Creating Meaningful Photographs
1 - Introduction
I believe that that in order to make meaningful photographs, learning the art of seeing and vision is as important as learning craft and technique. After over 15 years of major advances in digital photography, there is a need for artistically-inclined photographers to focus on the artistic aspects of photography, to the essence of seeing and personal expression, and to the fundamental aspects of photography as an art.
In the days fo chemical photography, the masters created emotionally powerful images without all the capabilities that digital photography gives us. The techniques they used were fewer and simpler. For example, they matched the properties of film to specific visual emotions. While having fewer options and a simpler medium limited their possibilities, it also provided a more direct path towards expressing emotions and vision.
Today, with digital photography, there is a tendency to focus more on technology and less on the emotional experience that an image can bring to the mind of the viewer. In a way, the multitudes of possibilities that digital photography offers, and the challenges offered by learning how to master these possibilities, takes our focus away from expressing emotion and vision in our work.
However, to leave a lasting impression, to become iconic, to become a masterpiece, a photograph must achieve both emotional impact and technical excellence. It must demonstrate both mastery of the craft and technique and mastery of vision and expression.
We can do what the masters did. We just need to adjust the way we use the tools, software and print materials to create photographs that have an emotional impact and technical excellence.
2 - The subject is not enough
There are 2 main elements to the creation of a good photograph:
A - What the subject brings to us:
- Inspirational opportunities
- Light quality
- Compositional opportunities
- Subject matter
B - What we bring to the subject:
- Ability to recognize the light quality
- Ability to take advantage of compositional opportunities
- Mastery of our camera and other gear
- Openness to inspirational opportunities
- Quality of our image processing and optimization
- Extent to which we use our artistic license
- Extent to which we promote our work to make it known
We cannot depend only on what the subject brings us. We have to bring something to the subject in equal proportions to what it brings us. When you cannot rely on the impact of the subject alone, you have to bring more to the subject. This is the case with subjects that are less dramatic, more quiet, less impressive. In these instances how you approach the subject becomes more important than what the subject actually offers.
Relying 100% on what the subject brings to you is not sufficient to create photographs that go beyond being a documentary recording of the subject.
In order to create expressive photographs (as opposed to documentary photographs) you have to bring at least as much to the subject as the subject brings to you. In effect, you usually have to bring more to the subject than the subject brings to you. This means transforming the subject from what it looks like to everyone into what it looks like to you specifically.
Moonrise at White Sands
3 - The Ansel Adams Moves
I have a huge respect for Ansel Adams. I collect his work and his books were the first I read when I started studying photography. Adams made many changes to his photographs in order to express his personal vision of the scene and not just show what the camera captured. However he limited himself to specific changes. I call these changes 'the Ansel Adams moves.' The reasons for these limitations were due to the technology available at the time and to Adams' artistic choices.
These moves can be summed up as follows:
- Transformation of the original color scene into a black and white image
- Modification of the global contrast of the scene during film development
- Modification of the local contrast of the scene through dodging and burning
- Modification of the local contrast through local chemical processing
- Spotting to remove dust and undesirable features
- Cropping of the original image captured by the camera
The moves Ansel Adams did with chemical photography are important. They have been widely accepted by photographers working with both film and digital capture. All these moves can be done with digital photography with the benefit of a far higher level of control. However, a lot more can be done with digital photography. Still, many digital photographers limit themselves to the Ansel Adams moves. To use more of what digital has to offer, I personally decided to go beyond these moves and added the following 'Alain Briot moves:'
- Stretching and warping of significant features in the image such as mountain ranges
- Radical modification of the color palette present in the image captured by the camera
- Removal of significant elements of the photograph such as rivers, trees, rocks, etc.
- Moving significant elements of the image from one area of the photo to a different area
- Duplication of significant elements
- Combining elements from several photograph into a single image
- Stitching photographs together for compositional purposes (not to increase resolution)
These moves are motivated by the desire to use more of what digital imaging has to offer and to express my artistic vision. I explain the reasoning behind this approach in greater detail in a previous essay titled Artistic License.
4 - Remarks on the new and not so new
Many things that were difficult to master with film have become easy to achieve with digital photography. As a result, our concept of what is ‘mundane’ or ‘commonplace’ has changed. We now see on Facebook the work on beginning photographers that match, technically speaking, work that was previously created by experienced professionals and found only in galleries or museums. Today, for us to be surprised by a photograph, for us to take a second look, the image must go beyond what we see everyday around us.
As time goes by, we get used to things. Certain types of processing that impressed us a few years back are now seen as being commonplace. We have come to expect them and we no longer are impressed by them. For our work to be noticed we need to go further and do something new. This is the outcome of digital processing being widely available and used by a vast number of people.
When that happens it is worth asking if our photographs are interesting because they make use of ‘new’ but superficial effects, effects that will eventually become commonplace? Is it their novelty that makes them interesting, and will they become commonplace now that this novelty is gone ?
Or, are our photographs interesting because they focus on fundamental artistic values? Are we creating photographs that convey feelings and emotions, images that go beyond a mere description of the subject? If so, these images are more likely to have lasting value than images that make use of superficial techniques.
5 - A growing challenge
As digital photography becomes more and more mainstream, simply taking a photograph is no longer enough. We have to do much more than going to interesting places and ‘snapping pics.’ We have to become more sophisticated photographers in order to rise above the masses of new ‘photographers.’
This process starts with learning the fundamental aspects of photography, as taught in my first 2 books. These fundamental aspects include learning about light and composition. It also includes learning how to use your camera until it becomes an extension of your body rather than a foreign device that you are trying to figure out each time you turn it on. You want the camera to be your friend, not something that fights you every step of the way by refusing to do what you want.
In short, we have to become more sophisticated. This is achieved by working harder than other photographers and by doing what they are not willing to do. This includes studying things they will do not study because they do not consider them important. Success carries this cost: we have to do what those who fail are unwilling to do
The goal of our workshops, tutorials and other instructional materials is to give you the tools, the exercises, the practice and above all the methodology to become unique, to stand above those who take the 'easy road' because in art the easy road leads nowhere except to where others have gone before. In art, only things that are new are of interest to art collectors and admirers. What has already been done is of no interest in regards to developing a personal style, being unique, making a name for yourself, being noticed, being collected or becoming a true artist.
Playa Reflections, Death Valley
6 - Important questions in regards to the above
In order to develop a personal style you have to form personal opinions about what you like and dislike in art. Developing a style starts by visually expressing, in your work, your personal opinions about what you like and dislike. This process starts by asking yourself questions. Here are some of the most important ones:
- What does the subject mean to me?
- How do I feel when looking at this subject?
- What emotions do I experience?
- What do I want to express in my photographs?
- How do I want to share my emotions with my audience?
- Do I rely too much on what the subject gives me and not enough on what I bring to the subject?
- Do I expect too much from the subject?
- What direction do I want to give to my photography?
- What is the purpose of my photography?
- Do I limit myself to the ‘Ansel Adams moves’ ?
- Or, do I tap into the infinite creative capabilities offered by digital processing?
- If yes, which of these possibilities do I use? Which ones do I not use?
- Which specific colors, shapes, artistic approaches, etc. do I like or dislike?
7 - Schooling and Education
In "education," there is schooling and there is true education, paideia, to use the Greek term. Schooling is how we acquire skills and knowledge. Education is what stirs the soul.
The literal meaning of Paideia is ‘child rearing.’ The term refers to all of us being children when it comes to learning something new. We start with not knowing and through Paideia we become educated. No one starts with knowledge, not even the teacher. All of us go through the same process of going from infancy to knowledge. We follow this process for every new subject we decide to study.
Applied to photography, this is the difference between learning how to use the camera, light and composition and knowing how to express emotions and vision in our work. Schooling is learning the technique of photography. Education is learning the art of photography.
8 - Conclusion
Fear of criticism is the number one reason why most photographers hold back and never develop a personal style. They are afraid that revealing too much of themselves in their photographs will expose them to criticism. To hide this fear they put forth a variety of problems such as ‘I am not good enough,’ or ‘I don't have the right equipment,’ or ‘I need to learn more,’ or ‘I don’t know this location well enough,’ or ‘I am not an artist,’ and so on.
The solution to get rid of fear is to focus on the rewards instead of on the risks. Criticism is a reality. I would be lying if I said it will not come your way. I receive my share of criticism regularly, if not daily at least weekly. However, the rewards I receive from the work I do greatly exceed this criticism. This is what makes me want to continue and go further. I don’t pay much attention to the criticism. I pay attention to the positive comments I receive. I pay attention to how my work impacts others positively and to the difference my work makes for others.
Do the same. Focus on the rewards, not on the risk. You will be amazed at the results you will achieve.
About Alain Briot
Alain Briot creates fine art photographs, teaches workshops and offers DVD tutorials on composition, image conversion, optimization, printing and marketing. Alain is the author of Mastering Landscape Photography. Mastering Photographic Composition, Creativity and Personal Style and Marketing Fine Art Photography. All 3 books are available in eBook format on Alain’s website at this link: http://beautiful-landscape.com/Ebooks-Books-1-2-3.html
You can find more information about Alain's work, writings and tutorials as well as subscribe to Alain’s Free Monthly Newsletter on his website at http://www.beautiful-landscape.com To subscribe simply go to http://www.beautiful-landscape.com and click on the Subscribe link at the top of the page. You will receive information on downloading the table of contents, plus over 40 free essays by Alain, immediately after subscribing.
Alain welcomes your comments on this essay as well as on his other essays available. You can reach Alain directly byemailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.