Throughout photography there are relationships that can shape the quality of any given photograph. A number of my students come into my class claiming that they have a “good eye” and they just want to learn enough technique to make sure that their exposures are good. I also have students with a good deal of technical ability and thought that was the beginning and end of what photography should be about. I see it as my job to teach them that there are relationships between the technical side of photography and the aesthetics of photography. It is my contention that the best photographers are those who have a good technical background along with an understanding of the aesthetical issues available in any given photographic situation and apply them to best advantage.
The first thing to realize is that photography is full of relationships, both technical and aesthetic. Photographers learn early on that in order to get a correct exposure it is a relationship between the metering system, the ISO setting and the exposure system. It is a combination of those three camera functions that allow for the camera to give you a correct exposure, at least the majority of the time. The metering
tells the exposure system how much light is coming through the lens, the ISO is telling the exposure system effectively how sensitive the sensor is to light and the exposure system then is able to select an f-stop/shutter speed that will allow the correct amount of light to the sensor so a photograph can be made. (I know this is very basic stuff, but hang in there with me for a little bit). Having a correct exposure is usually enough for the beginning student of photography. After all, how many bought a fancy expensive camera and still cannot get a good exposure? But there is more to it. Because you are not tied into that one f-stop/shutter speed combination that the camera came up with, if you know the relationship between f-stops and shutter speeds. This relationship can give you any number of correct or equivalent exposures limited only to the number of f-stops and shutter speeds available and if the initial exposure were correct then they all would be. Still, pretty basic stuff.
But here is where another relationship comes in; both the f-stop and shutter speed will affect the look of the photograph as it pertains to motion (the shutter speed) and the way depth of field is depicted (the f-stop). This keeping in mind that the f-stop is only one of three factors that affect depth of field. Each has their own influence on what the depth of field becomes and should be considered as a total effect when trying to predict what the depth of field might be. Which of the equivalent exposures you select will be important to the final outcome of the picture in an aesthetic sense.
Ansel Adams was once asked if he saw the world differently than anyone one else as if that would explain his greatness at photography. He said no, that he saw pretty much the same as anyone else. What he was able to do because of his extensive knowledge of the photographic process was to see the possibilities of a particular scene as a photograph. He wrote in the book, The Negative, about the idea of visualization. He would stand before a scene that he was going to photograph and visualize it as a finished photograph. Then all that was left for him to do was to figure out the technical issues that would allow him to make the photograph. For example, he might envision the scene with a dark sky, so he would use a red filter on the camera lens to darken the sky. Each aspect of the picture was considered. For him, having an f-stop/shutter speed that was technically correct was not enough; it had to be the one possible exposure combination that made the photograph come out exactly the way that he wanted. This is just as true today as it was in Adams’ time.
There is one additional thing a good photograph always has to start with: an idea. The idea is most often an emotional response to the subject. Former LOOK magazine staff photographer, Robert Lerner was given some advice early in his career by photographer Tony Vacarro: that the photographer must have a reason for making a picture. Understanding the reason for the picture will answer questions about how to make the photograph from both the technical and creative sides of photography. In my own photography I make pictures of everyday kinds of things. In fact some who have passed by me when I was making a picture of something along the side of the road might feel that I am a bit daft for making photos of things that anyone can see. The reasoning behind my photographs is to preserve certain aspects of history and culture that may seem commonplace today, but are representative of a time and place. Because I am in tune with those thoughts I can make a photograph in which those ideas are apparent to those who see the image.
The reasons that people make photographs may be as varied as the number of photographers out there, but the photographs they make should have a reason. A photograph without reason is empty and soulless. For the photographer, understanding what their photograph is about asks and answers questions about how to approach the issues of aesthetics, which in turn asks and answers questions about how technique is applied. An understanding of the purpose will allow the photographer to know that a certain f-stop/shutter speed is going to render the depth of field and the implied motion in a way that best presents the idea the photographer had (this is by far not the only technical issue, but an example). Look at any photograph made by an accomplished photographer and you will see that it was no accident that the functions of the promoted the needs of the photographer to tell his or her story. In many images the photographer will do something that is against the normal thinking in order to make us see an image differently. The better photographers often take visual risks to shake up how people will react to their work. In the end, the reason for the photograph will answer the questions about how technique will be applied in order to make the image.
Technique without reason does not drive aesthetics, but with reason, technique can deliver the goods in a most impressive way. The idea has to come first. And whether it is painting, photography or any other medium, to judge the worth of any image the idea has to be first. The idea is what stands the test of time.
How does a photographer know how to do all this when confronted by a falling plane? Practice, as the story goes about the man who asked the bum how to get to Carnegie Hall. Today go out and try to visualize a photograph of a scene in front of you, think about all the different ways that you could make a photograph of that particular scene. Consider the depth of field, how that is going to affect the image. Can it be used to single out your subject or to bring foreground or background into a place of importance within the photograph? What are the different functions that figure into what the depth of field is and are they working for you or against you. What is the aperture, the focal length of the lens and how far is the subject from the camera? It is the combination of those three factors that determine depth of field. How is the perspective rendered by your choice of lens either adding to or taking away from the picture you want to make? How is motion being represented, either by subject movement or camera shake and how is that affecting the message or idea of the image?
Questions, questions, questions−the more that you come up with and deal with them directs how your photograph will come out. The more that your photograph will be an expression of what you were feeling and it is at that point you have done something. Practice this thought process and you’ll soon make these decisions faster the next time. At one point I tried my hand at street photography and in the beginning it was overwhelming trying to capture a moment and still get something as simple as a correct exposure. Living in Florida I often had to deal with harsh light contrasted by deep shadows. My subjects were often darting in and out of such lighting, but there was not a lot of time to figure out what the exposures should be. With practice and a good deal of self-evaluation, things started coming more naturally to me. I remember one time taking some images in Daytona Beach during Bike Week and all of the sudden noticing that I was changing f-stops and shutter speeds without thinking about it, I was just doing it. Now that I tend to do more social landscapes and formal portraits, and the slower pace allows me to think more about what I want to do and what technical considerations I need to make.
I start with what is it that I want to say with the given subject and then what tools do I need to make it happen. While I am shooting I am asking myself questions about how can I make another image that is different from the previous one. I try to build on each thought. One question answered brings another one, until the way to approach an image is resolved. The resulting photograph becomes a bridge between the aesthetics and the technical sides of photography and that will lead to making special photographs. As photographers we are and always will be storytellers. The technique is to photography what grammar is to writing. Technique gives the image structure and assists in presenting the ideas and meanings that are the aesthetical qualities of a photograph. Without one or the other the potential of a photograph is greatly lessened.