It’s a simple enough question, but can have a radical effect on how you approach a subject, explains Geoff Harris
A striking image, but does it make the best of this fascinating subject?
Nope, the question is not how fast your lens is or how many megapixels are sitting on your sensor.
It’s simply this: do you know the difference between a great photograph and a photograph of something great?
On the surface this seems a pretty simple question, but think about it for a while and more questions start to unfold. Are there times you have been so blown away by your subject that you think that’s enough to make the image – regardless of the execution of the actual photograph?
As a keen travel photographer I think this is something I have certainly been guilty of. I remember one time I was at Angkor Wat, just as a tropical thunderstorm was about to hit. The sky was incredibly dramatic, but sadly my photos didn’t really do the scene justice. I was so ‘stoked’ about being there and witnessing this impending storm that I forgot to address the basics, and shot a lot of the scenes at a way-too-wide aperture, with predictably soft and mushy results.
Photo in the opportunity
There are many examples beyond travel. An awesome sunrise or sunset, or crashing waves. A stunningly beautiful model. All these things are great to have in front of your camera, but won’t necessarily make for a great photograph.
I interviewed the wildlife presenter and photographer Chris Packham recently, and he put it another way. “Don’t just take a photo of the opportunity, you need to see the photo IN the opportunity.”
Chris was using the example of one animal attacking another, which is a great photo opportunity to be sure, but that in itself won’t make the image. If the image of the encounter is poorly composed, or the animals are soft and poorly exposed, you have not done justice to the opportunity.
If you enter a lot of photography competitions but never get anywhere, you may be coming to grief in this area. Yes, you may have witnessed a once in a lifetime gathering of Indian holy men or glimpsed an incredibly rare bird, but if your resulting image is so-so, then so what? Your image ends up entirely dependent on the caption for impact, which is not what it’s about.
So, how to avoid falling into this “great subject versus great photo” trap? The first thing to do is to be aware of the problem in the first place, which is something that will give you an immediate advantage over a lot of snappers. From there, it’s about keeping calm and mindful. It’s easy to get flustered when something amazing and dramatic unfolds in front of you, but it’s really important to stay grounded, take a deep breath and talk yourself through the gear and settings you need to do the event justice.
Have you got the right lens attached, for example? Is a wide-angle lens needed to soak up the full glory of the scene, or are you better fitting a telephoto and going for more detail? Have you remembered to adjust the ISO according to the light (or switched it to Auto) and are the aperture and shutter speed appropriate for the conditions and the kind of image you want to take? Are you close enough? Are you holding the camera straight? Are you quickly scanning all four corners of the frame to ensure no distractions creep in before committing yourself to the shot? It’s not always wise to just run and gun in other words.
Photos within photos
This is also an area where practice really pays off. If you are familiar with your camera’s controls and have a pretty good idea of what settings are needed for what kind of light and composition, then you’re going to be much better placed to nail the shot of that magical opportunity. It’s not the time to be fiddling with exposure settings or focus points (or chimping) when that amazing elephant walks past, or causing that beautiful model to lose patience because you can’t get the lighting right.
Another good tip is to look for other photographs within the photograph. To return to the example of the fighting animals, think about the graphic shapes they are creating, the effect of the dust being kicked up, the environment, and so on. Thinking about where you want to focus will help keep the crucial areas sharp as possible. Or you can go to the other extreme and use slower shutter speeds to create evocative motion blur? Having a database of different aesthetic approaches in your head can help you make the right choice in the heat of the moment, and this is something you can build up by checking out the work of other great photographers beforehand. That’s not to say you should copy, but it might help you come up with more creative ideas on the day.
So, the next time you are out with your camera and see something great, simply remind yourself – your photographic approach needs to be great as well, to avoid that frustrating sense of “meh” when you look at the image on the computer…
Do you agree with Geoff? Tell us what you think in the Comments section below.
About the Author
Geoff is an experienced photography journalist and recently stepped down as editor of Digital Camera, the UK’s best-selling photography magazine. He now writes for a range of publications. Geoff is a keen travel and portrait photographer, and a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society.