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I'm a Cairns, far north Queensland, Australia professional photographer specialising in travel, editorial and environmental portraiture.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The thought process behind photography.

The key to any great photograph is the thought process behind it. Conveying what you felt when you saw an image in your head. That's right. In your head. The biggest key to unlocking your true photographic genius is to have a picture of the photograph you want to take in your head before you even get your camera out of the bag.

So in order to run you through how I think through things in my head photographically I thought we'd use this picture here. The reason I chose this image is because it's not a hero shot, just a nice little vignette that any of us could take anywhere in the world pretty much.

This floral display is put out every day by one of the housekeepers at the Daintree Eco Lodge & Spa Resort in far north Queensland. I was there on a photo shoot for Destinasian magazine and the assignment was to photograph the resort for the article. I already had the text, written by writer Claire Scobie, and had to take images to complement the writing.

As soon as I saw this floral display I knew I had to photograph it. It is an important little snapshot of the ambience of the resort. The question was how to photograph it. Here was what I thought before I got the camera out.

Firstly I needed to place the flowers in context. I needed to show that they were in the resort so I needed to have them filling only a small part of the frame with the resort in the background. A close-up only of the flowers could have been taken anywhere.

So now that I've decided to include other elements I need to choose the all-important background and how I'm going to show it. The first thing I did was walk around the bowl. Up, down, behind, in front. I wasn't looking at the bowl at all but the background. What looked nice, which colours would go together with the red of the flowers.

I settled on showing the lovely walkway and stairs in the background because they gave me a feeling of how the rooms are elevated above the ground which was quite an attractive feature. So now that I knew what I wanted my background to be I had to choose which lens to use to bring it out.

That's right. Before I even think about apertures or shutter speeds I always think about the lens first. An extreme wide-angle lens would have let me get nice and close to the flowers but it would have rendered the stair case very small and insignificant in the background. My feeling was to have the staircase as prominent as the flowers.

A long telephoto lens would have rendered the background staircase nice and big and close, but its extremely narrow point of view would have meant that we wouldn't have seen any of that glorious rainforest. So I ended up choosing a mid focal length of about 50mm. This rendered the scene in a natural way pretty much equivalent to what I saw with my eye.

Once I had the angle worked out, with the camera on a tripod to keep the framing I wanted it was now time to choose the aperture. Now the aperture controls what is blurry and what is in focus. The wider the aperture (f2.8, f4 etc) the shallower the depth of field. In other words the bowl would be sharp and everything else would be a big blurry mess. A small aperture (f16, f22 etc) would have rendered everything sharp and in detail.

In this particular case I went for a middle of the road aperture of f5.6. I did this for a couple of reasons. Too shallow a depth of field would have meant that that lovely background I had so carefully chosen would have been too blurry and irrelevant. Too much detail though and the eye wouldn't go straight to the bowl. So I chose an aperture that would still lead the eye straight to the bowl but would still retain enough clearness in the background that the viewer could tell what it was.

In terms of the composition of the image I put the flowers at the bottom of the frame for a couple of reasons. The first was that underneath the bowl (which was resting on a railing) was just a boring old piece of lattice work. It didn't contribute to the image I had in my head and what I wanted to say about the flowers. So I got rid of it. The other reason was that by putting the main subject near the edges of the frame (as opposed to smack bang in the middle) you encourage the viewer to look around the entire frame.

And that's pretty much it in a nutshell. How I think about all my photographs. 1. What I want to say. 2. What angle I'm going to say it from. 3. What lens I'm going to use to bring my vision to life 4. What aperture (or shutter speed) I'm going to use. In that exact order.

And you might be thinking, yeah that's fine for a still-life/landscape but what do you do for action photography. Exactly the same. Before the action starts know the picture you want to take. Work out where you need to be to get a nice background. Figure out which lens is going to give you the effect you want and once you're set up shoot like crazy and hope you get what you envisioned. It all starts with the vision. Without that you're just taking snapshots.

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