Photography Notes

Thursday, February 10th 2011 — Archived Post

Photography is just like any other visual art form. It involves appreciation of art basics we learned back in high school: shape, balance, composition, tonal values (light vs. dark), color theory, texture, pattern, perspective, form. On another level, it could be about capturing your emotion at a particular instant, a report of a historic event as it unfolds, a memento of significant life events kept for posterity, or a visual means to sell an idea.

When a picture is taken, one must ask: what is the subject? Why is it interesting? What particular attribute of the subject do you want to capture? How could this quality be best presented visually? As the person taking this picture, you have a choice of keeping everything in sharp focus or lead the eye to a particular center of interest.

You also decide how fast or how long you want the camera to take this slice of time (shutter speed). This can be a tiny fraction like 1/250th of a second, several minutes, or even hours if your camera allows it. In the grand scheme of things, time really is relative.

Perhaps one of the most important aspect of photography is how you frame a shot (aka composition). You decide what goes inside that frame and more importantly, what gets excluded. A traditional photograph is a two dimensional representation of the three dimensional world we live in. That in itself is part of the challenge: a magical photograph can engulf the viewer in a total immersive experience.

Photography is about understanding light and its qualities. You need to be aware from which direction this light is coming from and what type it is: your on camera flash, the street lamp to the left of your subject, or the setting sun behind it. Different light sources emit a dominant color in the visual spectrum. A tungsten lamp tends to be warm or yellowish, while some daylight are more biased towards cooler or bluish hues. A light source has shape and its size matters.

You choose where to stand when you take a photograph. This vantage point influences how the viewer might interpret your relationship with your subject. For example you can make a person appear to be powerful by shooting from a low vantage point with a wide angle lens and you can do the opposite say by shooting from the top. Photojournalist Robert Capa once said: If your photos are not good enough, you are not close enough.

Be brutal with editing. Developing one's personal preference on what is visually appealing demand critical assessment and the courage to admit when it is not. Editing a large pile of photographs down to the few good ones is your responsibility, not the viewer's.

Take photos of those subjects that really matter to you. Explore the different genres. Study the works of famous photographers and what it is about their work that makes it important. They may or may not resonate with your own aesthetic and that is perfectly OK. Develop your personal vision by seeking inspiration and being open to constructive critique.

Learn the rules so you know how (and when) to break them.

Photography is storytelling. By choosing where you point your camera, you are sharing with the world those things that matter most to you. The camera reveals the photographer's biases and there is no such thing as an unbiased photograph.

Ads for the latest cameras can sometimes be a little misleading in the sense that they want you to believe all you have to do is press the button and it will magically do the rest. I myself was once fooled that photography was the quickest way to produce instant art. Happy to report it was not so. Pretty much every special skill in life takes dedication of time and effort to learn.