Decision Time

Oftentimes one must choose the focus before composing an exposure

By Bruce Barnbaum Back to


always stress that two things are necessary for photographers to make a good photograph: they must have a strong rapport with the subject matter, and must understand fully how they respond to the scene at hand. When there are contradictions or crosscurrents, photographers must make a choice.

For example, suppose you want to make a photograph of a person you find interesting and wonderful, yet you also recognize that the person is downright ugly. What do you do? Do you try to boldly depict the physically ugly person (who may then come across as repulsive to the viewer)? Or do you try to make a photograph that does an end run around the ugliness and somehow depicts the attractive personality behind the hideous face? That’s a tough decision. It’s difficult to go both ways, though there’s always an outside chance that you may pull it off.

It turns out that landscape work, which I’m primarily known for, offers equally vexing situations. Yet, just as the portrait photographer would likely find the conundrum exhilarating rather than vexing, I tend to find the crosscurrents in landscape exhilarating.

I went to Peru for the first time in April 2009 to present a workshop under the auspices of Adam Weintraub’s Photo Experience program. That gave me the opportunity to see the storied Inca ruins of Machu Picchu. I had, of course, seen many photographs of Machu Picchu, finding most of them to be similar to one another, so I had a mental picture of the area. Yet what I encountered had virtually no relation to the mental picture I had formed over the years.

Dealing with reality

Confronted with a set of surroundings that bore no resemblance to what I had expected, I immediately forgot about the former memories, and tried to deal with the actual reality before my eyes. Suff ice it to say that I was overwhelmed with the reality of Machu Picchu, not only the Inca ruins themselves, but also the setting in which they were located. So here was the conflict for me: do I concentrate on the ruins themselves? Do I concentrate on the eye-popping setting in which they are located? Do I try to do both?

Long experience (plus way too many post cards, all made on sunny days without a cloud in the sky) told me that trying to do both would end up doing neither. So my choice was between the ruins as the primary focus or the setting as the primary focus.

Recognizing this duality is critical; failing to do so leaves you in a condition of ambivalence in which you simply are unable to make a choice. When you’re in that type of situation, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that you’ll end up with nothing. You’ll try to go both ways. You’ll try to get everything of importance into every picture you take. And you’ll end up getting a lot of nothing, because everything competes for the viewer’s attention with equal force. It would be like a play or movie with no main actor and no supporting actors, but all actors competing for equal prominence in the story. It simply doesn’t work.

Fortunately, I was there during a period of variable weather: it was alternately raining or foggy or even sunny for very brief periods. Thus, there was character. There was atmosphere. I couldn’t have asked for more.

Actually, I could have asked for the gate guards to allow me in with my tripod (which they rejected, saying it was too big) and my packpack with my full complement of camera equipment (which they also rejected as being too big). So, with only my 4×5 camera, one lens, and two Grafmatic film holders (each holding six sheets of film) in my wife’s carrying bag, I went in. I didn’t even have my light meter. (This, of course, occurred prior to the workshop. During the workshop Adam had obtained full permission for all equipment.)

Under those circumstances, I had to find a wall on which to place the bag, and then place the camera on the bag for some stability. Then I had to try placing the film holder into the camera without swiveling the camera, and then pull the dark slide with great care to again avoid swiveling the camera. Thus, I was severely restricted as to where I could place my camera, and how I could operate. Still, opportunities abounded.

Making the choice

I determined almost immediately that the natural surroundings were so astonishing that my primary goal would be to simply allude to the Inca ruins within the awesome landscape. In other words, I decided to include portions of the ruins as a secondary feature to the prominence of the landscape in which they resided. It had already become clear to me that the Incas were fully aware of the spectacular nature of their surroundings, and built their most remarkable structures in locations that honored nature to the maximum extent. (I also jokingly remarked to the students in the workshop a week later that it was clear to me that the Incas were terrif ied of flat land.)

My first photograph shows a partial wall somewhat below the one on which I placed my camera, and the many mountains and canyons filled with fog and clouds, both above and below the level of the ruins. You can see in the straight print that a pervasive fog dominated the scene, yet it was thin enough at the instant I snapped the shutter that I could not only see the ruins immediately in front of me, I could also see the distant mountains, canyons, and clouds. A minute before or a minute afterwards, the scene was startlingly different— perhaps nonexistent—but there was a brief moment when all was visible. I had seen parts of this as I set up my camera, then waited and hoped to see it all, if for only an instant. Nature cooperated.

The straight print shows a muddy, gray image. It was no real problem to increase the contrast, giving the entire scene not only the luminance and life that it needed, but the feeling of depth that clearly separates the nearby wall from the distant landscape.

I’m looking forward to the workshop Adam and I have planned for next year in Peru, and of course, at Machu Picchu. This year was my introduction, and although I felt overwhelmed by it all, I also felt I was on top of my game and able to work with the wonderfully conflicting feelings that I had about the place.

I hope to add to the successful images I made this year, and to work with students once again in this truly magical location.

About the Author

Bruce Barnbaum
Bruce Barnbaum teaches photography workshops throughout the year, focusing on the art of seeing and the art of conveying impressions of your photographed world (real or imagined). He has two monographs in print: Tone Poems - Book 1, 2002; and Tone Poems - Book 2, 2005. Both are collaborative efforts, featuring a CD of classical piano music performed by Judith Cohen.