How is it that two photographers can stand in the same place and make two very different photographs? What accounts for the frustrating reality that, in that moment, one photographer can make something truly compelling and beautiful while the results of the other’s efforts are underwhelming? Surely it can’t be just better gear.
Sometimes it’s different gear. Different gear represents different possibilities, and if one photographer uses a tripod and a polarizing filter and the other has neither, then the results will be different. But what about when the gear is similar?
In my experience, it’s different thinking that explains the different results. Two photographers making different choices for different reasons will create different photographs, often very different photographs.
Photographs are made: they are created from a long series of choices that differ from one photographer to another. In the scenario above, it would be easy for the less experienced photographer to look at his image and say, “I made the same photograph, so why are they so different?” But that’s just it. They aren’t the same photograph; they’re different photographs of the same scene, and there is often a world of difference between the two.
In the same way that a great meal is rarely amazing only because of the ingredients, subject matter alone (our ingredients) rarely makes a photograph good or compelling.
A photograph is made of much more than the stuff you choose to include in the frame. Sure, you stood in roughly the same place, but what focal length did you use, and why? Did your faster shutter speed get in the way of representing the clouds in a way that a longer, slower shutter speed might have resulted in? Were your choices of aperture and the resulting depth of field the same? What about the moment you chose, or even the time of day? Did you underexpose it a bit? Use a filter, or introduce motion in the camera itself? Still not sure why the two photographs are so different?
And then, you pull the images into your chosen development tool, and one photographer brightens and warms their image while another does nothing. One might dodge and burn a little to lead the eye more effectively around the frame, or perhaps add contrast and selectively adjust saturation, while the other does nothing more than hitting Auto-tone and moving on.
Choices make the photograph, and it’s often a combination of many smaller choices rather than one big decision. It is often subtle, and subtlety comes from experience.
For example, it takes experience (perhaps I should say mindful experience) to learn that cranking the saturation up on the whole image is often less effective than raising it slightly in some areas while lowering it in others. That choice alone can reduce the visual competition created by too many colours at play and make a much stronger photograph without changing the basic ingredients. The same is true of sharpening or adding exposure or contrast. It takes experience to know that it’s not about getting the correct exposure but about getting the most expressive exposure.
Photography is not unlike cooking, though I don’t know many cooks who would say, “You know, I had the same ingredients and the same skillet, so I just can’t explain why the other meal tastes so much better.” Of course they can explain it. Cooking is their craft, and they know the end result comes down to the choices they made.
Cooking is not only about having ingredients and the tools to cook them. It’s about flavour profiles and textures and presentation and probably a million things I don’t understand because I’m not a chef, yet I do know a great meal isn’t made by a skillet but by a chef making great decisions. Interesting decisions. Unexpected, nuanced, and creative decisions that come not only from a deep knowledge of ingredients, tools, and techniques but also from how people experience flavour and texture: they know what makes a great meal.
Photographers are often too preoccupied with making “correct” decisions. Doing it by the book will get you “by the book” photographs, but is that all we want?
At the beginning, perhaps. Hell, when I started out, I would have been thrilled with “by the book.” But surely not as we mature in our craft. I hope that as we grow, we pay less attention to being merely correct, and spend more time being more creative in the combinations of our choices. Growth offers us the chance to start thinking less about the subject matter and the tools and more about how we might combine them in new ways to create certain feelings and tell specific stories, to make very different photographs with very similar tools and ingredients.
It’s in our choices, and choices come from thinking. Specifically, different choices come from thinking differently, and that leads to different results. Better results? Sometimes. But not always, though in those moments when the different choices lead to rubbish results, then you learn something, and you discover those particular ingredients don’t go so well together—at least not the way you put them together. Maybe the proportions were wrong. Maybe you seared when you should have baked. And yes, maybe it’s just that you just didn’t the right tool because sometimes that’s what makes the difference. I mean, there’s no way you’re going to make a great crème brulée using a hair dryer instead of a butane torch. (Of course a great chef who knows he’s missing a crucial tool will pivot and make something spectacular without it. Something different, sure, but something great. A great chef won’t make something mediocre and then blame his tools.)
So how do you learn to do this? I bet a great chef can sit down to a meal anywhere in the world—a meal that someone else cooked—and tell you more about it than you might ever guess. They’d talk about the ingredients, for sure, and how the potatoes in Peru are unlike potatoes anywhere else, but I bet the conversation would quickly become more interesting. What choices were made with those ingredients? What combinations of ingredients, in what proportions, and using which techniques resulted in those specific flavours? Which flavours and textures balance with, contrast with, or amplify each other to create the final result?
And maybe, if you’re sitting with a chef who truly loves their craft, they’ll tell you how they might have done it differently and to what effect, or which ideas this meal brings to mind for some hybrid dish they’ve only now just conceived. It’s highly unlikely they’ll rush home and buy a better skillet.
So I wonder, can you do the same with photographs? Can you look at another photographer’s work and let it wash over you and stir your emotions and imagination and then reverse engineer it to decode the choices made by that photographer? What did they do with their tools to mix the basic universal ingredients of every photograph: light, space, and time? Which combination of choices with gear, technique, and the elements in the frame resulted in this one photograph that makes you feel a certain way? And how might it all have been different had other choices been made? Think about it, because if you can do that when looking at the photograph, you’ll be better able to do it when making one.
This is a long, circuitous way of reminding you to study photographs. To reverse engineer them. To figure out why the photographs of others make you feel a certain way and how that was accomplished. Which choices did that photographer make? What was included and excluded? Does the focal length add something? What about shutter speed? The aperture, the placement of the camera? Is there mystery or mood in the image? Which choice or choices are responsible for that? Is it all down to the choice of moment or use of colour?
We should be doing this all the time, not only to learn our craft but to revel in it. We create photographs. That’s what we do. Shouldn’t we have a deep and growing sensitivity to what makes one image a compelling visual experience while another might fall short? Shouldn’t we be thinking a little less about what makes a great camera and much more about what makes a great photograph?
For the Love of the Photograph,
Want to explore this more? I wrote The Heart of the Photograph to explore the choices we make, specifically as they relate to how our photographs will be experienced. If you’re looking for your next challenge as a photographer or the spark of new inspiration, you can get The Heart of the Photograph here on Amazon, or from your favourite bookseller.