And take better photos…
The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that you can improve your photography without even picking up your camera. So, this is my first of three ruminations on just that theme.
I’m not sure how good I am at looking for things - the folks at home will tell you I can’t even find the mustard jar when it’s at eye level in the fridge. But there’s looking and seeing; you see.
The other day, a colleague of mine commented that she couldn't understand how I saw the things I was taking photos of. She had been looking at some of my street photography and could see the point of the photograph but knew she would have missed it in real life. Surely I must look at the world in a different way.
I think I do. Now. But that wasn't always the case.
I have been taking photos “seriously” for three years or so, and I am definitely more attuned to what may make a half decent image as well as what to ignore. I do see things differently now and I am all the better for it. At least, it gives me a greater enjoyment and has completely transformed mundane shopping trips, train journeys and strolls with the hound. So what tips have I got to unleash this new found potential in your eyes?
Firstly, look at photographs. Lots of them. In books. On websites. In newspapers, magazines and social media. Pore over the photographs made by the giants of photography legend. Then carefully consider the ones you like; the ones that make you pause; the ones that shock or elicit emotion - what is it about them?
As a teenager I played the trumpet and joined a band. SLAB! (You can find us here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XBFrXBlW1SU) Naturally, I wanted to be the best I could. I used to think I would be a better trumpeter if I never listened to others. I didn't want to be influenced by what I heard. Now that attitude seems laughable. No Miles Davis; no Lee Morgan or Freddie Hubbard. I’d do it all myself. Probably why I never made it! Every generation stands on the shoulders of those who have gone before - building on ideas and perspectives to create its own. So go and look at the greats. Find what you love and envelope yourself in it. Wallow.
And don’t stop at photographs. Think of other art forms. Painting has given so many of its traditions to photography for obvious reasons; and in the paintings of early twentieth century artists such as Degas and Hopper, you can see photography giving something back. Look at what you like - what can your photography learn from it?
And what about music? We all have favourite songs, albums, artists and pieces. Heck, we can even listen to them while we take photos. I wonder what impact playing the Ramones or Beethoven may have on a street or landscape photography shoot. But how about attempting a jazz influenced photograph? All of that improvisation around a structure… think on.
Looking at how others saw the image through their viewfinder will help you learn to see things differently. But you do need to work at it. There is no easy solution, even if looking at all of these photographs is a pleasurable experience; it’s work too. It will transform how you think until such a time as you begin to do it instinctively.
Any image is made up of various components - to a greater or lesser extent.
Colours - contrasting, complementary and similar.
Patterns and Rhythms.
Look at the photographs you like with these things in mind and they will find their way into your sub-conscious.
These qualities - composition, light etc - can all be a little mechanical and that's why what you bring to the photo is what makes it your own interpretation. That’s the beginning of developing your own signature, your style. That Cartier-Bresson photo you're reminded of; the sweet lick of that Chet Baker trumpet solo that tugs at you as you frame the shot; those Tom Waits lyrics that curl the corners of your mouth; even the smell of coffee from the bar next door and the last wisps of fog resonate differently in each of us, ensuring that you and I produce quite different interpretations of the same scene.
On the street, you will also develop an ability to anticipate what's coming. Rather than simply keeping a finger on the shutter and shooting continuously, wait until the right moment. That's not to say I never shoot a burst. Shoot within a tight timeframe which contains several possible best scenarios or (as Henri Cartier-Bresson defined them) "decisive moments.” My day job surrounds me with people and that definitely helps here. Watch people; how they act and react. Learn to predict what is coming next.
Sometimes it’s a place not a person that you need to watch. A place just waiting for the right person. A blue wall waiting for a yellow umbrella; a zebra crossing waiting for a striped dress; a sign waiting for the punchline to appear. It's a question of waiting....Finding the place and just waiting.
Sometimes, on a photo walk, everything just works. It feels as if the camera gods are showering me with shots. Other times, nothing. I do know that the more I am in the right mindset, and bear these in mind, the more generous the camera gods appear to be. You make your own luck just as much with a camera as in any other area of life. However, the more you have these in mind the more the camera gods seem to smile on you. The better you are prepared mentally before looking through the viewfinder, the more successful you will be each time you pick up your camera to shoot.
And, you never know when that ideal shot is waiting - I’ve hovered around for ages for a shot that I was expecting and never quite got, only to walk around the next corner into something even better. Be prepared.