The Difference Between the Taking and the Making of a Photograph
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Main image: Lizard Point, Cornwall, England. Canon 1Ds mkIII, 24mm TS-E lens, ISO 50, 0.8 sec @ f16, 0.6 ND grad (hard) + 0.9ND proglass filters
Walking down the road on our first date Wendy, my wife to be not so politely questioned how it was possible to spend three years studying photography. “After all, what more is there to it than just pressing the button?” We managed to get over that initial blip and now here in Cornwall well over a quarter of a century later we've just come back from planning another dusk session behind the lens hopefully shooting gorgeous late November light painting the Lizard. I'm fairly sure after a life time together chasing the light and many, many vigils by the tripod she now realises there's a bit more to this game of photography then that. Being there, seeing the potential, waiting for the light, making the shot happen, working the situation to extract the maximum visual potential; these are the skills we photographers have honed over countless dawn and dusk patrols. These accumulated experiences build the database that is a photographer's psyche. Beyond the aesthetics we strive to perfect our practical skills which determine how we use our equipment to create the images that lurk in the recesses of our imagination. Good pictures rarely come easily. Photography is all about momentary blinding flashes of opportunity, inspiration and creativity combined with painstaking preparation and attention to detail. It's the difference between the taking and making of a photograph.
Am I making a bigger thing of all this then I need to? For most photography is nothing more than just pressing the button. It never will be, and yet even with such a lackadaisical approach technically competent pictures are a probability. With auto focus, exposure and ISO adjustment you have to work hard to get a dark blurry picture using a modern digital camera set to idiot mode. OK, most point & shoot snappers shoot dreadful compositions in completely the wrong light with acres of dead space and a distant point of interest slap bang in the middle of the frame. Aunty Mary with a skip as a backdrop, an empty car park as foreground and an aerial protruding from her head; but at least she'll be in focus and correctly exposed. Your average £200 compact camera is an amazingly proficient tool. It isn't surprising how in the space of a decade we all have embraced so completely the digital age. But the very convenience and quality available to all with a tiny phone camera or humble compact have spawned two universally accepted truths which just aren't true at all; digital photography is easy, and if we take enough pictures surely something is bound to work out. They are myths, aren't they?
Autumn colours along the East Dart River, Dartmoor, Devon, England. Canon 1Ds mkIII, 24mm TS-E lens, ISO 50, 8 sec @ f11, 0.6 ND proglass & polarising filters. I spent the best part of an autumn day totally engrossed in photographing one short stretch of the East Dart River on Dartmoor. Is there any better way to spend a day? Here the simple arrangement of overhanging leaves with the wispy curves of the moving water and the lush greens of the moss clad rocks drew me. The best pictures are always the simplest. I swept my eye from corner to corner of the frame; was there anything in the frame that distracted? Move closer, get a bit lower, et voila. A 0.6 ND proglass filter slowed the shutter speed enough and a polariser cut the reflection from the surface of the water, enhancing the contrast between the white froth and the dark deeper waters.
Surely all this is irrelevant to us serious photographers with our full frame DSLRs, burgeoning camera bags, muddy boots and tripods on the shoulder. We know all about histograms and hyper focal distance. We shoot RAW and use layers. We own ND grads and cable releases. We wouldn't dream of whopping up the ISO to save lugging legs, would we? And yet the convenience of digital photography is such that those two myths are remarkably pervasive. They can and do permeate our consciences and if we're not careful start fundamentally affecting the way we approach our craft and the way we work in the field. With no cost constraints it's all too easy to start blasting away indiscriminately. Shoot from the hip and sort it out later in Photoshop; this is a slippery slope plunging inevitably towards the depths of despair and devastating loss of self-esteem that comes with shooting on program mode with a high ISO, no tripod and a reversed lens hood. The latter is the photographic equivalent of wearing socks with sandals; clearly a fate worse than death.
Time to dispel another myth; shooting digitally is free. Granted once the hard and software has been acquired exposing pixels costs nothing monetarily, but by filling memory cards with mediocrity you will pay dearly in the one currency we're all short of; time. Editing and processing a tight shoot of strong images is a pleasure; wading through rubbish is a tiresome burden. Next week I'm off to Sri Lanka. I don't want to return with thousands of images. If, when the shoot has been edited, the RAWs processed and the winners tweaked in Photoshop I'm left with 100 good pictures I'll be happy. Inevitably maybe ten of those will define the trip, with just one truly standing the test of time. So be it. Quality wins over quantity every time; it's the only way.
A field of sainfoin beneath the village of Campi Vechio, the Valnerina, Monti Sibillini National Park, Umbria, Italy. Canon 1Ds mkIII, 24mm TS-E lens, ISO 50, 6 minutes @ f16, Big Stopper & 0.9 ND grad (hard) filters. The colours in the fields and on the hillsides of the Valnerina in late spring defy belief. Umbria, the green heart of Italy explodes with colour as pink, violet, yellow and red jobbies bloom simultaneously. With evening light and a towering dramatic sky I deploy the Big Stopper to slow life down. The shot is composed and the exposure calculated before the opaque filter is fitted and the shutter opened. 6 long minutes of pacing by the tripod follow; gazing at the sky, looking forward to dinner. As the sensor is exposed the clouds streak through the sky and the breeze ruffles the tree in the middle distance. Finally I can unlock the cable release and close the shutter. The monitor display looks good, but the light is still tantalising. Open the shutter, here we go again; my antipasti will just have to wait. As I pace again I'm wondering; will anyone believe these colours are real, or just the product of overenthusiasm with the saturation slider?
For what it's worth I actually expose fewer frames now than I did in the days of chromes. That's mainly because there's simply no reason to bracket exposures anymore, with careful checking of my histogram and highlight alerts I can be totally confident of my exposures. But to be talking about those days now is pretty pointless; the film era already seems like a dim and distant memory. Many reading this will have never exposed silver halide crystals. I certainly don't subscribe to the notion that those who grew up shooting film are intrinsically better photographers. Exposing film, especially large or in my case panoramic format did require a painstaking and disciplined approach, but there's no reason that modus operandi can't be applied to today's technology. A meticulous attention to detail and thoughtful approach combined with the options for creativity the flexibility and quality our state of the art DSLRs allow is the way to a life of eternal photographic enjoyment, satisfaction and fulfillment. Chuck in the odd Cornish Pasty and your laughing; the Meaning of Life is revealed. Creatively it's an exciting time to be a photographer; the sky is the limit.