Take Better Photos by Not Planning Ahead

May 19, 2009 | Mark Goldstein | Photography Techniques | Comment |

I hope that I can show you the benefits of my seemingly laissez faire attitude but I would be foolish if I didn't admit to at least one downside, so let's deal with this first. There's no doubt that many landscape images benefit from a good deal of planning. Joe Cornish waited for five years for his desired combination of light and cloud before he made his archetypal image of Staithes from Cow Bar. Images that need light that only strikes the subject at a particular time of year, or ones that rely upon a particular state of the tide, or particular weather conditions obviously benefit from physical planning. One could, of course, happen upon these circumstances and still make an outstanding image. In fact one of my favourite images of Joe Cornish's, Contours in Blue, was found entirely by chance, something that is all the more remarkable because the window of opportunity for its making is almost impossibly narrow. It can only be made around sunset with clear skies to the west, between mid December and mid January when the tide is more than half way out. Given the vagaries of the British weather this probably means that there are less than half a dozen days in a year when you could make this photograph. Yet Joe happened upon it and realised its potential, in all senses of the phrase. The reason he was able to do this was because he was mentally prepared, receptive to a wide range of possibilities.

Take Better Photos by Not Planning Ahead

Part of the discipline of making images on a large format camera is that you are forced to anticipate events. Once this attitude is imprinted it's difficult to switch it off. Everywhere you go you will look at things and wonder whether it would look better at a different time of the day or year, or if the sky was different, or if it was raining, or if it was snowing... This attitude, of course, provides a useful quality control check: is this the best image that I can make here or should I come back another day?

You might think then that the habit of constantly imagining an alternative time would encourage planning. Yet I don't plan image making like a military campaign and still manage to make reasonable images. In fact I'm convinced that planning too much can actually be bad for one's pictures. The problem with being too focused on a specific target is that one can dismiss other opportunities, or simply not see them at all. There have been many occasions when I have seen something that I thought would make a great image and walked past it because I had another objective in mind. Only to find when I reached my goal that the light was poor or that some other factor made the proposed image unworkable. I've now grown to realise that I should seize the first opportunity presented to me. Of course all of you using cameras other than a view camera will be muttering under you breath, "Why not make both?!" This might indeed be possible (even on a 5X4) in some circumstances. All well and good as long as one doesn't rush to make two. Better to take your time and make one image well. The light, or other transient factors, might force you to hurry when making a single image but other than the pressure from those external variants I feel one should never place time constraints on one's work.

Take Better Photos by Not Planning Ahead

My aim is to make images with my subject not of my subject. (Actually I think subject is a poor word, yet sadly I know of no other that can stand in its stead - object is even worse! To me, subject sounds too passive - it feels a little too much like ‘victim' for my liking. It makes the photographic process sound impersonal and one-way.) I feel that in my photography I enter into a kind of internal dialogue with the landscape. I am not suggesting that I talk to the trees or that they talk to me and, of course, the landscape is oblivious to my voyages of exploration. But nevertheless an exchange takes place between me and the landscape; it both arouses questions and inspires me. The places where I make photographs inspire me to form an understanding of them, however imperfect, and, through my inquisition, answers in the landscape are sometimes revealed to me as images. Wynn Bullock, like me, worked in direct response to what he found; "My pictures are never pre-visualised or planned. I feel strongly that pictures must come from contact with things at the time and place of taking. At such times, I rely on intuitive, perceptual responses to guide me, using reason only after the final print is made to accept or reject the results of my work."

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