Friday, June 08, 2018

Making Pictures

I like to think about the craft of photography more than the mechanics of it. I think the thought process that goes on before you press the shutter button matters a lot more than what you do right at the instant of making a photo.

Don't get me wrong - you need to know how to use a camera to take good pictures. However, once you've achieved competence in using your camera, the real magic comes from your ideas on what photos you'd like to take. Or should I say "make"?

Making Pictures

I was listening to Lionel Strang's podcast "A Modeler's Life" and one of his guests, Blair Koostra, is a prolific railway photographer who has been published in TRAINS and elsewhere. One word that Blair used frequently really resonated with me. He talked about making photographs, not taking them.

I think there is a big idea there. When you take a photograph, you are simply recording what is in front of you. When you make a photograph, you are thinking about what you want the photograph to be, and taking steps to realize your vision. I like that a lot.

Continuous Improvement

In every vocation and every hobby, you get better at what you do with practice. You level up. Sometimes this is imposed on you - you get reassigned to a new position at work, or your boss gives you more responsibilities and you have to learn more skills - and sometimes you do it yourself by getting training or watching videos on YouTube or whatever.
CN 5761 in Edmonton, Alberta, June 2010, with blown-out sky
Many times, people get complacent and hit a plateau where they don't improve. It's comfortable to get to "good enough" and stay there, and in many cases that's perfectly fine. I'm "good enough" at some areas of my work and that's fine, but in many areas of my professional life and my personal life, I'm not satisfied with "good enough". My photography is one of those areas.

CEMR 5396, Oak Bluff, Manitoba, December 2017 - sky not blown out
A guest on another podcast, the excellent Afford Anything podcast, quoted a hero of theirs, Roman Mars, who said, "right now I'm embarrassed by the work I did last year, and I'm hoping that a year from now, I'm embarrassed by the work I'm doing right now."

Amen to that.

I'm embarrassed by that photo of CN 5761 above, from 2010. There was no excuse for blowing the sky out (pure white sky), but I did it. I had the exposure wrong, and I couldn't figure out how to expose it properly. I ended up either blowing the sky out or composing my photos to not include sky at all.

Contrast that with the pair of CEMR locomotives, taken with the same camera. I exposed it such that the sun wasn't blown out, yet the locomotives weren't a dark mass of shadow. My technique has improved in seven years!

Details Matter

CN 8930 at Diamond outside Winnipeg
I really try to think about what I can do to make the best picture. How should I compose this for maximum impact? What can I include in the photo to increase interest or better tell the story? More importantly, what can I leave out of the photo?

Have a look at the following pair of photos of the Fredericton train station. See what's different between the left and right photos.
Compare and contrast
I took the left photo, then walked about ten feet and made the right photo. I processed both the same, except that I cropped the right one a bit to remove a shadow. Can you see how the right photo is a better photo? There's no shadow coming from the bottom of the photo; no fire hydrant and yellow poles in the shot. Less distraction = more impact.

Now that I think of it, I could have laid my camera on the ground and tried that angle. There's always an opportunity to make a photo just a bit better.

Satisfaction Not Guaranteed

Don't be satisfied with one photo. Try a different angle. Lay down on the ground. Shoot through something as a frame. Try it from the non-sun side. Turn your camera 90 degrees. Turn it 45 degrees, even.

Sometimes it just won't work out. I know I've come away from some photo outings, feeling like I didn't get any decent shots, like it was just a waste of time and megabytes. Like it was pointless.

Those days happen.

Use those days as a determination to do better next time, to try something different, to take a fresh approach or try a new location. Something will change, and you'll get some magic.

Just get out there and try.


Bob said...

Steve, terrific piece with great advice to the railroad photographers still learning the art.

There are no "bad" pictures, only ones that can be better with experience and training.

Canadian Train Geek said...

Thanks, Bob, for your kind comments!

JasonPaulSailer said...

Great write up!