If you’ve ever been shooting in the field with a good instructor, you’ve probably heard them ask “why are you making this photograph”. This question begs an answer more substantial than a simple description of what’s in front of your camera. Answering is a good way to get you thinking more about the intention of the image rather than just the subject matter. Capturing your intention is the key to making better photographs.
You could be out in a western National Park shooting one of the many gorgeous mountain ranges. Yup, the mountain is your subject. But what do you want to express to the viewer? The sheer height of the mountain? The shape of the mountain? The color? Or is your intention to convey your sense of awe? Or perhaps its how the mountain is interacting with the foreground or sky.
Lets say you’re making images of people. You could say I am doing portraiture, or environmental portraiture. True, the people are the subjects, making it portraiture, but what’s your intention for the final image? Do you want the viewers to notice their clothes? Their expression? Are you showing off a new haircut? Perhaps it’s a group photo of a family, and you want to convey love and togetherness. Maybe the place is important to the image. Is it a local park, workplace or vacation? Each of these locations may suggest a different approach.
In my mind, subject matter is largely irrelevant. It doesn’t matter whether you shoot landscape, people, birds or insects. What does matter is how that subject makes you feel. In any situation where you feel compelled to raise the camera, there is an underlying feeling or idea that is calling you to action. This is where you need to focus your energy and attention.
At this point, it becomes more about you than what’s in front of you. What’s going through your mind? How do you feel about the subject or scene? Use your words to describe this. Simply thinking about it is not good enough. Speak it out loud. I am photographing serenity or majesty or inter-connectivity. I am capturing emotion, shape or confusion.Try to steer away from using words that are too general. Drill down a bit. Use a combination of words. The more specific you can be, the more likely you’ll end up with better photographs that are understood and appreciated.
Of course this all just an exercise. It’s Practice. Not every scene or subject allows the time to be so contemplative. The more you practice, however, the more this way of thinking becomes a part of your image making process. Remember when you first started photography? Simply choosing a shutter speed or aperture required serious concentration. Now you may find these decisions much less difficult. Spending time thinking about the intention of your photograph and verbally announcing those intentions is just another form of practice. Much like any skill or art form, practice is crucial to mastery.
Your idea or feeling, while being inspired by the things before you, is the real subject. Now its up to you to create better photographs by capturing it.
The image above is classic example of capturing intention. As the sun begun to rise over the choppy waves of the Outer Banks in North Carolina, I was struck by the motion of the water and the light reflected off the damp beach and receding waves. Time and motion. This became my intention, rather than capturing the “sunrise over the Atlantic.” The trick was to find an appropriate shutter speed to provide some softness to the ocean while leaving the receding waves on the beach with some amount of structure.
After some experimentation, I found that 8 seconds at F/14 rendered the distant waves with just the right amount of motion. I also noticed that the long exposure of 8 seconds resulted in very similar wave patterns from shot to shot. What did change however was the look of the receding waves on the damp beach. This look needed to be managed by timing. After several more attempts I nailed my timing to allow the wave to cover the most beach possible. This allowed it to curl over and interact with the wooden structure as well as provide a larger area of reflected skylight. Realizing that my intention was more about motion and reflected light made me focus more on my timing and shutter speeds than I had initially intended.
Assignment. Find a scene that captures your attention. Without too much thought, make a rough composition and take a shot. Next step back and review your image. Compare it to the scene before you. Ask yourself what drew you to this scene. Why are you taking this photograph? Spend some time with it. Begin to fine tune your composition and technical controls to better represent your idea. Remember, if you are unsure of your intention, your viewers are likely to suffer the same confusion!
Thanks to Tim Cooper for this insightful article! Tim is an amazing photographer, instructor, and workshop leader! To enjoy any of his travel workshops visit his website “The Photographers Breakthrough.” If you see a workshop you like, don’t delay as these sell out extremely fast.