My friend Earl Dunbar from Rochester swung through town on a photographing trip the other day, and we had lunch in Hammondsport. Participating in the time-honored geek genre of "photo-friend across the lunch table" pictures, he took a few snaps of me with his cool Leica CL and 40mm Leica Summicron-C, and I set up the Fuji at table level and framed a shot through some bottles and wine glasses.
I've been bothered recently by a tendency to not take enough frames. Sometimes I'll take two, four, or six shots of something, think, oh, I've probably got it, and stop. Then I get back to the computer and have to face the fact that no, dummy, you didn't get it—should have tried a little harder.
So I've been trying to force myself to take more exposures lately. I kind of overdid it with Earl—I took more or less the same shot fifty-three times.
As everybody always says, "digital is free, you might as well take a lot of shots."
Are digital exposures really free, though? Not to me. The more shots you take, the harder it is to edit.
My now-very-ex girlfriend Sara had an expression. When you had a decision to make or were trying to figure something out, she'd say you have to "feel into it," meaning you have to let it in and then give it time to settle in order for your feelings about it to gradually clarify, like muddy water in a glass eventually becomes clear when the particles settle to the bottom. I've never been an immediate "yes-no" type of person when editing; I'm looking—hoping—for that mysterious je ne sais quoi that makes a photograph a little something more—doesn't always happen, of course—so I have to look at a frame for a while and feel into it before I know if it's a keeper or a throwaway.
The more frames, the longer that takes.
So shooting a lot has a high cost for me. All things considered, I'd rather get it right from life...pay close attention, be alert, get it when you see it. And only have two, four, or six shots to look at when you get home. More often than not, when I get a good shot, I know it before it reaches the computer. The late Jane Bown (who I guess is one of my heroes) said she noticed that the first shots she took and the last shots she took were usually the best, so she stopped taking all the ones in the middle. Which of course is startlingly illogical and also delightfully whimsical, so you can't help but like it.
Let's face it, no photograph in the genre of photographer-friend-across-the-lunch-table has ever been a masterpiece. The two friends involved might like it, though. Earl is good company and it was nice to see him.
Why I Photoshop
This also illustrates nicely another little insight I had yesterday, when I was putting up the "On the Way Home" farmland shot. I had finishing loading in the post when I suddenly realized I had Photoshopped one of the pictures slightly. Given what I've said about that around here lately, I realized I couldn't do that without acknowledging it. What I suddenly realized was why I Photoshop.
It's almost always to get rid of some "typo." Let me 'splain. A typo or misspelling in writing is a small annoyance, like a tiny bug pestering you. It serves to stop up the flog of the words and interrupt the communication and make you stumble a little...you think, wait a minute, 'the flog of the words?' Shouldn't that be flow? And you've taken your mind off what the writer was saying. Similarly, in pictures there might be little visual confusions where something looks like it's wrong somehow. It might distort a shape, or just not be "readable," or it might make something look like something else.
This picture is an example. Here's the unretouched frame:
If you'll notice, just behind his head, on the right side—my right, and yours—at the top edge of the frame, there's something dark on the wall behind Earl that creates a tonal merger with the shadowed side of his head. To me that looks almost subliminally like there's something wrong with the shape of his head—like it's a little deformed, a little squared off on the right side. That's just not a thought I want in the viewer's mind as they look at the photograph—that "what's wrong here?" thought. So that's what Photoshop is so nice for and the kind of thing I'll use it for. I seldom do things to "prettify" the picture, like get rid of the wrinkles on Earl's T-shirt, because doing that kind of thing just doesn't interest me. I use it more because I've judged what might be a visual distraction that "interrupts" the viewer's assimilation of the picture, in the way that a typo is an interruption of thought, and I'll fix that.
By the way—I'm changing the subject yet again—the photographer-friend-across-the-table genre always reminds me of my dear friend Nick Hartmann, who now lives in Phoenix, definitely one of the world's good guys. Nick's photography for many years consisted of photographing the life of his friends and family and then sending prints to them as gifts. This picture of Earl is sort of a Nick-ish picture. Nick's way of being a photographer is a very generous and other-oriented way to be one; a person could do a lot worse.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Tony Roberts: "'We must avoid however, snapping away, shooting quickly and without thought, overloading ourselves with unnecessary images that clutter our memory and diminish the clarity of the whole' —Henri Cartier-Bresson."
Robert Roaldi: "I read of an interview with Elmore Leonard once. Talking about his compact prose, the interviewer asked how he managed to write like that. He answered that he left out the parts nobody reads. Your story about Jane Brown reminded me of that."
sneye (partial comment): "Theoretically, increasing sample size should increase the probability of 'success.' But in practice, sometimes there is no image there in the first place or I am not quite in the right mood to engage with the subject or simply can't be bothered to sort out the rubbish."
Mike replies: That's true. But then, lots of times, the picture we thought we saw didn't turn out to be one. We always have to be open to that possibility. I'm still not quite sure if this is a good picture of Earl, or if I just missed in 53 slightly different ways.
Bob Johnston [no relation]: "I think that the number of frames needed depends on the subject or type of photograph. Your great shot of Earl is a photo of someone who was not posing. If he had blinked or moved a hand into an awkward position you could have missed the shot. Having said that, three or four should have been enough. Changing the background is perfectly ok in this shot.The intention of the image to show an impression of Earl is enhanced by the edit. A photograph of this type is not just about recording a moment. It's about your impression of Earl."
Mike replies: Re 'three or four should have been enough,' note that there were only four exposures where Earl was leaning forward with that engaged expression on his face.