About Me

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

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The why of photography

Coming up at the end of next month I'm teaching a travel photography course here in Cairns. The one thing I love about teaching is discovering other people's reasons for loving photography and helping them overcome any learning hurdles they might have.

Because I run the classes with small numbers I really want to help each student and have them coming away having learnt what they want or felt they needed to improve.

At the start of the course I usually go around the room and ask the students what it is they hope to learn during our time together. 9 times out of 10 it's a new technique or something to do with the technology. There's something about the gadgetry in photography that either bamboozles the hell out of us or thrills us. Learning what a new button does, or how this gizmo works makes us feel like we're improving.

Unfortunately technical skill alone doesn't make a great image (c'mon deep in your hearts you all knew that). There's always been two parts to photography - the technical side and the artistic side. The problem is that you can't really have one without the other. You can have a great idea for a photograph but without the technical knowledge to transform that idea into a photograph you're out of luck.

But it's the other way that concerns me more, and is something I think a lot of photographers forget. You can be the most technically proficient photographer in the world, know the precise diameter of every aperture in your lens, the serial numbers of every filter you own and the perfect shutter speed to freeze any kind of motion. But why do you know this stuff? To what end?

I guess what I'm trying to say is that in order for all the technical knowledge to mean something, you have to know what you're trying to say. What you want your image to shout to the viewer. And for that to work you have to know in your heart the art you want to create.

A question I often get asked is 'what should I photograph?' Believe me, if you don't know the answer then there is no teacher in the world who can tell you. It has to come from within. So before you get stuck on what aperture or shutter speed you should be using spare a couple of seconds to think why you want to take a certain photograph. What it is you think is beautiful/astounding/amazing about your subject. Then when you have figured that you'll find that the technical stuff will come a lot easier.

I chose the image above because it illustrates everything that can go wrong technically. Because it was so dark in the polar bear exhibit at the Asahiyama Zoo in Hokkaido, Japan, I needed a really slow shutter speed. That meant that not only was the movement of the polar bear blurred, but I couldn't even handhold it steady enough to stop my son from blurring. This is an image that would get rejected on technical grounds for sure. But for some reason it works. You can see the look of extreme concentration on my little boy's face, the polar bear is entirely within the frame and the overall blue makes for a nice effect. Sometimes you can have all the wrong technique and it still works. Go figure.

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