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To Make Better Photographs, Study More Photographs, Part Two

The first installment of this two-part series began an exploration of the way in which we study a photograph, first to experience it and then to learn from it. If you missed it, you can read the first part of To Make Better Photographs, Study More Photographs here.

The main point in that first article was this: our first point of engagement with a photograph must be the experience of it.

We need to ask, “What does this image make me feel or think?” before we can then ask the next question, which is what I’d like to explore here. That next question, once we’ve given the photograph some real time to sink in and to bring those feelings, thoughts, and other reactions to the surface, is “What is it within the photograph that makes me feel that?

You’re asking: why do I feel the way I feel in response to what is visible in the image?

It’s not always obvious. Most often, it’s not just one thing, but rather a combination of things—very specific choices on the part of the photographer, not the least of which was the choice of this one image over many others, which matters when you feel inclined to ask whether the photographer was actually intentional about every choice. I mean, couldn’t some of it be a happy accident?

Of course it can, but accident or otherwise, the photographer made a decision later that might be expressed like this: “Yes, I made some very intentional choices, and yes, some of it was just pure luck, but they worked, and together they made a photograph that did what I hoped it would do.”

Accept that every image has an element of chance or serendipity and ask the question anyway:

What choices did the photographer make to create this particular photograph, and specifically, how do they affect my experience of the image?

Your answers might then include some version of the following:

For example, in the image below, the photographer chose a very high point of view with a wide-angle lens pushed in nice and close to the foreground, and that gives the image a lot of depth. Additionally, the shutter speed was slow enough to allow for a sense of movement in the clapping hands. The choice of moment was important as well, or we might not have seen the exact moment that the girl at the center of the image looks up and into the cell phone camera of the person photographing her.

Lalibela, Ethiopia. Click the image to see a larger version.

In the paragraph above, I’m trying to illustrate for you the kind of thinking that I have found helpful.

It’s not just noting what you see in the image. And it’s not just noting what you think the photographer did, though both are important. It’s connecting them. The photographer did this, and it accomplished this other thing.

How did the photographer use the light? How does that make you feel, or what does that accomplish? Do the dark shadows (and therefore a choice about exposure) give the image drama or mood?

What focal length do you suspect the photographer might have used, and from where (near or far)? What does this do to the image? Does it give the image more energy because of how the wide-angle lens exaggerates the diagonal lines? Or does that longer lens compress foreground to background? What does that contribute to the feeling or to the story?

Why did the photographer choose this moment over another, or what makes this moment so important to the image?

See the pattern? What did the photographer do (or what do you think they did)? How did that affect how you experience the image?

Istanbul, Turkey. Click the image to see a larger version.

Another example: in the photograph above, I see that the photographer chose to leave some strong foreground elements and probably used a wider aperture (because those elements are close to the lens and out of focus), giving the image its feeling of depth to make me feel like I’m right there. That hand coming out of nowhere is an important choice of moment and makes me feel more like I am part of the scene, and provides a key part of the story, placing it strongly in a coffee shop. The disembodied nature of that hand makes it feel like it could almost be my own, increasing my feeling of really being there.

Choice and Effect. This was done or chosen, and this is what it accomplishes for me.

What did the photographer choose to include or perhaps exclude? And how does that affect how I experience the image? Forget good. Forget bad. Forget (for now) what you would have done. Think photographer’s choice and respondent’s experience. This does that.

Does the chosen shutter speed have any effect on how you experience the image? What about the aperture and resulting depth of focus? What about the choice of colour or its absence? What other compositional choices were made, and do they contribute to how the photograph feels to you or what the photograph is saying? Did the photographer use a specific device like repeated elements or sub-framing (frame within a frame) to draw your attention? Did they use balance or tension in a way that makes you feel a certain way? What kinds of contrasts or juxtapositions did the photographer use, and what does that make me think or feel?

You might not be able to do more than guess at some of these, but this exercise will help. Just asking the questions is a way to raise your awareness of the possibilities, and, perhaps most importantly, the awareness of the connection between the choices photographers make in terms of gear, technique, composition, or choice of moment and the way we will experience that image.

Ultimately, you’re asking, “If I had to make this particular photograph, what decisions would I have to make so that the photograph would look and feel the way it does?”

Notice the wording? I didn’t say, “What would I have done instead?” You can ask that, but I suggest you leave that to the very last question you ask, not the first, as is so often our habit.

There’s value in turning it all around at the end and wondering what options the photographer might have missed or deliberately not chosen. Lord knows you’ll be faced with this when you’ve got a camera in your hand.

Training yourself to consider other possibilities is training yourself to be more observant and to think more creatively. But even then, consider asking stronger questions. Not “What would I have done?” so much as “What might I have done and what would that choice accomplish in terms of how the image looks and feels?” Sure, you’d have used a different lens, but why? How would that change the feeling of the image? You might have cropped it differently or chosen a different point of view. Why? To what effect for the person looking at the image?

These aren’t simple questions, but they will help bridge the gap between technique and all the many choices you make and the way the image gets experienced. And learning to ask these questions of photographs that have endured and become iconic in some way is a useful way to do it. I find it easier to look at the images of Sam Abell or Ernst Haas or Elliott Erwitt (just to name a few) and ask these questions, rather than asking them about my own work—because I already think I know the answers. I’m often blind for being too close to it, especially when the photographs are fresh. But looking at the work of others is where I learn the best, in order to then apply those ideas to what I make myself.

I hope this helps! If this interests you, my recent book, The Heart of the Photograph, asks these kinds of questions. More specifically, it is about the questions you ask with the camera in your hand, but can just as easily be used to guide your study of the photographs of others. You can find The Heart of the Photograph on Amazon here

Oh, one more thing before you go. I know one of the questions I’m going to get next is about which photographers I recommend studying or which books of photographs I recommend. Follow this link to a list I made back in 2017. My recommendations still stand, and I’ve updated it today with a couple more. Also, be sure to look at the comments for other recommendations, and I would love to hear from you. Did I miss one of your favourites? Let me know.

For the Love of the Photograph,

2 thoughts on “To Make Better Photographs, Study More Photographs, Part Two

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