October 12, 2015

Adventures in photography

A couple of weeks ago I got drawn into a Q&A site called, "Quora". I read around a hundred photography questions and answered several of them, although I'm not sure how many. In reading through dozens of different questions and hundreds of different answers I was struck by how little mention was made of something I consider to be a fundamental skill for any serious photographer: vision.

Photography is all about capturing light. When you photograph a scene, you aren't really capturing the scene itself. After all, once you click the shutter, the scene is still right there in front of you, so you haven't taken anything away from it. A photograph, whether digital or film, captures a tiny slice of the light reflecting off the scene and back to the photographer. This is important to realize because whereas a physical scene can sometimes be very difficult to manipulate (ever tried moving an elephant?), the light that is reflecting back to you is extremely easy to bend, shape, color, blend, remove, add to, or otherwise manipulate in millions of different ways. But to recognize the light, first you must develop your vision.

This is a temple in a park in Tokyo on a sunny spring day when the cherry blossoms were about 50% of peak bloom. This is how everyone sees the scene. This is how most people photograph the scene. A photographer, on the other hand, needs to see that this one scene contains countless possible photos. Some of those photos will be quite dramatic, some of them will be quite boring. This first, general photograph, as you can plainly see, is rather boring.

Look at the light. Not the temple, the light. The light reflecting from the tile roof is very harsh, washing out most of the color. The light in the foreground vegetation is very dark, reducing much of the shrubbery to a dark emerald mass. The light from the pond surface is a gradient shifting naturally from dark green to almost pure white. Some of this is easier to see if we reduce the scene to monochrome.

By reducing the scene to shades of gray it immediately becomes apparent what the problem is: there is too much contrast in the temple, too little in the water and shrubbery. There is so much gray water and shrubbery the temple itself has nearly vanished! The walls are so dark they have no character at all, while the roof is almost completely washed out.

This is why many photography courses encourage students to begin their study by taking pictures in black and white rather than color. When a photograph is reduced to shades of gray, it is much easier to recognize what it is you are actually seeing. Your vision is forced to recognize the degree to which your subject is or is not clearly visible and dramatically presented.

So what is it I am trying to capture in this photo? Is it the wall of shrubbery? Is it the sweeping lines of the roof? Is it the stately temple? Is it, perhaps, the cluster of turtles on a rock in the middle of the pond? Perhaps what I am really trying to photograph is the pond itself and the way it shifts from nearly black near the temple to very light gray at my feet? All of these are possible, each of them has the potential to be dramatic and stirring, but what is it about this scene my mind's eye has been drawn to and I am seeking to record?

Every serious photographer who looks at this scene will seek to emphasize something different. They will compose and expose their photo in a way that goes beyond simple reality and transforms the reflected light into a metaphor that can carry their emotion to the people who later see the photo. Learning to see the real subject you want to convey is the first step in this process. It is not something easily taught, but it is something easily learned.

You learn to see by taking the time to experiment with seeing. The first time I stood in this spot and took this photo was in 1986. I was using a Pentax K1000, a simple fully manual 35mm camera with a fixed 50mm lens. I was still new to photography and I used two 36 exposure rolls of film just on this one scene trying to figure what exactly it was I was feeling and seeking to communicate. Many years later, in March of 2012, this was the first picture I took:

In 2012 I had practiced enough and developed my vision well enough that I could see in my mind the exact picture I wanted. The fresh colors of spring, the renewal of life, the permanence of the temple contrasted with the effervescence of the still only half bloomed cherry trees. That was what I was seeing. That was what I wanted to capture and share.

I went on to take about two dozen photos of the same scene. The first one captured the emotion of the scene, the others provided me a context for the scene to help me remember why this little slice had been so important to me. The key lesson that I learned in all those years from 1986 to 2012, was to find in any given scene those elements which captured the real vision in my mind.

I had to learn how to see what was in front of me in order to more clearly photograph the emotion I wanted to convey to others.

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