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

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Why you need to be interested in more than just photography.



There seems to be a bit of confusion in the photographic world about what you need to know to be a better photographer. The overall search for knowledge seems to be around technique and equipment. What aperture do I use to take this photo? How many flashes do I need to take this photo? How many bracketed exposures do I need to take this HDR photo? But in all this searching people are missing the most fundamental questions? What do I want to say with this photo and why should people care?

After you've learned how to take an HDR multi-image stitched panorama with 32 off-camera speedlights what then? What have you achieved? Nothing that anybody else with an internet connection and the right gear could replicate with a bit of practice, trial and error. So you need to find out more about what it is you're photographing and that information can't be found in the metal and plastic of your camera.

Now before I go any further, let me say that I'm not denying that gear and the knowledge of how to use it is important. It is extremely important because it's half of the puzzle. Without the knowledge of how to create the image you see in your head you will have to rely on dumb luck and serendipity to get consistent results. In fact I would go so far as to say that learning how to use off-camera lighting completely saved my photographic business (but that's a story for another day). What I am saying is that knowledge of technique is still only half of the equation.

An interest in photography is not enough to create anything more than images that make people say "Wow I wonder how they did that?" and move on to the next image of the day using the technique du jour. If that's what you're after then all power to you but I want to create images that have longevity because of their content. Images that cause people to stop and think about something. To think about what is in the image, as opposed to how it was taken.

Take the photograph above. Yes we all know what it is and where it is. But, to be honest with you, that's all it says. It tells you nothing at all about what is special about the Mona Lisa. Sure you can see that lots of people go to see it because I walked to the other end of the hall and shot it with a telephoto lens, compressing the crowd and making it feel more crowded than it was. So that's what I wanted to say about the situation.

Because that's all I could say. Apart from the fact that I know it was painted by Leonard daVinci I have to admit that I know nothing about the technique or style used, or even much about the history of it. No shame in admitting you don't know stuff. (I'm not really sure I could make an HDR multi-image stitched panorama with 32 off-camera speedlights either!).

It's not a bad photo, as photos go, but there's no insight here. Nothing new is learned. No HDR, multi speedlight technique could have saved it as far as I'm concerned. Because the background knowledge and interest aren't there. Sorry Leonardo.

So how could I have created an image that resonates? By being interested in more than just photography. Make no mistakes about it, interested photography often takes more effort and leg work before the shoot than it does during the shoot. For example, if I had been on assignment I would have contacted The Louvre beforehand after coming up with some ideas for images. I would have thought of different angles to the story. Is there a tour guide that has a deep connection with the painting? Are there people whose job it is to take care of the painting in various ways? I don't know. Without researching it I'm clutching at straws here but you see what I mean.

I would then figure out who to get in touch with to try and get access to those kinds of photographs and situations. But that's The Louvre you say. They're not going to let any ol' Joe Blow come in and take behind-the-scenes photos. And you might be right, but you never know unless you try. And if they refuse then at least you have studied up on your subject and can think of other photographic possibilities and what you might want to say photographically. And, granted, this is an extreme example but you can extrapolate it back to your local area.

Sure a photo of a clock tower in your local town might be nice but easily obtainable by anybody else, tourist or local. Can you get permission to photograph the people who clean the clock? Or the engineers who calibrate the time? Or the Historical Society that works to preserve it? Think outside the square by showing a deeper interest in what you want to photograph.

In this world of billions of images on social media, to create something that goes beyond the ordinary you need to go deep. You need background knowledge and interest and you need to come up with an angle that represents what you want to say about something. And once you've figured that out? Then you can get out your 32 speedlights. :)