What have I been doing these past few weeks? No, I haven’t been taking pictures. I’ve actually been playing catch up with a jewelry class I enrolled in to finish up my elective credits at St. John’s. I can’t say I found it very interesting, but at least I got to do some work with my hands. The pieces below are made out of steel wire and multiple sheets of watercolor paper.
I haven’t been able to work on any photos recently on account of Hurricane Sandy hitting New York. Luckily, everyone I know has gotten out of it with just a pile of inconvenience, but there are people out here who have been completely devastated. The hurricane aside however, I wanted to talk about the blackout.
My town in particular was left without power for 12 days now, and while electricity has been restored to some parts of town (my house was restored today, the 12th day), others are still without light or heat. Now as terrible as this is, I have to say, deep down I’m happy we lost power. The hurricane aside, and despite my personal inconveniences, I found myself looking around my town and thinking about how happy I was to see us all in the middle of this mess. I wish we could’ve had this blackout without the hurricane. I wish all of us would have been left in the dark for a week or so wondering how to get gas, and how to get physical cash out of our bank accounts.
Society needed a blackout. More than anything, society needed a slap in the face to remind us of what’s important in life. For all the pampered people who attach value to the most insignificant things. For the people who could no longer find a purpose or find the ability to function when stripped from their luxuries. They disgust me. That blackout was the most essential event of their lives. If I could somehow extend it for the people who lamented and bitched over being separated from their first world luxuries when in reality they were only mildly inconvenienced, I would have. I would have kept this blackout indefinitely until they all came to terms with it, realized how nonsensical their values were, and how sadly dependent they are on factors outside of their control.
I’ll admit, there are people who needed power to work, and people in poor health who needed it to physically keep themselves alive. Hell most of my work is done online. I’ve been running around this past week and a half trying to find a power source and tethering internet from my phone whenever I got an email from work. But among all of those people, there are still others who just wanted an excuse to escape reality. That was more apparent than ever when the blackout hit and they found themselves taking sleeping pills to push through the day or sitting around too unmotivated to finish their work. They indulge themselves in these luxuries and lose sight of what was important to them to begin with.
Life carried on during the blackout. And it honestly saddens me that some people were so detached from everything once they were separated from their cell phones and computers that they couldn’t see something so magnificent.
I believe a lot of the effort that goes into a photograph tends to get lost as people look at photography as a near instant process. You can’t really blame them though, it seems silly to compare the effort that goes into a photograph to other mediums of art when you realize the image is captured in a fraction of a second. There’s so much more to that shutter click however (and I’m not even getting into post processing!), as it involves composition, subject matter, story, or in short, planning. Get out of the habit of thinking of photography as a quick process, and put more thought into creating each individual shot. With that in mind, I’ve broken down this article into five simple tips for getting better pictures:
Compose your shot beforehand.
Before you click that shutter, stop and think. Plan your composition and get out of the habit of shooting with the intention of cropping the shot afterwards. Not only will you get a working idea of how a good photo is composed, but you’ll gradually learn to compose your shots more quickly and naturally over time. In other words, you’ll develop an “eye” for the photo.
Think about how composition relates to your subject.
Planing your composition goes beyond just identifying how you want to frame your shot. Think about why that frame in particular is relevant to your subject matter. Ask yourself: why is it important for you to move closer? Why is it important to shoot at that particular angle? Why is your choice of framing more interesting than any other framing option? You may be trying to draw attention to a specific subject but your framing my cause your audience to focus on something else in the photo. Take a look at all of the pieces inside of your frame. Are they distracting, or do they add to the photo?
Don’t rely on burst mode, learn to frame one shot at a time.
Try taking your camera out of burst mode and make the effort to shoot one frame at a time. Shooting in burst mode when it isn’t necessary builds the habit of producing massive collections of pictures to pick and choose from, rather than assembling a thoughtful and meaningful collection. This will only give you more work to do.
Put down your camera and plan.
As important as it is to be constantly shooting and practicing, you need to take the time to plan your shoots accordingly if you want it to come out as you envisioned. While this applies especially for staged and studio work, I found myself a victim to lack of planning during a backpacking trip through South East Asia. At the end of the trip, I found myself mildly disappointed in a lot of my photographs (which can be viewed here). I thought they were fine photographs on their own, but they didn’t work together properly. I wanted a collection of photos that described everything I saw, and that was the problem. “Everything” had no story. It was generic and all encompassing. These photos were essentially a collection of snapshots.
There was no story, no emotion, no familiarity, and most importantly, looking over the work gave me no feeling of attachment to the subject. It wasn’t until I made my way through three countries and finally arrived in Burma that I started producing something I believed worked as a series… and that was simply because I met a Burmese family that took me into their home (because of that, I had the luxury of familiarity and good subject interaction on my side, but that’s a topic for another time. This article is focused mainly on taking time to plan the shot).
Another photographer, Erik Lacson commented on the “snapshot” feeling of my work while in SE Asia and gave me a piece of advice that really stuck to me. He told me to leave my camera at home for a day, and take the time to observe my environment and write down what I see as well as any ideas. The following day, pick an idea to focus on and head back out until you get six good shots relevant to that concept. You see, I wasn’t shooting with direction, I was shooting aimlessly.
Prepare for, and anticipate your subject.
If you aren’t shooting in a staged environment, think ahead and anticipate your subject. If you see something interesting happening in front of you, don’t just snap your shot and call it a day. Take control of the situation. Take a moment to analyze what’s going on, anticipate, frame, wait, and shoot. Photography shouldn’t be a rushed job.
Take a look at the shot below of the two kids floating along Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia. After initially capturing a few quick shots just to ensure I had at least some material to work with, I immediately stopped shooting, aimed my camera, and waited. I didn’t know what I was waiting for in particular, but I knew there was a better shot to be had and I wasn’t going anywhere until these kids gave me that shot. Eventually, their buckets aligned and the girl took a blow from a whistle and I said “this is it,” and I took my shot.
This planning isn’t just limited to documentary and street work. Anyone’s who’s familiar with shooting events (parties, sweet 16′s, weddings, etc) can tell you what a pain it is to capture someone giving a speech. The first few shots usually make your subject look like an idiot belching into a microphone. I usually like to wait for the moment when they stop to catch a breath before capturing the shot. In other words, you don’t need to necessarily rush and capture the shot right in front of you, give yourself some time to prepare and anticipate.