Primarily, photography is about perception: it is about a way of seeing the world around you and then using the camera and other tools to capture your perception. The very fact that, out of all the reality which you encounter day by day, you choose to select and frame one particular aspect of it and do so from a particular vantage point at a particular time, means that what you are saying to other people is: ‘This is interesting and worth looking at.’. That is the primary skill of photography. The secondary skill is being able to select and use the right camera and related equipment for the job of recording that perception.
This in turn means that you must have a love of the subject which you are photographing. You will not see any animal pictures on this blog: I am not an animal loving person, I don’t go all gooey and soft when I see a monkey, or a wild bird, or a dog. So I don’t photograph these subjects. You will not see many pictures of people on this blog. I am no good with people: I do not establish a quick rapport with them or enjoy meeting new people. So I do not do wedding photography or portraiture, because the main skills of weddings and portraits involves a love of and rapport and skill with people, an interest in them and who they are, an ability to organize them without giving offence and so on. You can see from my images that I enjoy landscapes and more than that, a particular way of perceiving landscapes, often involving a minimalist approach which sometimes verges on the abstract.
I have recently been to two photographic exhibitions, one a prestigious exhibition at Keele University in Staffordshire, the other, a more local affair in the local town library. What impressed me was the difference between the content of the two and this was revealed not so much in the technical skills but in the way images were perceived. Even in the local exhibition, images were well exposed, sharp and probably taken on a range of equipment not dissimilar to those at Keele. But when it came to how the images were perceived, there was a vast difference.
The perception of an image is translated to the photograph primarily in terms of composition: the vantage point and arrangement of elements in the picture and secondarily by the camera and its related use and equipment. Basically this means that it is no use having a well exposed, sharp picture if the composition is crap! Photography then is about learning to see, about understanding what the elements of a picture are, which element is the most important, how that element can be made to stand out in the picture and how it can be balanced with other elements in the picture, such as for example by using the rule of thirds touched on elsewhere in this blog. So the prime skill of photography is composition. The secondary skill is knowing how to use the camera and its accessories to capture that composition sharply and with the desired exposure.
Only when you know what subjects you are likely to be photographing can you begin to think about what equipment you need. Birds and animals often require a telephoto lens to get in close to the subject. Wedding photographers need reliable equipment that will stand up to a lot of use. They also need backup equipment to deal with any equipment failure and need to know about lighting and flash modes to cope with a wide range of lighting conditions and locations. My kind of photography requires a good wide angle lens. If you are thinking of publishing photographs, recording and documenting images that may require big enlargements, then you need lots of megapixels and a quality camera. If you are just entering local competitions, or doing 7 x 5 inch or 10 x 8 inch prints for albums, with an occasional 10×12 inch print, then 6 megapixels is quite enough.
But what I am trying to say is that it is not primarily the camera that takes a good photograph, it is the photographer and the skill of the photographer in perceiving an image and composing it within the frame. For example, a lot of the images in the local exhibition did not have a clear focal element: there was not an object or area in the picture to which they eye was drawn, or if there was, it was poorly placed within the frame: too low, or too far to one side. Sometimes, there was a conflict of elements: a picture of people playing crown green bowls was taken in such a way as to be neither one thing nor the other. Surrounding the green was a lovely array of flowers in a border display. The photographer clearly wanted to get these in the picture, so the bottom half of the picture consisted of these flowers but cropped at the side and bottom and the middle third consisted of people bowling, partly obscured by these flowers and making up quite a small element of the picture. The top third was of sky and trees. This was neither a picture of the flowers nor the bowlers, but bits of both.
Time and time again, aspiring amateur photographers show me their pictures and one of the biggest problems is poor composition. Years ago, when I was an art student, I used to spend time in the art college library looking at the photographic books, especially the annuals which showed the beat photographs or advertising photography of that year. I spent time deciding which were my favourite images and why. I analysed them as to why I liked them, as to what it was about them that made them appealing to me. I studied their compositions, their arrangement of picture elements, levels of viewpoint, use of shape and colour and so on. I tried to copy their style in my own images and failed dismally, but over time, my own distinctive style emerged. I learned to see in photographic terms and this is what I would encourage any amateur photographer to do: study top class photographs, find what you like and analyse them as to what makes them great pictures. Then try to emulate them and hopefully your own style will emerge. The camera equipment is secondary.