We all hunt down photographs in our own inimitable ways. No one's right and no one's wrong. Walker Evans would work all day and expose six sheets of film; Pete Turner was once photographed reclining on a mountain of his discarded slides. It's up to every individual how they work, how they do things.
Over the years, however, I've noticed that I have a pretty clear pattern. Most of the time. My friend Kim Kirkpatrick once said something that always stuck with me—he said that he sometimes knows when he's at a place that there's a photograph "there somewhere" even though he might not know what it is right away. I get that too. Often, I'll sort of sense that something's there, and I'll have to work the subject till I find it—work toward the picture, sort of grope my way to it, bit by bit, frame by frame. Trying, discarding, looking again. I do that again and again.
What follows is a trivial example, but it's a very clean example. It just shows the way I work.
I checked the file numbers and these frames go from XX388 to XX412, and I checked the timestamps—the first one was taken at 9:21:26 p.m. and the last one at 9:25 p.m. So I took 24 exposures in a little more than three and a half minutes. That's pretty typical.
So here's the snapshot version. See something, take a snap.
Move in on the subject a little.
But the picture has no point, no center of interest, no "focus." So I'll try concentrating on his face more. But the light is obviously atrocious, and I can't even see his face. But it's this shot where I see that there's something going on with those legs.
So try that and yeah, that's where the picture is, not his face. But of course now it's not composed in the frame.
So do that, and there you are.
In processing: the color is not only contributing nothing, but is actually actively ugly, so get rid of that. Very simple processing—add a little vignetting to bring down the top corners, add just a touch of "Structure" (Nik Silver Efex Pro 2's term for added microcontrast), and balance the tones, then run my regular routines for print color (a touch of sepia) and edges and I've got my picture:
My picture. This might not be the picture you would have found—hopefully not; in any given situation you would have found something that appealed to you. You would have done it your way.
I've gone from the one on the left to the one on the right. Might seem pretty obvious when you look at it this way! Might not have taken you 24 shots and 3.5 minutes. But did you envision the finished picture when you first saw the one on the left, the snapshot version, at the top of this post? Again, though, I'm not talking about this specific image—it's just an example. I'm talking about the process I go through when I shoot. That process of exploring, probing, working the subject. I find myself doing something similar to this over and over again.
And when I don't find something fairly easily, what I like to do is...give up. Montaigne, talking about encountering difficult passages in a book, says, "I do not bite my nails over them; after making one or two attempts I give them up.... What I do not see immediately ["soon" would be a better word in my case], I see even less by persisting. Without lightness, I achieve nothing; application and over-serious effort confuse, depress, and weary my brain."
I like that. Don't press too hard. Just look at the thing for a while, and, if nothing's happening, shrug and move on. You'll know it if you're on the trail of a picture.
Of course there are a thousand ways to find a picture, and this is only one of those ways. It's not better or worse than other ways. It just fits me.
Tomorrow over morning coffee I'll talk about why this picture is only halfway home at this point.
"Open Mike" is the anything-goes page of TOP, and isn't even always off-topic (although I don't usually talk about my own pics on weekdays.)
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Nigel Robinson: "I think you've described a very valid approach in exclusion of elements in a photograph. I was trying to explain something like this to a friend the other day but with regards to landscapes. I said that I find ift easier to photograph a rock than a mountain. You've said how you find the rock."
Mike replies: True enough, as long as you remember that that wasn't what I was trying to show. The point is not to exclude, the point is to find the picture. Sometimes that means exclusion. Other times it might mean turning around and photographing what's in back of you. There are not meant to be any principles of "composition" implied here. (It's one of the hazards of using examples—there are frequently more lessons that can be drawn from an example than what is intended.)
bongo (partial comment): "Is that your shoe (bottom right of center)?"
Mike replies: I'm crestfallen that some people (two so far) are seeing the image so far off from the way I intend it and the way I see it on my monitor. The lower part of the B&W frame should be completely black, and you shouldn't be able to see the "shoe" (unless you do shadow recovery). Do you use a calibrated monitor? I'm using a fully calibrated (with a ColorVision Spyder3 Spectrocolorimeter Model 1005) ATI Radeon HD 5750 (mid-2011 27" Apple iMac). I'm wondering how you see the rest of the images on TOP...could be quite far off from the way they are meant to look.
bongo replies to Mike: "I don't use any fancy-smancy monitor calibration—I use online tools—such as the one on DPR—and my montitor is spot on by those standards. I loaded your photo up in CS3, and 'Auto Levels' actually brightened the image up a little. I also tried adjusting brightness in CS3 turned all the way down to –150 and I could still barely make out the shoe but only since I knew it was there. On the other hand this could become your trademark—always leaving your shoe somewhere inconspicuously in the picture."
Stephen Scharf: "I like 'em 'cause I love seeing pictures of Butters. Whenever, however, wherever, whatever. If it's Butters, it's all good."
Mike replies: :-) You are a good man, Stephen, a good man.