Two Approaches to Photography

I want to write more about non-gear things this year, so let me kick that off with some words that address a photo’s premise. Let’s see if I can keep this article short ;~). The over/under today is 12 paragraphs...

First up, is the intent behind the photograph. Beyond some spontaneous opportunities that occur any time you’re carrying a camera, most serious enthusiasts seem to have a specific intent behind what they go out to do:

  • Copy — They’ve seen a specific photo somewhere, and they want to capture the same image for themselves. Often, this is seen as “education,” as to duplicate an image exactly means getting all the component parts dialed in the same as the original. Even us pros do that from time to time—sometimes virtually—just to see if that’s the same thing we would do in that same place/situation/time.
  • Imitate — “Sincerest form of flattery”, right? Here the idea is to study a photographer’s style and see if you can duplicate that, often with different subjects. This moves beyond the specifics of an individual capture (aperture, shutter speed, etc.) and gets to trying to think like another photographer and understand how they approach subjects. With Galen Rowell, my mentor in the late 90’s, that seemed somewhat easy at first: start with a 20mm lens ;~). But in practice, it proved much more difficult to achieve.
  • Inspired by — This is the point where it truly starts to become “your photo.” You’re no longer trying to copy something specifically, but you’re trying to, as Susan Sontag puts it, stand on the shoulders of those that came before you.

Your homework: figure out which level of intent you’re at, and try to move up to the next one on the list. 

Second, I want to write about what’s in the photo itself. Again, we have a sequence of increasing complexity that most people move through as they try to improve their images:

  • NounIt’s a photograph of "a lion". In fact, it’s probably a photograph of a lion’s head. In the old magazine photo editor jargon, we called this a “reference photo.” 
  • Adjective(s) NounIt’s a photograph of "a fly-infested lion". Okay, we’ve added something of interest. This is no longer just a photograph of a lion, but is starting to say something. This lion is different than lions in general.
  • Adjective(s) Noun VerbIt’s a photograph of "a fly-infested lion swatting flies". Adding action, implied or real, is good. Not only is this lion different than lions in general, but he’s taking action and doing something.
  • SentenceIt’s a photograph of "flies are attracted by dried blood on an annoyed lion”. Did you notice? This sentence flips the subject! It’s about the flies and what they’re doing. The lion is suddenly just a prop in the image. How much lion do you need? More flies is better than fewer flies. Note that the more meat you put on the original idea (lion), the easier it starts to get to photograph, as you’re being directed by the sentence.
  • PoemIt’s a photograph of "Majestic and annoyed, trapped in a cage of bugs” This is where your photograph just went from good to great. Notice I didn’t even use the word “lion,” but used instead a haiku-like structure that tells an entire story. 

Your homework: figure out what level of thing is in your photographs, and try to move up to the next one on my list. This works best with a repeatable situation/subject. I’ve used a consistent example in my descriptions (wild lion) that I know that I’ll encounter often on safari. But instead of looking for a photograph of a lion, I’m looking for a poem.

Dang, it’s the over that won. Edit harder, Thom-san… 

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