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Taking Your Photography To The Next Level

By: George Barr

Part Three of a Three Part Series

In the first of the three part series on ‘Finding Your Level And Moving On’ we defined the levels. In the second part we discussed how to get the feedback that would help you assess your own level, both technically and aesthetically. Now comes the payoff. It’s time to do something with this information.

It would be presumptuous to suggest that I can give you everything you need to know to improve your photography, all in one easy lesson. I’m neither the ideal person to tell you everything you need to do, nor is this the venue to do so. Entire photographic university courses are not sufficient to do that.

If that’s the case though, just what the hell use am I to you? I decided that some changes are difficult, others are slow and more are not powerful enough to make fundamental changes to one’s work. Some strategies and exercises could be both practical and produce significant results. I started by asking myself ‘what is the one thing a photographer at a given level could do to improve his or her photography.

Initially I was fixated on getting to the next level, but it became clear that there was nothing wrong with suggesting something which could leap frog levels and produce big changes. I didn’t think you’d complain.

Some fixes are simple - for example, holding the camera steadier - that can be done with practice. You can test just what shutter speed is your minimum, with and without coffee, at the beginning of a shoot and at the end. You can read any of a number of technical books which will teach you how to squeeze off a shot rather than stabbing the shutter release.

On the other hand, if what your images lack is emotional impact, not only is the source of the answer harder to find, it might take years of studying good images to figure out how to give your photographs impact. That sounds downright discouraging, but truth is, if what your images lack is impact, switching cameras, adding pixels, changing raw processors and trying harder are none of them going to help one bit.

How soon looking at good images will improve your photography is going to be a function of how hard you work at it, inherent talent, artistic background, and even more important, finding something to photograph that actually means something to you. Some can make fundamental leaps within months, for others it takes many years, but the point is that I think there are a lot of photographers who are frustrated because they have considerable experience but seem stalled in their photography.

At first I felt that readers would have to scroll down to the appropriate level and ignore advice offered at other levels. I feel now this is incorrect, that in fact all photographers shoot at more than one level. All one needs to do is look at your thumbnails or proof sheets to see that there is a clear variation in the skill applied to each image - some are better technically, others show stronger composition, etc. I would argue therefore that studying the tools to improve all levels of photography can be useful. Maybe you don’t stab the shutter button most of the time, but what about when you are excited? Do you check the corners of every single image?

Too many photographers practice what they are good at and avoid confronting their weaknesses - it's human nature to go with our strengths, but you can see that such a strategy is hardly likely to result in rapid progress. For example, there are many experienced hobby photographers who are quite expert at many of the technical aspects of photography and could even teach it, yet are weak at the aesthetic parts of photography - guess which they study and practice more!

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The Technical Levels

In general, the technical levels are cleaner to define, simpler to evaluate and much easier to find the necessary information to improve. There are many websites (such as Luminous Landscape) which discuss a variety of issues. There are dozens of books available to give you a complete course on photography. Fewer books have been written about the creative aspects of the art of photography and the advice given is more vague and harder to follow. That said, Michael has published a number of articles on the creative side of photography by Alain Briot which I can recommend. But back to the technical levels.

Level One (snapshots are technically flawed) - in these days of auto focus auto exposure cameras, a whole roll of terrible photographs is unlikely. That said, here’s three suggestions to dramatically improve snapshots.

i) Check the background before taking the picture.

ii) Move in closer. More snapshots could be improved by moving in closer than just about any other trick. It’s not helped by inaccurate optical viewfinders which give the impression you did move in, when in fact the film or sensor actually covers much more and the subject appears smaller in the print than anticipated.

iii) Master the skill of the shutter half press. This means you can meter from something equivalent to what you want to record (eg. the person instead of the bright background sky which fills the frame) and also to focus on one of the two people in the group then while keeping the shutter half pressed, reframe as desired. A few new cameras claim to have this problem licked with face recognition, but what about pets, lilies, rocks, fences and all manner of other objects which need to be in focus but are not in fact in the centre of the frame.

Level Two (snapshots look good but larger prints show significant flaws) Trust me, this isn’t about improving your camera equipment, even an inexpensive 5 MP digital consumer camera can create a lovely 5X7 print on 8.5X11 paper. Here’s a few suggestions for making good prints.

i) Use a tripod whenever possible and use the self timer or a cable release.

ii) read about depth of field and then go out and test it with your equipment - know what will and won’t be in focus before you make the print. Make yourself a depth of field table or at the very least a set of hyperfocal distances on a card.

Depth Of Field Calculator: http://www.dofmaster.com/dofjs.html

iii) find out what the diffraction limit is for your camera - ie. how far you can stop down before diffraction degrades the image more than increased depth of field improves it. Don’t read about it, don’t ask, actually go out and test your equipment and see what works for you - is f22 really better than f16 for adding depth of field?

iv) learn to routinely make good exposures. With histograms and LCD screens, this is much easier with digital cameras, but it would help to read Michael’s article on ‘exposing to the right’. Give the poor sucker who makes the prints (you) the best possible negative or digital file from which to work. Don’t even know what a good negative looks like? - then head for a workshop or show your negs to someone who makes good prints.

v) experiment, but keep the experiments simple. If you change more than one variable, then how do you know which one caused any observed changes. Make sure the experiment is even capable of answering the question you asked. Make notes, so three years later you won’t have to rely on memory for the details - which folder did I place that experimental Photoshop curve and what did I call it? Don’t experiment too much though, no film or developer is going to be the ultimate miracle, no raw developer is perfect in every way - spend your time learning to make better prints rather than testing your 13th new paper.

 

Level Three (friends admire but photographers see lots of flaws) - it’s about making quality prints, with good shadows and highlights, appropriate colour balance and saturation and not too dark.

i) take your prints to someone who is good and get some feedback - because at this level the prints probably look o.k. to you. The same people who helped you figure out you are a level 3 are the ones to point out what deficiencies there are in your prints. Even better would be if you had the opportunity to take their advice, work on the issues and get some feedback on how well you have solved the problems. More experienced camera club members and workshop instructors can be particularly helpful.

ii) consider purchasing good prints. The late Fred Picker made available a relatively inexpensive set of prints to use as examples. Even if you are a wet darkroom printer, purchasing inkjet prints can be well worth while as a guide.

iii) Use magazines with top reproduction quality as guides to decent prints - Lenswork and Phot’Art come to mind as heads and shoulders above the others.

iv) visit the websites of respected photographers to look at their images. Here’s a very small list of photographers who make good prints and have decent websites illustrating their work.

Brett Weston: http://brettwestonarchive.com/index.php

Michael Kenna: http://www.michaelkenna.net/

Christopher Burkett: http://www.christopherburkett.com/

Ansel Adams: http://www.anseladams.com/

William Neil: http://www.williamneill.com/

Roman Loranc: http://www.romanloranc.com/

David Plowden: http://www.davidplowden.com/

Bruce Barnbaum: http://www.barnbaum.com/

Level Four (prints look technically ok yet lack richness and depth) - it’s about going from technically competent to highly skilled. No single tip is going to make a fundamental difference and it is likely that you will have to work hard and long to achieve this kind of improvement. That said, here’s some specific suggestions.

i) a workshop is almost certainly your best investment, though you have to be sure that the instructors are in fact great printers in their own right.

ii) take every opportunity to visit galleries and look at original prints.

iii) buy lots of paper and work hard. Don’t make dozens of changes to an image without saving some intermediate stages so you can go back and change things - this is the single biggest advantage of printing digitally - use it. Don’t keep printing for hours - stop and have a look at your prints the next day - we tend to have problems with image ‘creep’ by which I mean we get darker and contrastier as the day progresses and it’s only the next day that we realize we went past optimum about three hours before we quit printing.

Level Five (print presentation lacks) - You just need to ask yourself does your portfolio present your work in the best possible light - immaculate prints which are easy to see, and in a format that is not too difficult to handle - nothing like a stack of glossy borderless prints for picking up finger prints fast. A call to Light Impressions Direct or a trip to your local photo store can show you some ways to present your images. Michael has discussed presentation in the past, both for his work and with suggestions for yours.

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Aesthetic Levels

This was always going to be harder to write (and it has been). I knew going in that whatever advice I had to offer, it was unlikely to be something you could pick up over a weekend. Sweat and commitment are required to advance aesthetically. That said, I do have some suggestions which might be of value.

Level A (snapshots are boring)

the essential problem here is level A prints don't show what the photographer intended. Pictures of exotic Caribbean islands don't look anything like as nice as you remember them. Family pictures don't show how cute your 3 year old niece is, mountains look unimpressive, sunsets look anaemic.

It's not that the message doesn't come across, rather simply that there does not appear to be a message at all. While there are hundreds of photography books which are helpful, there is one step which could be taken to quickly improve the quality of your images.

Ask your self the following questions:

Question 1 - what would I like the picture to show and what are the odds that if I shoot now, from here, that it will show it?

It could be that beautiful Caribbean beach you want to show off from your holiday, or it might be your grandchild looking angelic just before dropping off to sleep, or it might simply be how great your roses were this year in the garden.

Question 2 - is there anything I can do right now to show it better? You could change position, zoom, or reframe.

Remember that moving left or right while still aiming at the subject changes foreground and background - could such a change improve the picture - simply becoming aware of these two picture elements is going to result in improved pictures.

Think of a rose bush. Shot from 20 feet away with a wide angle lens, you’d be hard pressed to even know it’s a rose in the print, so clearly moving in is going to be important. You need to decide whether the delicacy of a single flower is more important than the collection of blooms - you might decide to shoot it both ways to give yourself a choice later - nothing wrong with putting off decisions by giving yourself options.You move around the bush to see the best light, the best show of blooms, and if you are getting creative, the most interesting pattern of blooms. You have been viewing it from standing eye height - but is that really the best position from which to shoot - what about waist level, or even lower - no, that means the background is partially sky and it’s way too bright, o.k., back to between waist and eye height. You have a zoom and have the option of going wide or long - long means the background is more blurred - that might isolate the blooms, wide angle includes the surrounding garden in the back - is that important?. Do the blooms look better looking down or from the side? It’s a sunny day and in one position there is a harsh shadow across the image which can be eliminated by moving round a bit. You find a good position and pleasing composition. You check the corners of the image - any problems? Things look good, but just before you press the shutter you realize that one bloom is a lot closer to the lens than the others and there’s no way it’s going to be in focus if the others are - hmmn, o.k., if I move round just a bit I can cover the major close blooms with my depth of field and the background blooms will be nicely blurred - I like that. Last minute check - any bug eaten leaves or other problems, if not go for it.

Consider shooting the picture now from where you are (after all if you hesitate you may miss the moment), but then move around and move in and take a second shot after a quick look for an improved position. Sure this results in 50% wastage of shots, but few photographers ever approach 50% success rate and with digital cameras and no film costs, why not experiment.

Level B (images lack wow, they act as good markers for remembering a holiday but aren’t likely to persuade anyone else to make the same trip)

Images are competent but not dramatic enough to be featured on a calendar. Instead of simply making a good capture of your two year old niece with a nice smile, we are looking to shoot the image which shows her at her cutest, or most vulnerable, or innocent. Moving beyond Level B involves effort. It means visiting at the right time of day (crack of dawn till proven otherwise). It means following that two year old round for 3 months, getting faster and better at capturing expressions. It means knowing something about our subject so we can capture the peak moment of a football game for example. It also means not taking some pictures because not enough things come together to make a calendar worthy image - and that's hard.

Images have a message but it isn’t clear. To make meaningful images, the photographer will need to identify the message and decide what elements of the subject add to that message and just as important, what are the parts which detract from same. Messages can be political - poverty, crime, war, pollution, etc, or they can be feelings - anger, calm, excitement, humour, or they can be about the character of the subject - weight, height, delicacy. The message can be about relationships - things that go together or in fact which don’t and so are ironic.

Let’s say you are taking a picture of a waterfall. It’s conceivable that with careful framing and lens choice you could make it look as impressive as Niagra Falls, even though it’s only 3 feet high, but perhaps you want to emphasize how secluded the spot is, or you want to show the light reflections, or the swirls at the base of the falls, simply standing back and firing away isn’t going to cut it. You might even have to get wet to get the best picture, you certainly want to catch it in the right light - bright sun alternating with deep shadow isn’t likely to work. You need to ask yourself what is it that appeals to you about this fall - is it the tranquility? Once you have established that, it isn’t that hard to figure out how best to show that aspect of the falls.

Find the message you want to relate and work to show it.

Level C (images illustrate nicely but aren’t art)

Level C photographers can take pretty pictures but moving on means starting to create art, actually putting something of ourselves in the images and making an image which means more as itself than as a great representation of the real world. This means 'making pictures' instead of 'taking pictures'.

Our images do a great job representing 'the thing' yet one would still rather have the sunset than the picture of it, be at the game instead of looking at the picture. We'd like to create a picture which would make you wince with the impact of the tackle, that shows football in a way sitting on the sidelines doesn't. It might show the pain, or the skill, the balance, coordination. It opens a little window into what it's like to be part of a football tackle. Somehow we need to create images which educate, entertain, inform, stimulate or otherwise create a connection with the viewer.

This is a pretty tall order. It's easy to imagine that you'd need to know something of football to be able to create that powerful image. You'd likely have to care about football and almost certainly you'd have to practice shooting for some considerable time to be able to show all this in a single photograph.

Short of signing up for a 4 year fine arts degree, how do you go about making a fundamental difference to your photographs. The traditional method has been practice, practice, practice. I would argue though that we are looking at a different type of photograph and practicing the old skill which was one of taking great snapshot, just isn't going to do it.

There isn't any simple step you can take or exercise that you can do in a matter of weeks to 'move up'. There are however some steps that over time will help. Below are some suggestions:

1) take a photograph appreciation course, or even an art appreciation course. Many years ago I took such a course at the Edmonton Art Gallery. An entire hour was spent looking at a Steiglitz image of a porch, it was boring to start and after an hour it was extremely boring, yet the instructor had pointed out dozens of things in the image which worked to make it successful (if you say so).I left the workshop angry with the waste of time, but within six months I couldn't look at photographs the old way - they meant so much more to me and I now appreciated a much wider variety and style of photography encompassing a much greater range of subject matter. Highly recommended.

2) Study intelligent critiques of photographs - those on Radiant Vista are generally excellent and they spend at least as much time discussing what works as what doesn't which is extremely important.

3) Study books on art and books of art. Pour over books of fine photographs and consider starting a library that you can return to time and again - there are books of collections, small inexpensive masters of photography books from Aperture and Phaidon and others. Start with the book 'Looking At Photographs' and expand from there. Look at and read books of photographs that provide some good descriptions of what the photographer was doing. eg. Joe Cornish, Sam Abell - part way through the book start making predictions about what the photographer was deliberately doing to make a good photograph, then check your predictions against the text.

Michael Johnston has a list of recommended reading at The Online Photographer http://www.theonlinephotographer.blogspot.com

4) Spend some serious time studying a portfolio of your best work of the last year. You are looking for aesthetic issues so work with modest sized prints. Ask yourself the following questions:

a) what was I trying to show?

b) how effective was I in showing it?

c) what is there about this photograph which is worth while in and of itself rather than just as a representation of what it photographed (ie. why would I want the picture instead of the thing?)

d) what is there about this picture that would make someone else want to look at it?

e) what changes can I make to the image to improve the answers to the above.

5) Using the answers to your questions, go out and reshoot the images with the necessary changes. Ask questions again and if need be repeat cycle.

Level D (starting to be artistic but the message isn’t clear)

We're definitely striving to be creative, we have found something that means something to us, but the message we create isn't clear.

I have some suggestions for photographers who find themselves at this level:

1) It’s necessary to make composition stronger. It’s not enough to have one or two matching compositional elements, the theme needs to be repeated throughout the image. Take more effort to repeat these major themes of composition in the image. This may mean walking away from images which simply don’t offer enough.

2) Decide to work hard on the edges of your images. Each time you go out, spend substantial time analyzing the outer parts of the image. Use the edges and corners to create shapes with subject matter bordering them, see what you can do with lines that come to the edges and or corners. See what you can do to keep the viewer’s eye from wandering out of the image frame. Remember that the black surround of an SLR viewfinder tends to keep one’s eyes within the image but that won’t help when it comes to a print, so more effort has to be made to keep the viewer in. A white card viewer can be helpful here. I keep one round my neck at all times and use it rather than the camera viewfinder for initial framing.

3) Improving from this level means that anything at all that detracts from the image has to be eliminated. If at all possible this is done at the time of recording the image, but sometimes that’s just not possible and it will be necessary to minimize distracting elements in the print - by changing colour, by altering contrast or brightness, or if you think proper, by cloning it out - if you can.

4) Sign up for Photographic Workshop - from someone who's photographs you admire but who also has a reputation for being a good instructor. Workshops can be anything from a few hours to more than a week, they can be classroom only or mostly field work. It's my experience that more is learned in the classroom than in the field - that in the field the students scatter and you are lucky to get advice from the instructor once or twice in a day of shooting.

Level E (images are admired by fellow photographers, yet lack emotional impact)

Level E is about going from admirable to wonderful. Problems of composition, lighting, presentation, and so on have all been mastered. Lots of images by the masters of photography are 'only admirable' and not wonderful so it's no disgrace to find yourself at this level, yet the question is: is there anything to be done to create some wonderful images?

At this point you are going from ‘’I think that image would look good on my wall’, to ‘I HAVE to have that image,it says so much to me’.

It's inconceivable that you are going to make the majority of your images wonderful - no one has accomplished that yet in my opinion. Still, some would be terrific.

This raises the question - how can certain types of photography be powerful - emotional - containing a message - after all they are just (and here you can put in whatever kind of photography you think fits). One might use this argument about a still life, about a landscape, an industrial or architectural photograph. It's easier to imagine a news photograph having this power, certainly advertisers pay big bucks for their ad photos to have this kind of power.

I think I can persuade you that my favorite 'Pepper # 30' has such power. The curves and tones of the pepper are sensuous, they curve in ways that remind you of running your hands over the body of a beautiful woman. But what about a 'rocks and roots' picture - I think these too can be powerful - I think an image can not only make you 'wish you were there' it can actually make you feel you are there, that you can feel the weight of the rock, the delicacy of the branches, the power in the waterfall, the cold in the snowbank. A landscape can convey excitement or tranquillity, even spookiness. An image can show you beauty where you wouldn't expect it - in a patch of rust, or the underneath of a railway bridge. I can think of flower pictures which are more beautiful than the flower itself, which were it in a field, you'd probably walk past without a second glance. This could be because of lighting, framing, composition or closeness. It could be because of eliminating colour and so emphasizing shape and form.

So how to create wonderful images. You could go down to skid row and photograph 'bums'. You won't be the first. You might even get some good images but probably not. Whether you could justify such exploitation is a conversation for another time. The images might be more meaningful if you spent some time with these people and got to know them and took their images with their cooperation, perhaps after helping them for some months.

It seems to me that to start, you are looking for scenes which have an emotional impact on you. Then you go about trying to show that somehow. If on the other hand, you see something and think it will make an interesting composition, no matter how carefully you line things up, no matter how subtle the lighting, fine the detail, delicate the shadows - it's unlikely to create a reaction in it's viewers which you didn't see first. First you find the interest, then you find the picture, not the other way round.

I remember Fred Picker in his newsletter describing being out 'cruzin fer snaps' as he called it and coming across a slate quarry and finding interesting shapes and texture and getting excited by the possibilities, then the sun came out for a minute and the slate glowed and it was next to a religious experience for him, one which a busload of camera club enthusiasts who’d stopped to watch this odd photographer and his ancient camera didn't even notice as they watched him rather than the scene.

Last Fall, on my way to Tofino on Vancouver Island, we came round a corner on top of some bicycle tourers, buses and trucks. Behind them though was this wonderful river weaving it's way through some colourful rocks. I went back later in the holiday on my own and spent several hours climbing and exploring, hopping over the water, shinnying up rock faces, literally hugging the scenery. It was a wonderful experience. I tried very hard to create an image which expressed how I felt about this area, with little success. I have the strong feeling though that this is an area which visited several times will finally reveal a great image.

Another time I visited Writing On Stone Provincial Park. I'd heard it was nice but any images I saw beforehand were pretty ordinary and I was expecting to be disappointed. Instead it was incredible. I arrived just as it stopped raining and the light was magical and I was able to climb one of the rock pillars and photograph others, the nearby Milk River and the last of the storm clouds. I'd like to think those feelings show in the picture. Certainly it's one of my more popular images.

So, first you find subject matter that is important to you, that you relate to, that you have some experience with, then you look for the good photograph. Too often we're desperate to take a good photograph so first we find the good image, then we hope to relate to it and somehow put that in the image - some chance.

How you go about putting your emotional experience of the subject into the image is up to you. I like to think that sometimes I can do it, often I can't. I do know that the more often I shoot, the more I practice, the more successful I become.

Level F (wonderful but not iconic)

Even if I had been a photographer who created one or more of the iconic images of photography, I suspect I'd not know how to tell someone else to do it, never mind how I could repeat the effort for myself. Steve McCurry is a superb photographer, but there's only one Afghan Girl. Dorothea Lange took a number of powerful photographs but 'Migrant Mother' so perfectly says depression/suffering/heat/dust/discouragement it is the image everyone remembers. One can only say that the more often one is able to make images with a clear message and emotional impact, the more likely one is to one day create a future icon.

There are lots of wonderful tunes, yet there is something about ‘Amazing Grace’, especially on the bagpipes, which just grabs many people. I remember when it first started playing on the radio in the early 70’s and was surprised at my reaction to it, and even more so when I found that others had a similar reaction. We’re talking about photographs like that tune. That so many wonderful pieces of music don’t grab you that way suggests an element of magic for which there are unlikely to be any rules, tricks or tips to make equivalent photographs,they just are...

The preceding advice on improving one's photography is by necessity incomplete. On the other hand perhaps you will find one or more strategies in the preceding which could work for you and which if applied would help you progress further and faster than simply trying harder which is the traditional method of moving ahead.

Hopefully some of you will come up with your own more applicable methods of moving on after reading the three articles. It would be great if you have discovered a method of making a big step forward, that you'd let us know in the Luminous Landscapes Discussion Forum. It might be a particular workshop teacher, or a book that was especially helpful, or some exercise you assigned yourself.

In the end and even if none of the above advice works for you, I can't help but feel that knowing where you are at and where you want to go has to make the journey easier.

George Barr
May, 2007

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About George Barr

I am a 57 year old family physician. The switch to digital a few years ago was like a light going on – my creativity was unleashed to a degree I'd never had before. It opened the possibilities of colour work after almost 40 years of black and white only. A weekend workshop gave me the courage to show my work and has since led to being published in Lenswork, Black And White and also Black And White Photography Magazine from Britain and Focus magazine in the U.S. My website is http://www.georgebarr.com and my blog is at http://www.georgebarr.blogspot.com.

 

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