What Makes A Photographer?
Many of us are convinced that if only we could get a newer camera we could make better photographs. That is understandable. It might even be true. That’s what camera manufacturers tell us, so it must be true. So, we live in an age in which we believe that if you buy a camera (or a phone these days) you are a photographer. Right?
Make no mistake, photography always has and always will be connected to technology, and improvements in cameras, lenses, and computers will make a difference in our ability to capture those wonderful, elusive images we yearn to make. I have equipment I prefer for specific images I want to make. Sometimes I use the latest digital gem, occasionally my cell phone, but many times I use a 50-year-old twin-lens Rolleiflex or a 30-year-old Leica M6. Why? Because I know what I will get with them. I like the feel of specific cameras and lenses. After years of using them, they’ve become extensions of the way I see the people and the world around me. I like the way the pictures look when I use the right tools for the task at hand.
But the camera never chooses what I point it at. It doesn’t make an exposure unless I release the shutter. It doesn’t determine the quality or direction of the light I use. It doesn’t specify the point of view, the field of vision or the perspective of the lens I use. Those are decisions we each make, and they are responsible for the fundamental character of the images we create.
This blog is dedicated to all of us who want to make better images. It will touch upon principles that enable us to put the technology we possess into the service of the images that only we can make. Technology makes it easier to capture the images we want, but it can’t make the essential choices for us.
What Are Those Choices?
First, photography means drawing with light. Therefore, we need to pay attention to light. What do we look for? The direction it comes from, the quality of the light source, the color and contrast of light as it bounces off the objects we look at in our viewfinders. We pay attention to the amount of light since that will determine the exposure value of the scene. If we don’t capture enough light, or if we allow too much light to reach our sensor, it will be difficult or impossible to record the image we want. Never forget, great light is the first step to great photos.
Second, we need to pay attention to the frame, the edge of the viewfinder. That line will determine what is in and what is out of the image. The camera will not decide that for us. It is our responsibility to look at the shapes, the spaces, the textures, the lines, light and color and the relationship between them all that is created by the outside edge of the picture. The biggest difference between most poor souls with a camera and those few photographers who consistently make good, even great, photographs is that the latter group pays attention to what happens at the edges of the frame. The rest of us just stick the thing we are photographing in the middle of the viewfinder and click the shutter. Great photographers design—consciously or subliminally–images in which everything within the frame contributes to the visual and emotional impact of the photograph.
Third, good photographers choose how to process the images they capture. In days of yore when I was first learning photography, a photo class involved shooting images on black and white film, loading and developing the film in a darkroom, making contact prints of all the images on a roll of film, and making prints from the best images. Releasing the shutter was only the beginning. We weren’t done until we chose the developer we’d use, chose what size print we were going to make, whether the print would be on glossy or matte paper, how much or little contrast we were going to apply, how light or dark the print was going to be, and whether or not we wanted to tone - change the color of - the black and white image. The same holds true today. Granted, the darkroom now lives in our computers and inkjet printers, but we still are responsible for processing the image in a way that will allow it to accurately express our intent in making the photograph.
There are more choices the camera cannot make for us. It can’t decide what we point it at. It can’t choose the correct moment for an exposure. It cannot study the expressions and gestures of the people we photograph. We can talk about these and other choices another time.
To sum it up, we may believe that if we buy a camera we are photographers. But we understand that if we buy a piano, we just own a piano. As the New Yorker said to the tourist who asked how to get to Carnegie Hall, “Practice, practice, practice.”
Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photo of Boy on a Bicycle, Hyères, France 1932 was made with a Leica rangefinder camera that today we would consider archaic. The camera did not decide where HCB would stand, what would be within the frame, nor did it decide when to release the shutter. The camera was a tool with which the photographer was intimately familiar. It recorded the choice made by the eye, the brain, and the heart of the photographer.
The camera did not discover this image as Ansel was driving across New Mexico. The sun was about to set. Ansel saw the scene and skidded to a stop. His mind knew what he needed to do to have a chance at recording the remarkable image. He knew what he wanted it to look like. Then he had to process the image and print it in a way that would convey his emotional response to that fleeting moment. The camera didn’t make the photograph, Ansel used the camera to capture the essential elements that his vision and craftsmanship were able to transform into a breathtaking print.
So, what made this photograph? Was it the camera? It was made by the heart, mind and eye of the photographer. The camera was the tool. In this case a very good tool but a tool none the less. It was made by cold feet and fingers. It was made by walking and looking for and finding the images that were waiting to be made. It was made by taking the camera out when everyone else, except the boys with the sled, went inside.
It was a cold, Sunday morning and I went out for a walk. The clear light created a brilliant line that swept through the frame from right to left, showcasing the two pedestrians who passed like ships in the night. The reflection in the window on the right of the frame underscored the distant figure and the small patch of red in the center of the frame. It was a perfect moment, perfect light, and the camera recorded it beautifully. But the camera could not choose what the frame included. It could not release the shutter when the elements came into balance.
If photography is drawing with light, then there are two skills to practice in order to transform those drawings made by the camera into images worth looking at. One skill is the ability to notice scenes and things and people that provide compelling visual possibilities. The more we practice this skill, the less we need to rely on other people to tell us what to photograph or where to stand. The other essential skill is seeing relationships between the elements placed inside the edge of our viewfinder. Pay attention to those relationships and how they change with subtle variations in where we stand and the angle of view of our lens. Search for the photograph that best reveals the scene that captured our imagination. Don’t be too quickly satisfied that you have the best shot with the first exposure.
Sometimes great light depends on where we stand and the direction we face. And sometimes great light is revealed by the shadows. This image was made when I took a class on a walk-about. I want students to practice seeing possibilities rather than looking for images they have already seen that have been made by other photographers. Possibilities can pop up in surprising places, such as this stairwell. The image is not really about stairs. It is not about cement. It is about light and darkness. It is about movement, up and out. It is about the rhythm of light-dark-light, and about different triangular shapes and their values. It is about evoking an emotional response from an abstract design. This is not something that the camera will see, but it is something the camera as a tool will record if we learn how to see and how to use the tool.
Kent would also love to give away a signed copy of one of his images to the most intriguing answer to this fill-in-the-blank statement, "Photography is ___________." Please share your answers in the comment section below.
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