The Importance of Working Situations

By David H. Wells Back to

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I have been photographing seriously for almost four decades. Over those forty years I have honed in on the one thing any photographer can do to improve their photography. It does not involve a new piece of gear or imaging software. Rather it is simply to learn how to “work” the situations they encounter when photographing.

What do I mean by “working” a situation? I mean taking many pictures of the same situation till you get the one you want. I am not talking about snapping blindly as you go. I am talking about using the various photographic tools available to you, as you make a series of images, experimenting until you get the image just right, so it tells the story that you want. Examples of those tools include varying the focal length of your lens, varying your physical distance from the subject and especially varying your position in relation to the subject. The viewer of an image made from below, feels as if they are being dominated by what they see. Conversely, an image made from above gives the viewer the feeling they are dominating that subject. Similarly, using the tools to control exposure, time and focus directly impact the viewer’s experience of an image. A high shutter speed used to stop action creates a feeling of fleeting time. A slower shutter speed creates a blur and a feeling of movement in the eye (and mind) of the viewer. I can go on but you get the idea.

A family rides on a bicycle in Santiago Atitlan, Solola, Guatemala, March 2009

Sometimes when I am out photographing I quickly dismiss some of these tools. For example, food on a table can be photographed from your standing height or above but getting below will only leave under the table. Similarly, time is usually not an issue with most (but not all) food photography, so I will not typically be using that variable.

When you are photographing situations with activity, it may appear that the thing you want to photograph is happening too fast to capture. Most of the time when I am photographing action, I have found that the movement happens over and over at certain places that I call choke points. Those are where people have to, for example, go around a corner in order to get somewhere. Great street photography happens at those choke points. Since the activity happens over and over, you can in fact work those situations.

So what about those truly “found moments?” By the time you are ready to shoot those, assuming you are practiced in working situations, you will know how to organize the image and which tools to use (or not use.) Great street photographers do 95% of the work in their heads before the camera even gets to their eye.

So how does this play out in my photography? When I was shooting black and white film, as I viewed the proof sheets where the negatives had been cut into strips, I noted certain patterns in how I was working situations. When I started shooting color slides, I viewed the processed film as one long roll of film, before the slides were cut and mounted. Seeing the whole roll made those patterns more obvious. With digital imaging, I am no longer limited in how many images I make. That fact and the image editing software I now use, allow me to rapidly scroll through the evolution of an entire shoot to better understand my own process.

When I am out photographing, for a client or on my own, I usually photograph from sunrise until the sun reaches the morning Wells Point (at a 45 degree angle in the sky.) In the afternoon, I typically start photographing after the sun reaches the afternoon Wells Point and I work through sunset into the evening. In between, I am usually editing, e-mailing, napping, on the phone or having coffee.

Traffic at twilight in Jerusalem, Israel, May 2011
People dance in the street at a dance festival in Buenos Aires, Argentina, January 2008

Over the years of analyzing the contents of my flash cards, I have seen a consistent pattern. At the start of most shoots I will see five, 10 or 15 of what I call misfires. These are one or two image situations where I could not figure out how to make an interesting image. Then I will see a large set of images, 50, 100 or even 200 images where I photographed one subject in great depth. At the start of that set will be the images where I am experimental with what lens, position and distance to use. Once I settle on my strategy, I then experiment further with the focus, varying how much I make sharp vs to blur. I may experiment with a high or low shutter speed. I am certainly experimenting with verticals and horizontals as well as moving to the left and to the right of the subject.

Towards the end of any set, I settle on one strategy and then work the situation further, looking for special moments/gestures, as I also experiment with slight variations in composition/framing. Then the situation usually peters out. My flash card then usually shows more misfires, followed by another situation that I work in great depth and then more misfires. A typical morning or evening shoot almost always has three to five in-depth situations and a few dozen misfires spread across my flash cards.

When I was shooting film this process was much more subconscious because I had to wait to see the processed film. With digital imaging’s immediate feedback I know right away which photographic tools are working for me. When I see other people’s cards/proof sheets in workshop settings, I notice equally distinct patterns. Not everyone works the way I do, but the most successful photographers understand the need to work a situation. Whether they do that in their head or in camera (or both) are not what matters. What matters, is that they understand their own process, they work situations and they get the results they want.


About the Author

David H. Wells
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David H. Wells is a freelance documentary photographer affiliated with Aurora Photos. See his work at: davidhwells.com. He specializes in intercultural communications and the use of light and shadow to enhance visual narratives. Twice awarded Fulbright fellowships for work in India, his photography regularly appears in leading international magazines. A frequent teacher of photography workshops, his blog, The Wells Point, appears at http://thewellspoint.com. As an Olympus Visionary, Wells has been contracted by the camera company to produce images and provide feedback on new product lines.