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Looking at Photographs

We create two-dimensional photographs of the three-dimensional world we find around us. Since others will judge our efforts based on those photos, it makes sense to have them in mind when we shoot them. It makes sense to look at our task with the end product in mind.

In our daily life, we see photographs everywhere. Advertisers tempt us with images meant to get our attention. Friends and family, and strangers alike, share their photos with us online. And then there more traditional outlets like books and magazines. Cameras are everywhere now, so it only makes sense that photographs are too. For everything that went into shooting each one, it's the result that counts when you look at them.

You may like many of those photographs and dislike others. Those involved in their creation and publication hope you'll find them all of interest, but such is unlikely. Taste can be a personal thing. When we look at a photograph, we judge it by what it looks like. There's really nothing else to go by. We may guess at what lies just outside the frame, or what that same scene might look like later in the day or later in the year, but unless we have experience of the area beyond an image of it, all we can do is guess. At best, call it an educated guess. We may debate the merits of the thing photographed, but for the photograph itself to succeed as a photograph, it must do so in its own right. What you see is what you get.

Looking at a photograph, there's really no way to tell anything other than what it shows. The result is no longer a three-dimensional space in which we as photographer operate. Photographs have been transformed into two-dimensional projection onto a flat surface. Perspective shows as relative size, only implying depth. The point of view seen is as composed. There's no peeking around something to look at the other side. What lies behind it is as much hidden from view as what lies beyond the frame entirely, cropped off by the choice of shooting position and focal length. A good photograph is at least as much about the act of photographing it as it is about the subject being photographed. In a sense, this is a statement of the obvious. But it's more than that.

These observations can serve as reminders of own role as photographer. It's not enough to be an adventurer and find something really cool to take pictures of. We have choices in how that cool thing gets portrayed, and in how its surroundings do (or are cropped out entirely), and in what light.

Making the transition from merely taking pictures of things to actively composing photographs is to think in terms of end result — the photographs. Get close enough, and all you need is a small patch of wildflowers to fill the foreground. Shoot from just the right angle, and those ugly, dried out plants or our footprints on the trail that led us here may as well not exist. Shoot with a wide-angle lens to see the entire valley before you. Shoot with a long enough lens to select just the detail you want on the opposite valley slope. These choices and more are yours to be considered. With each, little may have changed in terms of subject matter. But the resulting images will tell the tale.

If we want to create good photographs, we need to look at our subjects as the photographs they can be if we do our jobs right.

Many years ago, I took a photo of three elk sitting in a grouping in a snowy Rocky Mountain field. The fact that there were an odd number of elk caught my eye because as all good photographers get taught, odd numbers are better than even. You see, the eye can tend to ping-pong back and forth when presented with even numbered pairings. I dutifully composed to give them some room in the frame so they didn't look like they were in a zoo, and I emphasized the triangular nature of the composition by setting up my tripod in just the right spot. As I moved from side to side, I could shift the apparent position of the three, relative to each other, through the change in perspective. It wasn't until I got the film back that I discovered to my chagrin that the three elk appeared on the flat photographic result to have merged together, forming an odd three-headed uber-elk of some sort. You had to look closely indeed to ascertain where one elk ended and the next one began, the lot of them seeming more of a uniformly dark Frankenstein elk monster against the much brighter snow. It turns out I had thought more about the subject than what the result would look like. I was thinking about composition, but I was composing the subjects rather than the photograph that would be the result. These days, I'm a big fan of reviewing my results on the camera-back LCD so I at least have a chance of seeing my work for what it is, not what I think it is. Don't let people convince you that chimping is bad.

When you go out to create photographs, learn to look at what you find as if it is a photograph, because it will be. That's the whole point. Whatever your motivation is for being a photographer, it makes sense to create the most compelling images you can. No matter what the subject is.

Date posted: February 10, 2019


Copyright © 2019 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Related articles:
Composition: Putting Things in Perspective
Working with Perspective, Subject Distance and Focal Length
Iterative Composition
What Attracts the Eye?
In Defense of Chimping

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