Working a Photographic Image

The Right, the Wrong, and the really Ugly Way

By Bruce Barnbaum Back to


On the last day of October 2007, I went into the cosmic rock garden known as the Alabama Hills, beneath the eastern wall of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. Though I have photographed in the Alabama Hills since the early 1970s, I felt I needed to break out of a mold of photographing backlit or edge-lit rocks … and I did!

Most exciting for me was when I found an enormous over- hanging boulder, from which other boulders could be framed in relationship to the giant under which I stood. I quickly set up my 4×5 Linhof Technika camera, with a 75mm wide-angle lens to include a good deal of the boulder above me, as well as the rocks in the distance, visually replicating my own feeling of the foreground rock seemingly smothering or eating the more distant boulders. I almost felt like I was being swallowed myself. It was an overwhelming feeling.

But after exposing the negative, I walked around the area very slowly, trying to see if there could be an even better way of photographing the subject, an even better set of relationships between the over- hanging boulder and the others in the distance. There was.

Walking forward three or four steps and hugging even closer to the overhang, I felt that the rocky ridge above my head could be a stronger lead-in line for an improved photograph. Using the same lens, but from the new camera position (the spot where I placed a white square in Figure 1), I was also able to include more of the distant rocks, giving a feel of more space, and was even able to include a third layer of visibility: distant Mt. Lone Pine of the Sierra.

In addition, it seemed to me that the curved sweep of the granite boulder over my head was more lyrical and stronger than that of the first composition. I even liked the small sage brushes and their shadows in the lower center and right, producing somewhat of a pathway into the scene. I exposed a second negative. (You’ll notice that the boulder cluster in the lower left-center of the second images is the same group that’s on the right edge in the first exposure.)

Having felt that I made a significant improvement over that of the first exposure, I searched for an even better cam- era position for a while; finding none, I walked away in search of additional images elsewhere.

But I had roamed around slowly and methodically after making the first exposure to see if there was something better. Indeed, I found a better location. I made a better photograph. Then I continued working the scene to see if I could squeeze something more out of it. I couldn’t. Perhaps I should have done the full scouting initially, before exposing even the first negative. I could be guilty of failing to fully scout the scene before shooting. But I liked what I initially saw (and did some local scouting before setting up my camera for that image), and I thought I made a pretty good photograph. But I was able to improve upon it.

So I advise photographers to carefully look at a scene prior to making an exposure, and again even after making an exposure. Sometimes you may not find the best photograph right at the start. Sometimes something better appears later.

Compare this with an encounter I had recently with a photographer who asked me to review what she had photographed in one of her own shooting sessions. She then handed me her digital camera and I scrolled through no less than 50 images that were almost identical, the differences being a move of an inch to the left or right, up or down, a slight 1° tilt of the camera clockwise or counterclockwise, and other variations too miniscule to matter for the scene she was recording. I asked her why she made so many exposures, and she promptly answered, “Because I could!”

Digitally, of course, she had that option, with the ability to delete unwanted ones freely. Though I’m not a digital practitioner, I can see a great benefit to that option. However, I also see that as a great example of digital abuse … flagrant digital abuse. My feeling is that digital photography is perfectly fine, but only if used wisely and efficiently. I pointed out to her that by making so many images, she’s presenting a huge number of unnecessary comparisons to herself to determine which is the “best” image. That’s a lot of wasted time later.

I suggested that next time she would be wise to look at the scene carefully—with her eyes, not through the viewfinder of the camera glued to her eye or with her eye focused on the digital screen—and then expose a selected few meaningful variations from which to choose the “best” of the set. She quickly recognized that she had gone greatly overboard with so many near-identical exposures.

It’s great if you (or I) can find the best camera position, lighting, focal length of lens, etc. on your first and only expo- sure. It’s also good to work a scene to see if you can improve upon your first choice, perhaps with second, third, or fourth exposures. But it’s foolish to go banging away shotgun fashion, apparently with the thought that if you snap off enough exposures, one of them has got to be good. That’s a fairly senseless approach. I’ve seen it to an extent in the past with 35mm shooters, but digital shooters outdo the 35mm film folks by magnitudes. Let’s stop the abuse. Instead, let’s apply

a little thought, a little observation, a little discrimination first. Let’s not just bang away without thinking. It’s a waste of your time while you’re doing the shooting, and it’s a huge waste of your time later when you have to go through the endless comparisons.

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.