How do you approach an idea for photography of a subject: is it one or two photographs or a theme, and what considerations do you look at?
I received this question during a recent Facebook Q+A day, and decided it would be best to answer it here on the blog. There are no short or easy answers, so I’ll try to lay out my approach as best as I can.
When I’m out shooting, I usually have a specific idea in mind for what I’m trying to capture. Sometimes it’s a specific subject, like a particular land form or point of view, and other times it’s a general location that has a variety of interesting subject matter. I usually scout the location beforehand, find potential compositions I like, and then return when I think I’ll have better lighting conditions.
This is not necessarily sunrise or sunset. Take waterfalls or deep forest scenes where soft diffuse light is best to eliminate shadows. Or valleys (like the Hudson Valley) that do not get direct sunlight at dawn and require a specific light for good results. Regardless, determining the best light is a matter of practice, experience, and luck—and definitely in that order.
Once I return, I’m basically looking for one good image. I look for strong foreground subjects, interesting lines and shapes, and a very clear and simple way of leading the viewer through the image. Yet often it’s more than that, and what I’m ultimately in search of is the right moment and feel. Yes I know that’s ambiguous, but it’s also personal, and that’s what I want in my images- my way of seeing the world. If I’m looking at your images, I want to see your way of seeing the world.
Now I might shoot many images (though I’m a minimal shooter by nature), but I’m most interested in that special capture that gives me the strongest composition and emotional reaction. I may be thinking of a theme (for ex. trees or river) but it usually comes down to one image that works really well—at least on one shoot.
I often think photographers feel the need to make many images – a way to balance the odds in favor of success. Through experience I think you’ll find it doesn’t quite work that way. It distracts you, makes you impatient, and limits your creativity. If something is not working, I move on. But if I’m feeling something—the light is amazing or there’s some real drama occurring, I usually stay put—I’ve learned over time that it always pays off.
So as an example, almost all of the images I have in my portfolio were captured during separate shoots. One portfolio image per shoot. That’s not a formula or rule, just reality. I’m really focused when I’m out, and that’s because getting just a single image that really says something is quite the challenge. Sometimes it works out, and often it doesn’t. But for me this type of focus is liberating, and I get to enjoy the process and single-mindedness it creates.
When we’re talking about inspiration and the decision to shoot vs not shoot, words somehow fall short of explaining it clearly. The best I can suggest is trust your instincts, slow down, and wait…wait…wait. Patience is really the key.
“Listening only to my instincts, I discovered superb things.” Claude Monet
Enough theory, here’s an example of how an image evolved from my initial attempt to the final version. I share this image and others in my recent ebook, but here are the shots leading up to my final version. In all I shot about 6 images.
I hope this makes sense, because it isn’t always easy to explain or describe. Any questions or comments, please let me know. Thanks as always for the support. Be sure to follow me on Facebook for the next Q+A session— I answer all your questions about photography, and maybe about other things as well
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