I get nervous when I hear teachers spouting platitudes, especially when they are expressed in the imperative. Do this. Do that. And I get really nervous when I hear my students repeating them. Platitudes are easy to remember. They simplify things. But they do not, generally speaking, teach. They do not change the way we think, only the way we act. And that’s a problem because prescriptively changing our behaviour without thinking leads to the same kind of thoughtless and unintentional behaviour that the platitude was initially spouted to prevent.
Let me give you an example that’s been chafing me in all the wrong places:
Zoom with your feet (hereafter referred to as ZWYF because that makes it sound more sinister).
On first glance ZWYF sounds great. The kernel of truth that got wrapped up in this silly edict is this: for the love of St. Ansel, move your damn feet. Get close physically! Not bad advice much of the time. Less applicable however when you’re photographing lions. Personal safety aside, there’s a downside that’s worse than getting horribly maimed: your photographs might not get any better. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a HUGE fan of getting close. But, with apologies to Robert Capa, getting close is not a magical “make it better” formula.
You see, ZWYF tries to solve one problem, namely the need for people who only shoot with prime lenses to feel smug, but it introduces another. Moving your position relative to a subject is not remotely the same thing as changing your focal length. Focal lengths behave differently and, here’s the important part, they change the relationships of elements to each other in a way that is different than moving the camera itself.
“Understanding this will make you a better photographer than just blindly following a platitude, which is really just a rule dressed in drag, disguised as wisdom.”
In other words, you can’t ZWYF. It’s not possible. You can zoom. You can move your feet. They aren’t the same thing and they don’t accomplish the same visual results as each other. When I photograph the only thing that matters to me is making the photograph the way it’s begging me to be made. And I don’t know that until I move around, usually dodging and weaving, in and out, like a punch-drunk (just drunk?) boxer. I am constantly moving my position as well as tweaking my focal length, watching as I do that how the elements appear to move around relative to each other and to the frame itself. Sometimes I move closer but pull my focal length much wider, increasing the size of the foreground element. Sometimes I back up but rack the lens out to a longer focal length, pushing the foreground and background closer while also keeping it all in frame. I move. I zoom. It’s a dance and there’s a lot of improvising.
Understanding this will make you a better photographer than just blindly following a platitude, which is really just a rule dressed in drag, disguised as wisdom. And y’all know how I feel about rules. This is one of the reasons I like zoom lenses so much. I know, primes are really sexy. They’re pure, or so I’m told. And I know people who love, and make astonishing work with, their prime lenses. They embrace that constraint. But it’s really important to me to control the elements in my frame and the way they relate -spatially and conceptually – to each other. Follow the rule or don’t. Use primes or zooms. The only thing that matters to me is making stronger, more intentional photographs, and I’ll do whatever I need to with my feet, or my zoom lens, to do that.
For the Love of the Photograph,
PS – Want more like this? I send these articles out every two weeks to photographers around the world who want to improve their craft and explore their creativity and I’d love to include you. Tell me where to send it and I’ll send you a copy of my best-selling eBook Make Better Photographs, as well bi-weekly articles, first-glimpse monographs of my new work, and very occasional news of resources to help you keep moving forward in this craft we love.
“Each and every one of your emails inspire and motivate me to want to jump right out of my chair away from my computer and shoot for the love of it . Thank you David.” – Millie Brown