely useful: you learn from them. The following day you may have 2 great shots per 100, the following month you may have 5, the next year 20. But never assume that perfection is your goal; that will only prevent you from shooting enough variations to get the truly stunning ones. This ability to shoot and learn from volumes of shots at practically no cost per shot is one of the key advantages of digital photography, and it's exactly what makes learning and access to better results so accessible to so many people these days.

But be careful and keep in mind that shooting numbers of photos isn't about the numbers, what you're doing is still about the subject of the photo. Try different compositions, try different camera settings, try different filters, whatever. By all means pay some attention to technique and settings, but all the while remember to dedicate a healthy share of your attention to your subject, and to your intent for it. Which of your various approaches turns out to be the most successful can be determined later, in the darkroom (even if it's a digital one).