Thinking Photography : Introduction
Hoi An, Viet Nam (Kitty Wright)
This short series of articles about photography is the result of two interconnected processes. Firstly, after 10 years or so of my own engagement with photography, I increasingly felt the need to reflect upon my passion for photography and the importance it has had for me. Secondly, my career as an educator has inevitably meant that I have become involved in attempting to encourage and teach aspiring photographers – specifically within the thriving atmosphere of Exeter Camera Club. So, I have written this both to clarify and bring together my own ideas (to get a ‘bigger picture’) and to communicate some of this to enthusiastic, thoughtful and resourceful photographers who take their interest beyond mere recording and who wish to express their creativity through the photographic medium.
While my own photography tends to be people-based, I have widened my horizons with a good deal of landscape work in the last year and I will broaden the illustrations used on the website by getting help from my friends and colleagues with different interests, so I hope that these articles will be of relevance whatever your particular interests.
I certainly make no claim for original thinking and have gathered together numerous books, articles and web resources, distilled and interpreted them in the light of my own experience, illustrated the ideas with my own images (and those of friends) on my travel and documentary website (www.ianwrighttravel.co.uk) and tried to summarise some key ideas while including quotations where the point is made memorably. I list the major printed sources below and the website version of articles are often linked to web sources. In terms of dealing with the last two of my four areas of photographic thinking (below) – camera techniques and post-production techniques (Photoshop etc) – I will do little more than link the reader to resources which already deal effectively with the key issues but images in the Photo Stories section on the website will give details of both camera/lens and any editing work.
I would also stress, that my own interest in a more theoretical approach has come after developing a practical and intuitive understanding, both as a way of better understanding what I do and giving it a clearer future direction. Reflection on practice is perhaps the best trodden path to theory. My own experience is that learning photography is a rather trial-and-error practical process and the key factor is the doing – no-one can learn without a constant commitment to produce images. The end product – and that is what matters – is the images a photographer produces and these should speak without words.
There’s no simple pathway, no linear method, to learn about photography – nor any one direction of ‘progress’ - but I have found it useful to think about photography in four key areas.
1. The Person and the Subject
Any reflection about photography should perhaps begin by stepping back from the more obvious starting points of camera technique, composition or editing and production of prints. It seems to me that the role of photography in helping individuals develop and understand the world they live in – whether it is the social, political, natural, man-made world – is the foundation of a practical introduction to photography. What areas of life is the person interested in? What interests and expertise does the person bring to photography? What creates a sense of excitement and wonder? How has the person been informed and educated by the photography of accomplished photographers? What has the individual learned through their own photography? How has the experience of photographing affected the individual’s values and way of looking at life?
I would advise any photographer to continually look at – and take inspiration from – the work of accomplished photographers in their field(s) of interest and to generally take an interest in the history of photography.
So the person and their ‘vision’ is of great importance and the subjects that they choose will be different – panoramic landscapes, the world of nature, documentary and street photography, fashion and ‘glamour’, sport and music concerts, architecture and so on. Thankfully, the world of photography is as varied as the world itself – and individual interests and knowledge.
The first criteria of a powerful image – in my view – is whether it creates an emotional impact with the viewer – does it inform, educate, move the viewer? I quote David duChemin later in the series but he puts it succinctly in saying, ‘The most compelling images are more than a record of ‘I was here and saw this’. Instead, they become ‘I feel this way about this’. ‘I was in this place and saw it like this’. They are not acts of representation as much as they are acts of interpretation’ (David duChemin, ‘Within the Frame’, p4).
These ideas are discussed at greater length in the articles ‘Photography and Personal Vision’ and ‘Encounters and Engagement’. On my website there are also illustrated sections on Photo Stories and Travel Subjects which are relevant to these ideas.
2. Design (or Composition)
Subject and design (a term that seems to a large degree to have replaced ‘composition’ in an age when the computer allows so much ‘post-production’ editing) are inseparably inter-linked, ‘A good composition underlies the picture’s content without being intrusive …’ (Harald Mante, ‘The Photograph’ p7). Understanding the ‘rules’ of composition will not of course inevitably produce powerful images but understanding key compositional concepts (or the language of design) is as important in photography as knowing the chords when playing an instrument. David Prakel expresses this with a wonderful analogy, ‘Photography should be like jazz – an improvisory form of music where personal expression s based on a solid structure of learned chords and chord progression’ (Composition, p8).
Critique evenings – when we look at and comment upon member’s images – are a key element of Exeter Camera Club’s programme and are keenly enjoyed as an educative and learning context. The series of articles on ‘design elements’ aim to address many of the terms that arise in in these discussions – key terms like framing, cropping, viewpoint, line, shape, juxtaposition, contrast, colour, focus, depth, perspective, the decisive moment are discussed (and illustrated in the web version). The most powerful images have a simple uncluttered composition - ‘isolate and simplify’ is my simple mantra.
3. Camera Techniques
To achieve the results a photographer desires he or she must have command of basic camera techniques – revolving around the ‘triangulation’ of aperture, shutter speed and iso settings – and to understand the consequences of using different focal length lenses. This is primarily a practical task and is best learned ‘in the field’ but a little discussion of theory is both necessary and helpful.
4. Post Production Skills
By post-production skills, I mean work on images after they leave the camera and in contemporary photography this means entering the world of the computer rather than the darkroom – so basic workflow, use of software like Photoshop (and it’s numerous plug-ins), Aperture and Lightroom are key areas here. Once again there is an immense array of literature available and my intention is to signpost these and outline briefly my own methods rather than attempt to cover already well-trodden ground.
5. Putting it all Together
Arguably, any photographer has to address each of these four elements of photography.
The first is conceptual – what am I trying to express with my photography? What – for me – is the purpose (or purposes) of my interest in photography? What are my aspirations? The other three follow on – the language of design, practical camera skills and post-production skills are all necessary to achieve the final images and prints.
We all learn in a different way, and for different reasons and produce work which reflects our own vision and skills. It is certainly likely to be an incremental, drip-drip process, some learned from books, some from practice, some from helpful fellow-photographers, much from an awareness of the work of our predecessors and exemplars. The journey is sometimes a little frustrating but always worthwhile and life-enhancing.
Hands, Delhi (Kitty Wright)
6. Introductory Reading : Printed Sources
Listed below are the major texts I have consulted in assembling the series of articles for the first two of the four elements of photography I outline above (they are not technical camera books or books on Photoshop etc. Not all are easy reading – although each of the landscape books below are very accessible and well illustrated. If pushed to recommend one general introduction to the language and concepts of composition, I would say that Michael Freeman writes clearly and explains complex ideas most effectively. David Prakel’s book is an excellent and practical guide to composition Canadian, Freeman Patterson is a little more abstract but also very readable and stimulating. George Barr contains a lot of practical advice – but as the book was originally a series of articles it does get a little repetitive and likes lots of lists! As to landscapes, I think that the two Charlie Waite books are most helpful although all the others have beautiful examples.
George Barr, Take Your Photography to the Next Level
Angela Faris Belt, The Elements of Photography
Paul Hill, Approaching Photography
Michael Freeman, The Photographer’s Eye
Harald Mante The Photograph ; Composition and Colour design
Freeman Patterson, Photographing the World Around You
Freeman Patterson, Photography and the Art of Seeing
David Prakel, Composition
Bill Smith, Designing a Photograph
Paul Hill, Approaching Photography
Ernst Wildi, Master Composition Guide for Digital Photographers
Alan Briot, Mastering Photographic Composition, Creativity and Style
Ian Cameron, Transient Light
Joe Cornish, First Light
Cornish, Waite, Ward and Ephraums, Developing Vision and Style
Cornish, Waite, Ward and Ephraums, Working the Light
Lee Frost, Personal Views
David Noton, Waiting for the Light
Charlie Waite, The Making of Landscape Photographs
Charlie Waite, Seeing Landscapes
David Ward, Landscapes Beyond
Steve Davey, Travel Photography
David duChemin, Within the Frame : The journey of Photographic Vision
Keith Wilson, The AVA Guide to Travel Photography
Bringing in the Nets, near Hoi An, Viet Nam (Kitty Wright)