Truth Behind the Shutter: Advanced Topics

Curiously enough, I still get asked a lot about things relating to photography. In the previous two installments of “Truth Behind the Shutter” I went over some of the basics of how I go about taking my photographs. Most of the explanation contained in those accounts was of a technical nature (if you want to read them, just click on the “photography” tag). I suppose that the learning of how to take “technically” good photos is all good and stuff, but there is perhaps a feeling that there’s still a bit more to it than that. I would be inclined to agree, but describing what that extra little bit is is very difficult, and I am not even sure that I am good enough at photography to even give advice on this. Anyway, assuming that I do occasionally tap that extra little bit, I’m just going to describe as best I can, what goes through my head.

Jente and Josh

Photographs are very powerful things. I am only really just starting to appreciate that. One thing you can always do is just take a lot of photos randomly, and hope for the best. With digital photography, this strategy is much less expensive than it used to be, but even so, when reviewing the photos, you still need to know what you’re looking for. For the purposes of this discussion, we shall refer to that extra little bit as the “magic”. The photo above of Jente and Josh was taken at a small Christmas celebration with the Aussies in Holland. There was something about that party, it wasn’t raucous or anything (although there were raucous moments), but it was quite subdued in mood (and lighting). I really wanted to try to capture that in my photographs and this photograph seemed to capture it best. This might sound strange, but you just sort of have to “feel” the moment.

Everyone probably knows what I mean if I talk about the mood in a room changing when someone walks in or out. The same can sometimes be said of individuals smiling, or when a decisive moment is reached in a game of poker. This “mood” is often reflected in people’s faces and expressions, which in turn contribute to the mood itself (there are probably differential equations describing this). Thing about a photograph, is that at any one time it only captures a very small part of the room. Moreover, it’s capture is limited to things that can only be perceived with your eyes. So the photographer’s challenge (as I see it) is to somehow capture a very complex emotion, which is the sum of events leading up to a point as well as the product of multiple things, perceived through multiple senses, and to capture it in a two dimensional visual representation.

I tried a lot of different things that night; taking pictures of ornaments, taking very wide-angle shots with a lot of dead space, taking very close-crop face-shots. All in an effort to convey this mood of contentment, yet with a nagging sense of loneliness. I already knew that I was going to make all my photos black and white, or at least desaturate them considerably. It was not the right kind of mood for colour photographs. Feeling moods and emotions is one thing, and it is very important for a photographer to be able to do that, as well as sensing the emotions of others. But capturing it in such a way that similar emotions are triggered in the viewer of your photographs is extremely difficult. There is no formula for doing it, you just have to feel the magic.

Silver medal

This might sound strange, but I’m not a huge fan of sports photography. I find it a bit boring. You see, if you’re a sports photographer for a newspaper, there are certain kinds of shots that they are after, and they are mostly boring. In speed skating, where a perfect race looks almost identical to a not-so-great race, the photographer’s task is challenging. If I were a sports photographer for a newspaper, I would probably be fired very quickly because I would submit lots of non-standard photos, such as the one above. Without context… it still works. You’ve got a girl who looks a little disappointed. Notice the flag, indicating that she was probably a medalist… obviously not a gold medalist. If this accompanied a newspaper article, you would know that her name is Jenny Wolf, the current world record holder, who has held that record for a few years now, who is the leader in standings for this event at world cups, and who was heavy favourite for the gold medal. Now the photo makes even more sense. She has that distant look in her eyes, that “what if” look. I’m sure she was happy with her silver medal but I’d bet a lot of money that at the moment when this photo was taken, she was thinking more about the gold medal that she didn’t get, than the silver that she did. With a photograph, you’re not just trying to tell a story with the image, but you’re also trying to convey emotions.

Obvious emotional moments

Sport photography shouldn’t be boring, because there’s something about sport that brings out a very complex range of emotions in people, and not just the athletes. Sometimes, you’re lucky and you get moments like the one above, which happen during the course a sporting event. Moments where the emotion and the context are (literally) screamingly obvious.

a less-obvious moment

And at other times… between the hurly-burly of the action. Maybe it’s when someone is getting ready on the start line and has some kind of strange ritual, or perhaps it’s the moment when they recognize someone in the crowd, but these moments are much more interesting, because they remind us that athletes are also human. This is one of my favourite photos from the 2010 winter Olympics because it captures the moment when Annette realized that her olympic dream (at least in the 500m) was over. She did bounce back later and get a silver medal in the 1000m (missing gold by only 0.02 of a second!)

Eric Heiden

The portrait is easily one of the most challenging types of photos to take. It is relatively easy to teach someone how to take a technically-sound photograph, but teaching someone how to take a good portrait is difficult. Why? Because being a good portrait photographer depends a lot less on your technical skills with a camera, but much more on you ability to connect with and interact with people. Most people freak out in front of a camera, and even if they don’t, their behaviour changes noticeably when they’ve got a large camera pointed at them. As if that wasn’t bad enough, you’re trying to distill the very essence of a person in a photograph, and sometimes (often) you will hardly know the person you are photographing. Of course, it helps to remember that the person you are photographing is themselves, so you can hardly capture a photograph that doesn’t communicate *some* of their essence.

The first step is to get the subject relaxed. The best way to do this is to talk to them. This accomplishes two things – firstly, it relaxes them so they are more “themselves” and less “them reacting strangely to a camera”; secondly, it gives you the opportunity to try to get to know them a bit better. The ideal portrait photograph is one where a close friend of the subject looks at the photo and say “that is SOOOO [insert subject’s name here]”. The above photo is one that I took of Eric Heiden (who I encourage everyone to look up if you don’t already know who he is). Eric is such a chilled-out, down to earth guy that I didn’t realize who he was when he came to sit with us for lunch. I eventually realized and was somewhat awestruck by how totally cool and accessible this guy was considering he is the greatest speed skater ever to have lived. I wanted to capture his very relaxed nature, which was difficult because the room where we ate our lunch was also next to the warm up/down bikes at the Utah Olympic Oval, so the background was always very cluttered and busy. I employed a very simple trick which was to shoot from a lower angle so that only the upper part of the wall and the ceiling would be in the background of the shot. He now uses this photo as his profile pic on facebook.

The real key to finding the magic has nothing to do with lenses, sensors, focal lengths and whatnot. That’s like saying that the key to good poetry is all about good punctuation and vocabulary. Obviously you will need to learn about all those technical aspects in order to take technically sound photographs. But really good photographs, the ones that reach out of their two-dimensional confines and speak to our hearts, rely on… well… our hearts. You need to have an open heart, and connect with the subject matter, be it a landscape, a flower, or another person; and you have to have to the courage to let your heart speak through your photos. It’s about noticing the small details, the quiet moments, and being able to hear the whispers in the crowd, but it’s also about seeing the bigger picture at the same time, giving context. It should be like poetry, or music, always speaking to our hearts and always finding something new, something different… and occasionally something beautiful.

As I said before, it is difficult to describe. I spend a lot of time looking at the work of other photographers (and not just internet porn) for inspiration. Whenever I look at a photo I ask myself “what was the photographer thinking?”, “why did she make the photo like this?”, and I often ask the same questions of my own photos. It is important to allow yourself to “feel” the emotion of the image; try to be the image, and feel what it feels. Maybe it’s crying out in pain, frying some greasy bacon for breakfast, or maybe it’s giving you the cold shoulder, then try to communicate that. Also, keep it simple. It’s just a photograph. You look at it. That’s all. And practice, this is perhaps the most important thing.

Maybe none of what I just said makes any sense at all. That is probably part of the reason that people consider me a better photographer than a writer. But many have asked me about photography, and when I point them to the article about photo gear, and the two preceding articles – “The Truth Behind the Shutter” and “More Truth Behind the Shutter“, I am told that I haven’t said enough. Now I’ll probably be told that what I’ve said makes no sense… oh well. I guess it goes to show that you can’t learn how to be a good photographer just from reading. Good luck!

3 Comments on Truth Behind the Shutter: Advanced Topics

  1. Scott Dobbins // Friday, June 4, 2010 at 3:17 // Reply

    Great article! (Don’t be too hard on yourself–this does make sense.)

    I’ve found that many people simply want a bullet list of things that make a great photograph (as if it were that simple) and a recommendation of “the camera that takes the best photos”. The technical details can often be boiled down to a short list for starts, but most people (in the few times that I’ve been asked since I’m not a good photographer) find this unhelpful because this isn’t what’s holding them back. In terms of “the best camera”, I’ve always told people that a good photographer can take amazing photos with a cheap camera, though nicer cameras obviously make this process more efficient. The preconception of “expensive camera + list of technical strategies = good photographs” begins to fade away, and they’re on their way to becoming a better photographer. I think it’s mostly that people have the misconception that photography is easy (“all you have to do is aim and click the button”) and not much of an art form that holds them back.

    • thing is though… deconstructing all this only gets you so far.

      At the heart of it, that really is all that I do – I see something, I think “ooh, that looks nice”, and I take a picture.

      I think a lot of that other stuff, at least for me, happens on a subconscious level. Basically… years of being “the weird kid” and seeing things different from everyone else has somehow made me a good photographer.

      • Seeing things differently from other people definitely could make some interesting photos, though they still need to be somewhat accessible to people or they won’t make sense. I’ve never thought of you as “that weird kid” at all, though maybe that’s because I’ve only known you in college…

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