Have you ever been to an event or seen something, take a picture only to discover it just doesn't do justice to the happening? Every photographer struggles with this issue. Sometimes you focus on something small to represent but that's hard and often falls short. Sometimes you take a wide shot but that makes everyone look so inconsequential the scene loses energy. I work on this all the time. My current solution is to focus on the scene, find a moment that will work in a still photograph. It means that I pay little or no attention to my camera, it is preset, and I just watch. Much of the time I don't even look through the viewfinder when the moment is happening, I just snap. I have become proficient at working with a 24mm/1.4 lens so I know what the camera is capturing and auto focus works pretty well at locking in. Once you capture the image, you have to decide how to post process. That becomes a matter of artistic taste. I going to give some examples of all this. The scene I'm photographing has lots of energy, so how to convey that to a viewer who wasn't present is the challenge. Since readers of this blog were not likely present in the venue, you have to judge for yourself which one(s) of the images fits the criteria.
There is a slight difference between the two images above. I reduced the saturation in the one directly above and came in closer creating a bit more chaos for the viewer to work through. When I'm about to photograph I usually look for one or two key points of action. It could be an expression or arm movement as in this case. The hurdle then becomes to make that the center of attention.
Next are two images, similar scenes but with a wider capture. To me, the wider capture becomes more of just an ordinary photograph, no confusion to work through that holds interest, even when post processed differently.
A black and white version changes the mood but doesn't do much for my taste on the energy level.
I like the chaos of the second image, but my bias sometimes falls short because I'm not flattering the subject(s). That last point can be a fatal flaw. I think focusing on finding the moment is critically important and you can't be fooling around with settings on your camera, that's got to be nailed down in advance. How you post process is your taste but it can screw the pooch if you are not careful. So all this gets back to the title of this blog "it ain't easy".
A couple of years ago, I decided to do a personal project on the Grand Dell Saloon which is a blues bar next to my studio. Well, 13K photos later, it is still a work in progress with new additions beyond photography. I started with environmental images of the bar, moved to portraits of the musicians as they performed, most recently photographing the action in the bar of people enjoying the music mostly dancing. A sidebar has also been interviewing the musicians allowing them to tell their stories. Yesterday, I interviewed Cathy Lemons, a well known San Francisco blues singer who comes from Dallas Texas. I also did some photography with Cathy and here is a sample of a couple of hours in the studio.
But there is a lot more to Cathy than beauty and a great voice, her journey has been difficult a story of bit falls and redemption. Here is her story in her own words. You can find all the musicians in iTunes under Hold the Eye Images Podcasting; Stories of Musicians of the Grand Dell Saloon.
This is a continuation of the topic from the last blog. The audio speaks to this image.
A new feature for this blog is an audio explanation of the images. It's easier for me to describe than to type out. I have posted these images before, they are really a test of the process I intend to use going forward. Saves time, doesn't allow me to get lazy and I can provide more information. Just click on the posting below to hear the explanation. Camera Nikon D800E, Flash units SB900, lens Nikon 24mm/f1.4. ISO 800
A couple of years ago, I decided I was going to make a personal project out of the bar next to my studio. I didn't know much about the place since I had just moved in. Well, 15 thousand images later, I'm certainly in a different place than the beginning. I really didn't know where to be begin or how to get access for that matter. I started by taking photos of the performers, printing them and hanging them in the bar. I won't go into the process of how I reached this deal but this was the breaking point. Once I kicked into high gear, most of my images were portraits of the performers, my preference being black and white. Gradually, I moved on, capturing images of people just doing what they love in the bar. Some nights I find magic, some I just strike out. That's the road of photography although the number of hits has dramatically improved from the beginning as I learned more and more of what to expect(using the baseball metaphor since I live in the Bay Area, home of the World Champion SF Giants). My focus now is broader trying to capture the mood of the place on any given night. I normally shoot at least one day/night a week sometimes two, and often just go next door and snap a few if I get bored in the studio. Last night I spent about an hour and a half in the bar; and thought the range of what I shot would illustrate what I'm trying to capture now. These are just shots from last night with a couple of noted exceptions, not yet classified as even keepers for the final project.
Let's start with the performers, here is a locally well know blues singer, along with a guitarist who also is locally well known as a singer/songwriter. It's pretty typical of the images I get except color. I shot it from the back of the room using the Nikon 70-200mm/f4 lens. More and more I use this lens when I'm carrying a bag around. It's just as sharp as my f/2.8 version, has a better VR and is much lighter. The last point being the big factor.
It can get repetitive just shooting portraits and a bit boring if you have shot as many as I have. So I try to mix it up with the dancing. I really like the dancing because it gets to the feeling and vibe of the place and people are more expressive. For most of my dancing type shoots, I use the Nikon 24mm/f1.4. And many of the shots I'm holding the camera over my head. From shooting so much I'm very good at holding the camera over my head framing without looking through the viewfinder. I wait watching the crowd for just the right moment to snap. I'm looking at the scene not the image in the camera. This takes practice to work. Here is an example of hold the camera over the head.
Back to last night, the 24mm lens but crouching a bit.
I desaturated most of the these images a bit, so that the eye focuses on the people. With all that color, it distracts from the action. Here's another couple of examples from earlier evenings. standing on a chair, holding the camera over my head.
This is the 70-200mm,f4 from the back of the room.
There is also activity like the Tip Bucket going around, the major source of payment for the musicians.
Back to the dancing, I love to photograph the first couple on the floor. They have spunk and it shows on their faces. Last night's first couple; the flash is part of a two unit set I use. The two units are diagonally facing each other. I will discuss that in a later blog.
And of course, I try every time to get an environmental shot; one that shows the crowd. These are the most difficult to make sense of and I haven't really found one I like yet.
Finally, there is the jewel that the photo gods give you. This is happening more often which I suppose is the way it works when you become so familiar with a subject that you are on the lookout for that special something. One of the guys from the kitchen(great guy), came out for a moment to listen to Cathe Critchfield(the portrait shot). My keeper for the evening.
I have no idea where or when the finish line is reached for this project although I believe I'm getting close. While I still take pictures, I'm spending more and more time focused on recording the stories of the musicians of the Grand Dell. You can find those in iTunes under Musicians of the Grand Dell Saloon. I'm also going to add an audio portion to this blog. It's easier for me to describe photos in my own words than thy to type my thoughts. That's especially true since the torn retina surgery and I have a bit of 3D vision close up. I'm running out of blog steam, so more later.
It's a question that I ask myself all the time. It helps to hear others talk about their photo passion. Here is a video that reveals this thinking.
As photographer Hal Schmitt responded to that question a few weeks ago, "A great subject". He certainly makes a good point but not all great images start out with great subjects. You could generally say great images captivate the viewer, not always for good reasons, but nonetheless hold the attention of the viewer. Cause the viewer to ponder or think about the image, maybe even ask questions about the image. And I could add, the image reveals something to the viewer that previously hadn't been seen. Or not being so lofty, but more down to earth, I could say a great image is one that goes with the couch and chair and works with the room paint. The latter being the more pragmatic answer that represents why the image was purchased. From another perspective, a great image reminds you of...............and you want to be reminded periodically of that person or event. If you were in the advertising world, a great image makes you look at a product and optimally want to buy it.
So the definition of a great image varies quite dramatically depending on the viewer and purpose. My taste in images may differ from yours, just as my taste in many things may differ. There are rules but they mainly define what has been historically pleasing to the eye. Pleasing to the eye is a long way from great or even good. So with all those caveats; I will make up my list of things that contribute to a great image. This is not brilliance on my part but simplification and redundant for those folks that read the blog regularly.
1. Seriously dramatic light. This can be created or captured but it needs to be very evident.
2. Humanity needs to be present; either a person, evidence of people, or other forms of life.
3. #2 needs to be represented in a dramatic and close-up way. This could be done through lens choice or framing.
4. The subject needs to imply a story or emotion.
5. People should react by wanting to know more.
6. And the cherry topping would be an unusual composition.
So that's my list of items and obviously not all images must have all elements but that's what works for my senses. I think it is important to make your own list and follow those instincts in your photography, updating your list over time if necessary. It is one technique that has worked for me that leads me to hunt images, not in a random fashion but with purpose. I'm always looking for things that fit my list, and I often shoot them only to discover they don't measure up to my expectations. It helps me learn more and more about the subjects I hunt and just as important the techniques I use in their capture. Your list will not be definitive enough to follow without interpretation so being able to spot subjects is a learned skill along with how to use your camera to meet your expectations. Both of these skills are a work in progress for me and I suspect will remain so forever. But in any journey, you need a starting point and some guide posts, your list is a start.
As a footnote, the original title of this blog was "What makes a great single image" but I dropped the word "single". The main reason involves your evolution in capturing images from your list. Over time these images will be linked by your list and may well represent a body of work that requires examination as a body, not as a single image. A body of work linked by a common theme can be much greater than the sum of the images, more revealing and substantial. I'm leaving that door open for now. More on this subject later.