A few months ago Kasia and I watched an excellent documentary about the life and work of one of the great photographers, Sebastiao Salgado, titled “The Salt of the Earth.” The imagery and narrative of this fascinating film make it a must-see for every photographer.
One moment, in particular, caught my attention and started me thinking. The camera shows Sebastiao Salgado in the Arctic shooting for his mega project “Genesis.” He tries to capture a group of walruses but they refuse to come on shore. On occasion, he and his son retreat to a small shelter. Then there is a scene when a huge, beautiful polar bear approaches them.
Most photographers in such a situation would go into non-stop shooting mode until the memory card is filled. But not Sebastiao Salgado.
Watching the majestic polar bear approaching them, his son asks, “What do you think, Dad?” Sebastiao answers, “It will be complicated to get this story” and then continues “It’s not just a matter of getting close to a bear and taking a picture, if the framing is poor, you will just show the bear but it won’t be a photo. This spot is not good. There is nothing in the background, nothing to compose a well-framed picture.”
This is exactly why he is such a great photographer. Today, the ease of taking a photo along with the almost unlimited number of exposures (unlike in film days) cause many photographers to shoot “just in case” or “I am sure one of them will turn out well.” This mentality not only leads to a multitude of mediocre photos but most importantly it strips visual sensitiveness from a photographer. S/he produces a digital file but not a real photograph.
When watching the work of many great photographers you might conclude that every single element of their photograph works in harmony. Sometimes this harmony appears almost unreal – out of this world. Nothing is further from the truth. Such rare images require a lot of visual effort, which can only be accomplished with discipline and concentration – attributes which are never present in the blind, machine-gun style of shooting.
In fact, the best images are often created after a series of “NOs.” Even the best photographers in the world rarely capture a great image the first time on an assignment. It is a long, tiring, sometimes frustrating process of saying, “NOT THIS TIME,” which eventually leads to a great photograph.
Then there is some other advice I hear from many photographers: “Go out and shoot as many photos as you can.” This suggestion, while genuine, makes sense on the surface. In order to get better, you need to practice. Unfortunately many photographers, especially those who have just started on their road to seeing, take this advice literally.
Here are a few problems with this approach:
- A pattern is being created in your brain and it goes like this: “If I am out shooting, I must take many images to practice and get better.” If you follow this logic – not taking photos must be bad for you.
- Your focus turns to taking images of everything – remember the logic –practice will make you better – then let’s take a lot of photos. As a result, you skip the many steps that would actually lead you to taking a good photograph.
- By following this logic over an extended period of time, you become numb to the idea of selectivity and good judgment – the key ingredients of a good photographic practice.
One of the most important pillars of photography is observation. Not only is this much harder than it sounds but this idea is so rarely discussed it feels as if it doesn’t exist. Observation is one of the early links in this long chain of steps that you need to take in order to capture a great photograph. When you’re busy pressing the shutter button “to practice” you have no time left for observation.
A fixation on taking photographs (pressing the shutter button) often leads to what I call the Technical Overload Syndrome (TOS). The early processes such as observation, evaluation, composition etc., are being skipped and the photographer indulges in technical considerations. “Which F-stop should I use? Is my shutter speed adequate for the situation?” Over and over again, I have seen photographers so preoccupied with technical “know-how” that it blinded their seeing completely.
What is the solution?
In short: Concentrate, connect and observe!
Have you noticed how some movie directors work on their scenes? They walk around and observe the scene from all angles, sometimes putting their hands together to create a frame. They look through it, assess the scene and move on.
Similarly, you may walk around observing the environment without picking up your camera. When travelling in rural areas observation is much easier, as fewer subjects compete for your attention. There is less noise and fewer distractions. When photographing in big cities, concentration and focus is the key. You must learn to take in every pocket of light, movement, shapes, colours, patterns and even noises. Your senses must be receptive to the right setup, which eventually leads you to creating a great photograph.
Today I would like to share with you some imagery taken during the Visual Poet Experience Workshop in Vancouver. All images were taken with the X100F.
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