Walking through Jodhpur with a friend last week he asked me a series of questions about the way I think when I photograph, specifically: how do I prioritize and make the decisions that I do? Do you choose aperture first, or shutter? Do you reach for a wider lens or a tighter? Do you back up, get close? So many decisions, how do you approach it? Here are a couple thoughts and then the two guiding questions I’ve recognized are always bouncing around my brain when I make photographs. The photographs I make depend heavily on how I answer these questions
First, it’s important to remember that how I, or anyone that’s been doing this for half a lifetime or more, think about things will be different than for those a little newer to the game. After years so much of the thoughts become sub-conscious, the program running in the background. Focusing and exposing and some of the mechanics is no longer the main concern, only because it just kind of happens in your hands if you’re paying attention even a little. So on that account, it’s a little easier. There’s less to think consciously about. The benefits of this, and so-called muscle memory, are many, and are the reason I wrote this article, The Best Camera.
The two big questions always running through my head, from which many smaller questions come, are these: What do I want to say? And, How can I best say that?
What do I want to say? I walk around a corner in India, Italy, wherever, and see something that makes me put my camera quickly to my eye. But why?What was it that lit me up inside? A beam of light? The dust? The mood? The action of the thing? The elegance? The grit? Let’s say it’s the woman sweeping in the image at the top of this post (rss readers can find it here): for me it was two primary things: the shape of the woman sweeping and the dust that she was kicking up. What I wanted to say was not a complicated thing, it had no agenda, simply: look at that. Look at the way the light catches the dust, look at the relationship between the woman sweeping and the woman just walking by. Now I ask the more practical question: how can I give that subject its strongest expression, or…
How can I best say that? Or, to put it another way, what do I want the photograph to look like? The latter question is more about possibilities than finding one specific answer. In the case of the woman I was photographing I knew it had to be backlit because moving around her would change the way the light hit the dust relative to my camera and I’d lose the magic of that. I’d also lose the silhouettes. I knew I needed to dramatically underexpose the scene, or expose for the highlights, and so I cranked my aperture down (to f/20) because I was already at a shutter speed that would work (1/125) and there was a chance I might get a pinpoint of sun poking through the overhead awnings, and y’all know I’ve got a weakness for sun flare and starbursts. The ISO was 800 which is my starting place on mornings like this and delivers perfectly good images. But had I wanted to say something about the motion of the scene I would have cranked the ISO down, and opened the shutter to give me something closer to 1/15 or 1/8 to make the motion part of the image.
Vision-Priority Mode. I’ve told you before I shoot entirely on manual these days. I’m faster this way. But it’s preference not dogma. Use whatever mode you need to to make photographs quickly and without too much messing around. The most important thing is that you remain in the moment and give your attention to answering the above two questions, not encumbering the process with a third question: ok, now which dials and buttons do I use to get there. You should know that. It should be second-nature. The camera can’t do it for you. What mode should you use? The one that you can use fastest, that allows you to make the images you want to make, that say what you want to say in the strongest possible ways.
When we start all we want is to answer simple (but vexing) questions: how do I expose this damn thing, and how do I get it focus. Once you can do that there are better questions. Try it next time you’re out. If “what do I want to say?” is too large a question, try: “what specifically about this scene am I reacting to?” Find a way to express that. Is it about colour? Light? Shape? Is it action that requires a different POV (point of view) or a relationship between foreground and background that requires a different lens. With time you’ll get better – faster – at finding these starting points. But they are only that: starting points. Rarely is my first try successful. I put the camera to my eye and play, try, experiment, looking at the results in the viewfinder as I shoot them (another advantage of mirrorless cameras and their electronic viewfinders), and then tweaking my approach. But all the while I’m asking myself, reminding myself, two of my most important questions are: what do I want to say, to point at, and how do I want the image to look, what will give that subject its best expression. We have an insane number of ways of accomplishing things with a camera.
Like this kind of approach? Around June 15, my new book, The Soul of the Camera, The Photographer’s Place in Picture-Making, will be released. You can pre-order it now on Amazon, or get your hands on a signed edition here while they last.
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