George Barr talks about how to scout locations, work a scene, and find inspiration in even the most unassuming subjects.
This excerpt from Take Your Photography to the Next Level is provided courtesy of Rocky Nook. To purchase the book and learn more about the publisher, visit the Rocky Nook website.
Working the Scene—Part 1
You have scouted out some picture possibilities and have found fertile ground. Now you actually have to position and aim your camera. For example, let’s say you found a rusting old truck in a farmyard. The truck is the “center” of the image, though it doesn’t have to be positioned that way. Let’s say that for this image, you have decided to photograph the truck while showing its environment in the background, rather than coming in close.
You have a choice of photographing the truck surrounded by farm buildings, or with a harvested grain field in the background. The choice you make will determine the character of the image. In this case, you try for the grain field because the farmyard is full of old machinery.
You wander around the truck looking for the best angle from which to photograph and to determine what will show in the background. Unless you want the junkyard look (and you might), you will want to simplify both background and foreground to help keep the main focus on the truck. Modern buildings or objects are not going to work well with the truck. Can you find an angle from which to shoot where the truck works well with the background?
Let’s say that, despite your best efforts, the backgrounds are all absolutely terrible. You can’t get a clear shot of the field due to telephone wires, there isn’t a nice weathered barn against which you can photograph the truck, and the truck isn’t surrounded by enough unmown grass to isolate it.
The activity described above is called “working the scene.” And yes, it actually is work!
What are your options? You could accept the cluttered look and perhaps deliberately emphasize it to represent many old farmyards that act as mechanical graveyards and unintentional museums.
How about getting really low, belly on the grass, and using the sky as a simple background? That eliminates the junk behind the truck, but results in emphasizing any objects that are in front of it. The sky is awfully bright though; perhaps you can filter it because it’s blue.
Perhaps you should abandon your original intention and shoot from inside the truck. Could you photograph the truck as reflected in the side mirrors? (Save those ideas for the next shot.) What if you were to leave the doors propped open? Does that create a better or worse shape?
If the background is cluttered, how about photographing from high up? Could you come back with a stepladder (or borrow one), or find something on which to climb (with permission)? Is there a barn with a hayloft from which you can shoot?
Because you don’t have a political agenda, you are looking for perspectives of the truck in which you see interesting patterns or shapes with foreground and background objects. What you find might be the S-bend in a dirt road, something in the background that repeats a shape seen in the truck, or perhaps you can compose the abandoned truck with something so obviously new and shiny that it provides a nice contrast. Perhaps the shadow of the truck can become part of the composition.
Maybe it’s a good time to stop and ask yourself exactly what it is about the truck that makes it interesting; after all, that’s what you want to show in the picture. Is it the rust, the still intact headlights, the crazed windshield, or maybe the curve of the fenders?
You are not TAKING a picture of a truck: You are MAKING a picture with a truck. An entirely different thing!
Photographing with a wide angle will encompass more background objects in the image, and a longer lens will include fewer objects. Rather than consider lenses at this early stage, I would suggest that you simply walk around the truck in smaller and smaller circles until you see what you want. Of course, you have to be careful where you walk. The grass is tall and your footsteps are going to show, so if you move in, you can’t move back out again. That can be a good reason to shoot first from further away before moving in.
You could look for something to frame the truck, but keep in mind that anomalous branches reaching into your frame from out of nowhere don’t work in landscape pictures, despite the recommendation in many a book. The same will hold true in this image. Perhaps though, you could use the end of a building or another vehicle at one side of the image. This might create depth of field problems, but if shooting digitally you could shoot two images, one focused on the truck and the other focused on the building, and then later you can blend the images.
Perhaps you always shoot in color or you always shoot in black and white, but having invested this much energy into the picture, give some thought as to which would be better, and be willing to experiment.
You have found the best position, best height, and best distance from the truck. Now stop and give some thought as to how you might print it—OK visualize it. Maybe the subject still isn’t going to work, as the tone of the truck blends with the tone of the barn in the background. Perhaps filtering can help, or if shooting digitally you can filter after the fact. If those things don’t help, but you need to do something to separate the tones, now is the time to figure out how.
You line up your camera, aiming at the car. Whoops! Not ready yet. Not if you want a really good image. You still have to refine the framing of the shot for the strongest possible image.
At this point you have selected your spot, your direction, and your height from the ground. The choice of lens will determine how much of the scene you include. If you are using a fixed focal length lens, you must have the space to move forward and back far enough to frame the shot just right. With zoom lenses you don’t have to compromise on your ideal spot.
Your last task is to figure out just where to place the four sides of the frame.
Tip: My trusty plastic rectangle with a cutout in the same format as my camera, hanging around my neck on a shoelace, is invaluable for framing my shots.
You already roughly know what you want to include, but the question is exactly where to place the edges of the frame. Start by thinking about the left edge. You can have things meet in the corner, or you can create interesting shapes where the side of the image combines with something in the image or even a dark area in the image (e.g., a shadow). Now do the same for the right edge. This now gives you your focal length, though you still have to decide whether to shoot in vertical or horizontal format. This is determined by the strongest composition with upper and lower sides. If it is necessary to crop significantly, it is a sign that you should consider stitching, which you might do anyway just to get a higher resolution image.
Now for a final check of focus, ISO setting, RAW or JPEG setting as needed, etc. Is everything OK?
That pretty much does it. You are in the right location, at the right height, and pointing in the right direction with the right lens. Your camera is set up properly. Now, a quick check on wind, anomalous reflections, and making sure that the lighting is still good. A glance at the sky to see a cloud heading for the sun: If you time things right, you might be able to soften the bright sunlight a little without making the image dull. You’re primed and ready. You expose to keep detail in all the important areas (or shoot more than one exposure if you can’t) and you have done everything you can to ensure a good image.
All you have to do now is to repeat all these steps 99 more times and the odds are fairly good that one of the images will be a keeper.
Working the Scene—Part 2
In Part 1 above, I described a hypothetical shoot. This time I’m going to discuss a real shoot I was on recently, and show you some of the preliminary photographs I took and point out why I thought I didn’t have the definitive picture.
I was in the badlands of Alberta, specifically Dinosaur Provincial Park. Much of the park is now restricted access because of the paleontology going on, but, the area between the park entrance at the top of the hill and the campground at the bottom has proved very fertile ground, so to speak. (It isn’t really fertile, of course. It’s mostly barren, with only a few silvery shrubs and the occasional patch of cactus.)
I was with a friend who hadn’t shot there before, so I showed him some of the better spots I was familiar with, but decided that I would explore a different area for myself. I found a gravel road that loops around, on which you can walk or even drive. It’s about a mile in total and the area in the middle of the loop is a mesa with small cliffs reaching down to a stream between the cliffs and the road.
I began shooting near the stream with some mudbank shots. I then photographed the cliff from my vantage point below; then from part way up (an easy climb); and then from the other side of the road where I could get a bit higher up to shoot the cliff faces. I wasn’t seeing anything very exciting though, and I didn’t have much expectation for the images (in this case I was right—but I’m not always). Eventually, I decided to explore the top of the mesa, which I hadn’t checked out before. A little climbing and I was on top of the mesa, which itself was not at all flat but consisted of small eroded hills, some gullies, and most interestingly some mudflows.
I knew from previous visits that the light beige mud of the badlands photographs well, and the dried mudflows are even better, being a light gray, which in black and white photographs has a very nice glow to it. In the past, I had simply photographed the cracked and dried mud, but this time I wanted a bit more. I found an interesting swirl of mud, not entirely dried out, which showed some darker streaks. There was a small area surrounded by these curve shapes, which would provide balance to the sweep of the mudflow. This small area wasn’t overly impressive, yet I hoped that it would record well. As you can see, hope is all it was. The smooth area of mud surrounded by cracks was neither large enough nor interestingly shaped enough to carry the image. Close but no cigar.
I tried the same image from a variety of angles but the same problems plagued all the images. Time to move on. Fortunately, there were several areas of drying mud and I tried a variety of them, getting stronger compositions, but still not the image I was hoping for. I found a tree-like structure in the dried mud that I thought might work.
This was certainly closer to what I was looking for, but I wouldn’t know for sure just how good it would be until I printed the image. On with the hunt. A short distance away I came across a small mound with sides covered in streaked, smooth mud, and with cracked mud at the base. It made an interesting contrast and I was beginning to think that here I might have a good picture.
This appeared to have potential, so I tried several different framings, positions, and focal lengths before settling on the final image below.
Flow 1. This is the first effort, original image, before any manipulation.
Flow 1 Edited. Note that the small area of smooth mud isn’t big or interesting enough to balance the top of the image.
Flow 2. More interesting, but hardly original, still it is progress and is a normal part of working a scene.
Flow 3. Now this image seems to have potential. Contrast is a bit low but we can work with that.
Flow 3 Edited. The striations in the upper mud have been emphasized and the lighter mud has taken on a little bit of a glow. Even older 4 x 5 photographs printed in the wet darkroom show this feature of the badlands.
The Poison of Preconceived Ideas
Whether planning to attend a car race, photograph a pooch, or work in a nearby ravine, we typically select the venue because of its possibilities for photography. In selecting a location or situation, we imagine how it might photograph. We can’t help it: It’s simply part of the mental process of wondering if it will be a good spot for our purpose.
It might be that we think of previous images in similar situations (either our own or those of others). We might be doing something unfamiliar, yet we still think of the ways in which we might create an image. If we are planning to visit an old steel plant, we expect pictures of pipes and rust, piles of coal, and lots of grime.
These preconceptions can come at a price. We may not be able to see beyond our expectations. For example, while visiting the steel mill, we may be so focused on rust and age and grime, that we miss the ducks on the tailings pond. We can be so fixed in our idea of a curmudgeonly old gentleman, that we miss the wonderful, wistful expression on his face as he speaks of his old dog. I suppose that we may have an agenda—we want to show the world just how cranky this old neighbor is—but in doing so, we might be missing the stronger image.
Realistically, we can’t tell ourselves to not have expectations: After all, we need to select equipment and come prepared. However, we do need to learn to turn off those preconceived ideas the moment we arrive at our location, and turn our visit into a voyage of discovery.
Perhaps we are photographing a car race and our preconceived idea is of fast cars and blurred backgrounds, yet we might be missing the more interesting pit scene or photographs of fathers taking sons to their first race. After all, do we really need more pictures of fast cars?
We may be visiting a stream and canyon, and we are so fixed on those two items that we neglect to notice a lovely rock wall detail, those wildflowers clinging to existence halfway up the cliff, or the leaves circling that backwater.
A better strategy is to anticipate possible images before we go, but upon arriving, stop and take inventory. What is there besides the obvious and expected? This will likely require exploring the scene, or at the very least having a good look around.
This first inventory is object oriented, but do a second inventory of shapes, tones, patterns, and lines. Consider relationships and repeated themes.
Go ahead and get the preconceived shot out of the way. After all, we would look pretty stupid if, while looking for other things, we missed the opportunity of getting what we originally came for as the sun moved out of range. But, once our planned shot is in the bag, we can go back to our inventory to see what else the scene might have to offer.
Finding Inspiration—Interest Comes First
I think that “trying hard” is probably the worst thing you can do as a photographer. I don’t mean you shouldn’t be careful, but rather that the harder you look for a good photograph, the less likely it is you will find one.
This of course leaves you with the thought, “So, how the hell do I take good photographs if I’m not supposed to go looking for one?”
What if, instead of hunting for great images, you were to go out looking for things that interest you? I didn’t look for an interesting image in my bedroom; I simply observed that the shorts hanging there made an interesting pattern, and THEN wondered if it might make an interesting photograph despite being such an ordinary subject. The point is THE INTEREST COMES FIRST.
Tennis Shorts Hanging. While lying in bed reading, I couldn’t help notice the lines and tonalities made by the clothing casually hanging in the corner. No subject is too mundane to at least see if it could make an interesting image.
When I photographed ADM Flour Mill, the patterns made by the cracks in the concrete caught my interest and then the question was asked, “Could that make a good photograph?”
Imagine your English professor assigning an essay on a particular topic about which you have absolutely no interest. It’s possible to do the assignment, but the chances of creating a work of art in the essay have to be considered slim at best. On the other hand, for a subject that you feel very strongly about, you might write an essay whether or not anyone asks you to, whether or not you will receive credit for it, or whether or not you will be paid for it.
Mind you, you could easily argue that unless I am quite odd (which is entirely possible), I wouldn’t have an interest in underwear (other than to find a clean pair), therefore the interest cannot have preceded the photograph. However, even with underwear, it was a simple observation that clothes dumped randomly on the floor or casually hung up sometimes create interesting patterns. I looked at those patterns for most of my life before deciding to photograph them.
Underwear Left Lying. Now we’re really pushing the bottom of the barrel for an image, but I couldn’t resist that lovely curve and those shadows on the floor. The image pleases me. I don’t have to show it to the world, though I guess I just did!
What I’m trying to say is that the interest usually precedes the finding of the photograph, and that what we should be looking for is not the photographable but the interesting, and I don’t think they are the same thing at all.
What if the very thing you are interested in is the process of taking photographs? It’s all very well if you are a hiker or a Sierra Club member, but what about the guy or gal who just enjoys mucking about with cameras? Are they to be discounted, doomed never to make a great photograph?
I began by suggesting that you have to be excited about the subject matter; that if you have no emotional response to your subject, how can anyone else have an emotional response to your photograph?
For example, can someone who thinks football is boring still take a great football picture? Can a photographer who is assigned to photograph a boxing match and who is disgusted by the whole thing still manage to make a photograph that shows the excitement of the sport?
Was Edward Weston obsessed with dead pelicans? I highly doubt it. What Edward Weston was excited about was shapes, curves, and tones. He didn’t care a whit where he found shapes that excited him—whether a pepper in a funnel or a toilet shot from the floor—it didn’t matter as long as it had the “light.” Hell, we don’t know if Edward Weston even liked to eat peppers!
If we take the same argument to the world of painting, we can ask if Rembrandt was obsessed with rich burghers of Ghent, or was he obsessed with light and composition and conveying facial expressions?
Was Andy Warhol obsessed with Campbell’s tomato soup? Probably not. What about Arnold Newman, the late great portrait photographer? Did he emotionally react to each of his sitters equally? Surely, some subjects didn’t interest him and it became an intellectual exercise to make a great portrait of a rather ordinary person.
I like photographing weathered industrial subjects. I’m not an engineer, I don’t tinker with old cars, nor is my backyard garden littered with odd bits of machinery. I like old machinery because it photographs well, not because of some obsession I have about the past. I’m happy to photograph modern structures if they have the right tones and textures, e.g., my parking garage series. I do park my car, but I am not obsessed with parking structures.
Pipes and Valves. I love the challenge of taking a large, complex subject, such as this sulfur scrubbing plant, and finding parts that form patterns, shapes, lines, and textures which please. This is art, not a technical illustration.
Parking Spiral. Even ugly subjects can be made interesting if not actually beautiful. It might be easier to think of words like character, history, noble, enduring. You are showing what other people don’t notice—in this case the yellow line and the tire marks in the driveway.
These examples would suggest that interest in the subject matter is not, in fact, essential for a good photograph. Shouldn’t that mean that I can simply point my camera at anything, and as long as it’s possible to place it in an interesting composition a great photograph will ensue? If only that were the case!
Some subject matter excites us or challenges us due to its photographic characteristics, which has absolutely nothing to do with who or what is being photographed. When Edward Weston photographed José Clemente Orozco in 1930, what made the photograph interesting and challenging were the Coke-bottle-bottom glasses the sitter was wearing, distorting the eyes and providing interesting highlights. One could imagine Weston making the portrait even if the sitter had been his garage mechanic’s unemployed ex-brother-in-law, instead of a famous painter of murals.
But what does this mean to you and your photography? For a start, you can be excused for not having a passionate interest in your subject matter and you can still make great photographs; remember the pepper! It still means you need to be involved with your subject, just not necessarily for the obvious reasons. Your interest may come from the tonalities that will photograph well, the wonderful shapes, perhaps because of its oddity (think Diane Arbus), or simply because you know it’s something most of us would walk by without a second glance, and you would like the opportunity to show us what we missed.
Whether fascinated with the subject directly or only with its photographic possibilities, the interest still comes first. Only then can you start hunting for great images.
Rules for Looking
Below is a list of points to consider when looking for something to photograph:
- Look for simplicity. Look around for areas that are less confusing. I was about to say, “less cluttered,” but perhaps clutter is what you are photographing. Yet, even in this you are looking for a representative area of clutter with an element of consistency of clutter.
- Look for a viewpoint from which things appear simpler. This might involve climbing onto something, or finding a hill to climb or a ravine you can shoot down into.
- Always consider the background. Sometimes you find an uncluttered background first, then you search for something in front of it to show off, whether weeds, bushes, people, or rocks.
- Look for the part that represents the whole. You might be photographing the junkyard experience, so how about concentrating on someone’s facial expression as they discover the elusive hubcap from a 1952 Rambler they are refurbishing? If the junkyard is about rust, then look around for the best rust. A photograph of a bunch of gnarled old trees is probably going to be less effective than a single, particularly good specimen unless there is a repeating pattern in the trees that can be used.
- Look for something that CAN be photographed. Some things won’t work well, such as harsh lighting, inadequate depth of field, or cluttered foregrounds or backgrounds. If you can’t see a way around these flaws, then move on.
- Don’t look for great photographs: Look instead for objects with potential. Objects have potential because they photograph well (see essay on what photographs well), or because of their location or uniqueness or interest. Use these to assemble a possible photograph.
- If you don’t see anything interesting to photograph, stop trying and simply enjoy the location. Wander around looking at things, whether photogenic or not. In a junkyard you might stop to talk with some of the other explorers, try hefting a rear axle, or peer inside a battered car body or under the hood of a very old car (boy they were simple in those days!). Odds are you will become involved, and once involved your chances of finding something worthy to photograph increase substantially.
- Say something about your experience. Instead of trying to say something different (let’s face it, you aren’t the first photographer to visit a junkyard), try to say something about your experience of the junkyard. Are you intrigued by the shapes, the decay, the people, the pollution, or the amount of waste? Do you, in fact, have any reaction at all to wandering around the place? If you have no emotional reaction to wandering around, the outcome of your shoot is dubious at best. You could treat it as an exercise, but don’t build your hopes for great art.
- Maintain a positive attitude. A project, whatever it might be, is unlikely to be successful if it starts from a premise of, “Here is a list of things it can’t be.” Regardless of whether it’s an idea for a science fair, selecting living room furniture, or making photographic art—always proceed from the positive. Ask yourself, “What could this be?” An open mind is bound to see something new and creative.
- Explore. Get down on your knees, look inside the cars, and climb if you can. Limiting yourself to the world as seen from standing eye-level and looking straight ahead is to deny yourself a view of most of the world. What about looking straight down? Can you truly say “I have seen” by the time you leave?
- Consider the possibility that what you came to photograph may not be what you should leave with. You might have come for the rust, but you leave with the people. Be flexible in assigning yourself a project. There is nothing wrong with it turning out to be radically different from what you intended or expected.
- Stop! After wandering around for a while and finding nothing interesting to photograph, pause for a minute and analyze the scene. OK, so you found nothing interesting to photograph, but did you find nothing interesting at all? If the answer truly is “nothing,” then perhaps you should go home. If your reaction though is, “This is a cool place!” then ask yourself what’s cool about it and resume your wandering now focused on what’s cool.
I’m not talking about eyestrain here. Rather, I mean that our ability to “see” sometimes fails us. It can do so in several ways:
Finding Images. I find that after shooting for a couple of hours in the same location, I begin to get numb. I seem to run out of ideas and there is probably not much point in continuing to shoot.
Fortunately, this problem can be overcome in a couple of ways. This “seeing fatigue” doesn’t seem to carry over to some different scenery, so it might simply be a message to move on, even just around the corner. It may be nothing more complicated than taking off your backpack, sitting on a rock, and just relaxing—perhaps grabbing a sandwich or a granola bar, taking a sip of water, and simply enjoying where you are, without actually hunting for images.
Color Vision. Our eyes adapt to strong color casts within a second or two, which means, for example, that we don’t see the blueness of objects that are lit only by the sky, or the yellowness of something lit by the reflection off a yellow wall. The camera will record a green tinge to a rock under a tree which the eye, knowing that rocks aren’t generally green, completely ignores. These problems can affect us photographing in canyons, while doing portraits, and in any number of situations where we have definite ideas of correct colors, yet the scene records otherwise.
Print Darkness and Contrast. It is human nature not to notice small changes. If someone gradually gains weight daily, you are not likely to notice. However, someone else who hasn’t seen that person for a while will instantly notice the difference. My patients will report being ill for a month or two, yet when treated, realize they had been ill for many months.
The same phenomenon occurs when processing prints. You gradually make your prints darker, and you increase the contrast in such small stages that you often don’t notice that you have gone too far until you have gone “way over the top,” and then you actually have to back up several steps. Just about any print adjustment can be taken in small steps until it has gone way too far before being noticed.
Print Viewing Fatigue. There are those images of which one never tires. And, there are images that are meant to be seen only occasionally—they work better in a book than on a wall. Almost any image, if studied too long and looked at too often, gets a bit boring.
I happen to enjoy watching the same movie more than once, but even for me there comes a time when “familiarity breeds contempt,” and it is time I shelved the movie for a long time before bringing it out again. The same is true of photographs. If you spend hours working on an image, it is not unreasonable to develop some doubts about its strength, simply because you have spent so much time with it. If you find this happening, then stop working on it for a few weeks and come back to it refreshed. That will tell you if the image really has legs.
There’s Nothing Here to Photograph
I suspect it’s universal to sometimes go out photographing, and in a particular location, we find nothing to move us (except to a different location). Nothing photogenic, nothing inspiring, nothing interesting. We pack up our bags and head off somewhere else.
Many times this is exactly the right thing to do. But, what about when you know there should be something to photograph, and you just can’t see it? You might know because it looks photogenic or you’ve had success there before. Perhaps someone else made good images there.
Oh, sure, you might fire off some images with little hope of getting anything (you wouldn’t even have bothered unpacking a 4 x 5, but with digital, perhaps a miracle will happen and the pixels will magically align).
So, the question is this: If a location should or could lend itself to good photographs and you can’t find them, is there anything that can be done to salvage the situation before you pack up your gear and move on?
The answer to this question could turn into an entire course on photography, but for our purposes, following are some questions to ask yourself and points to consider before you pack away your gear:
- Have you explored the scene from every angle, including low and high? Recently, I shot a tiny, ice-covered waterfall; which I don’t suppose it was even two feet high. From front-on it didn’t amount to much, but when I waded through the snow to get above the fall, lovely arcs of ice appeared. My change in position made the difference between failure and success.
Ice Formation from Below. I would call this pretty, at best, but it is not a good photograph. It’s hardly unique and the shapes are not great. It’s an image to toss.
Ice Formation from Above. Effort well spent, the same ice formation from above and we have great and sweeping curves. Note the repetition in the lines in both ice and water unifying the image.
- Did you show up with a wide angle frame of mind and miss the telephoto shot, or the other way around? Preconceived ideas of what will work best for a scene can impair you.
- If the conditions prevent the scene from being workable at this particular time (i.e., light, wind, or clouds), could you take advantage of what you thought was a problem, or do you simply work around it? So the sky is boring. Who says the picture has to include the sky? Photographing at noon brings the challenge of harsh shadows. How about actually incorporating the shadows as part of the picture? Noontime shadows on flatland are short, but on vertical surfaces they are long and dramatic. I wonder . . .
- If there is material there and you just can’t see how to put it together, stop searching for a few minutes and ask yourself, “What makes the scene pretty or interesting or moving?” and “How might I go about showing that within the limitations of what is available?” So often we run around without much thought, looking for things to fall into place, whereas, if we give some thought to why we are there, we might make better use of what we find around us.
- Consider treating the location as an assignment: You HAVE to get the best possible photographs in this “bad” situation. Sometimes just simply starting to photograph will break you out of a slump, and the first pictures, which really are poor, will quickly lead to better pictures.
- Try to treat the scene in an abstract way. Instead of photographing the rocks and trees, try photographing a mood or emotion—the shapes and lines.
- Make a picture of the light rather than what is lit.
- If you are younger than me, try bending over and looking at the scene upside down between your legs (assuming no one is looking). Suddenly things might fall into place.
- Consider just lying down and staring at the sky for 10 minutes. There is a fair chance you will find something when you get up again.
- Pretend you are someone else whose style is a bit different from yours. What would they photograph?
- OK, so a straight photograph isn’t going to look good, but if you really changed things in post-processing—radically darkening parts of the image, lightening others, changing contrast, printing high key, or printing low key—might there be something that would work? Think of the scene as only the material for the image you are going to build.
- Put down your camera and explore the scene without it. While taking a portrait, for example, stop playing with your camera and talk with your subject.
- Put yourself in the most awkward, uncomfortable, wet, cold, prickly, or otherwise nasty spot in the scene. Want to bet that is where the best position can be found? Ask yourself, “How many other people would make the effort?”
If all the above doesn’t do it for you, it probably is time to move on, perhaps coming back on a different day or at a different time. Leave, though, remembering that the problem may well lie with the photographer and not with the scene, and that it could be very rewarding on a different day.
Where Should You Point the Camera?
When shooting the “grand landscape” there is often only one place to aim the camera and the issues center around timing and where to plant the tripod more than what to shoot. But a common scenario is to be wandering around looking for photographs in an area of interesting material. This could be an outdoor farmers' market, an old abandoned industrial plant, an interesting bridge, a canyon, a field, an abandoned farmyard, a street somewhere in an exotic country, or a junkyard. It could even be a nude.
Where do you point the camera and how much do you include? Are there any rules, guidelines, suggestions, or tips to help?
Common to all these possible subjects is the need to make order out of chaos. An attempt to photograph the whole often leads to disappointment, leaving the viewer with none of the excitement you felt while there. A picture of an entire bazaar in Morocco would look more like an illustration for a report on traffic congestion. It wouldn’t even make a good travel brochure illustration, as it lends nothing of the experience of actually being there.
To make a good travel brochure picture, you would want to show one or more vendors and their wares, colorful clothing, and exotic backgrounds. You probably wouldn’t include the tacky tourist in the awful hat, loud shirt, and bad shorts. As a creative artist though, you might want to make a study of tourists and their garb. If you did want the vendor, it would be because of an interesting face, patterns in the wares displayed, an interesting shadow across the scene, repetitive shapes, appealing color contrasts, etc.
Let’s imagine a less exotic scenario. You are wandering around a junkyard. There are heaps of rusting cars, piles of old parts, broken glass, puddles of dubious liquids, and scattered around, people searching for treasures amidst the junk. Your aim is to produce a series of pictures that represent the “junkyard” experience.
Here, I want to address the problem of finding something to photograph rather than fine tuning composition. I think you can imagine without too much difficulty two camera-carrying photographers wandering through the junkyard. One is a hobbyist of little experience and no background in art. The other is Cartier Bresson reincarnated. The novice wanders through while randomly taking snapshots of colorful piles of junk, gets bored, and heads home having decided that the problem is the junkyard. Once home none of the images look even vaguely interesting.
The other photographer is kept extremely busy, and in fact is frustrated when, at the end of the day, he is asked to leave, the gates are closed, and he goes home tired and happy. On looking at his images, he sees that many show the elements of good photographs. More to the point, he had no trouble finding subject matter.
A common phenomenon is a hobbyist photographer heading to a location previously shot by one or more of the greats. They attempt to recreate some of those images and are sorely disappointed that their prints look nothing like what the master had produced.
A further problem is that people are sometimes wowed by the majestic photographs made by highly skilled photographers, only to visit the locations themselves and find the actual location disappointing; the mountains don’t look as high, the river seems smaller, and the scenery appears less spectacular. It’s not that the greats somehow stretched the mountains in the darkroom, but rather, that they created order out of chaos. Other elements do not distract from the majesty of their image of the mountain. The photographer knew how to get the best out of what he had available (i.e., Half Dome at noon is not nearly as exciting as it is late in the day).
How then does one find good images? It isn’t possible to give specific directions, because clearly it will depend on each individual situation, but there are some guidelines that might be useful.