Photography 101 - Part Three
Okay, so now you know what an exposure is, and how to make one. You’re all set to take some photographs, right? Kind of! As I’ve said more than a few times now, photography is about light. More than that, photography is about decisions. There are decisions being made by you, the photographer, decisions being made by the camera, decisions being made by whatever you’re using to edit your work after you’ve taken it, etc. So how can you put yourself in control of the most of those decisions? Should you even want to?
One of the most famous photographers ever, Henri-Cartier Bresson, left a wellspring of information behind for future generations. In my opinion, one of his greatest contributions to the field was the idea of the “Decisive Moment”. How do you know when the best time to take a photograph is? That’s one of the most important decisions a photographer has to make, and it can make or break the resulting exposure.
To Bresson, the decisive moment was the moment when a photograph had the most impact. When it delivered the best punch. Maybe that was about waiting for a composition (more on this later!) to come together how you wanted it to, or for the light to be just right. Either way, his idea was there was an optimal moment to take a photograph. I’m not sure how best to describe this, so I’ll use the power of photography to try and illustrate this.
Both of these shots taken by me! Which one do you prefer?
Look at these images. I’m sure you’re already drawn to one of them over the other, even though they were taken only moments apart. I would argue that one of these was shot at a more decisive moment, and the other was shot just a moment off. While that seems like a slight difference, it can mean the world in a photo.
People will say, ‘There are a million ways to shoot a scene,’ but I don’t think so. I think there are two, maybe. And the other one is wrong.” — David Fincher
While finding the perfect moment to strike is perhaps the most important decision, it’s only one of a few the photographer has to make.
Let’s take a look at the process of making a photo to see what decisions need to be made, and what decisions are made for you. Mind you, this isn't even an exhaustive list; I'm sure you could come up with more. These are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head. The point being, there's a lot of choices to make!
- Photographer selects a tool. Yes, even before you start taking a photograph, you have to decide what tools to use! This is dramatically overblown nowadays, but still is an important decision to make. Remember, the best camera in the world is the one you have on you - meaning, the tool used for image acquisition is less important than the composition (there’s that word again…), lighting, moment, etc. that make up an exposure. Still, shooting something with a crop sensor digital camera and shooting with large format film will change not only the technical aspects of the photograph, like image quality, but also how you shoot. This also applies to lens selection, if you’re shooting on an interchangeable lens camera. The spark notes version of lens selection is roughly 50mm is the perspective of the human eye, so something longer like 85mm will seem tighter than you’re used to, and something shorter like 24mm will seem wider than you see otherwise.
- What’s the subject? After you choose what you’re going to shoot with (even if it’s the only tool you’ve got available!) you need to decide what you’re going to shoot. Are you going to head into the center of town and try and find people to photograph? Are you going to go into the hills to try and catch sunrise? Are you going to shoot plates of something to composite together digitally later? Studio portraiture? There’s an endless amount of “genres” of photography, and even more ways in which they can be shot, and mixed together. Experiment! Get weird! Push boundaries!
- Location! Okay, you’ve decided to shoot portraits outdoors. Great, bold choice. Where are you going to do this? Shooting location has a huge impact on your final photo, especially depending on natural light, weather conditions, etc. Is it overcast out? Are you staying in doors?
- Composition. Next to decisive moment, I would say this is one of the most important decisions you can make. I’ll do a longer essay on what composition is later, but long story short, it’s the way you choose to group elements to make a frame. Of course, this is impacted by the size of the frame (see “Photographer selects a tool”), as well as what’s in front of the lens, and the lens itself. Are you going to put the subject in the center of the frame? Or on one of the thirds?
- Lighting. “But, I’m shooting outside, so I’m not in control of the light”, you say. Au contraire! Even if you’re shooting outside, you can still make decisions to best leverage your light. Maybe it’s sunset, and you want to shoot towards the sun to emphasize contrast. Or maybe it’s overcast, and you’ve got flat, even light. Maybe you’re only shooting the dapple between trees. Conscious or not, decisions are being made!
- Settings. See part two of this series, on the exposure triangle. Choosing what settings to use, which to prioritize, and which to de-emphasize, will make an affect not only on the technical aspects of your photograph, but the stylistic elements too. Maybe you’re shooting a really long exposure to get a lot of motion blur. Maybe you want no motion blur!
- Processing. Okay, so you’ve taken a photograph. I hope it’s well exposed! Chances are, the tool you’re using to shoot with has already made some decisions about the photograph, which you may or may not be in control of. One of the most basic examples of this is film. In shooting film, you’ve already selected a stock (a type of film) to use, thereby going along with some of the aesthetic qualities of that stock. Some films have more grain, some have less. Some films have a certain color to them, or more or less saturation. These sorts of decisions are inherent to the type of film you’ve picked, and so by the time you’ve made a photograph, it’s a done deal.
- Even if you’re shooting digital, the sensor is going to process the image differently than a piece of film would, or how another sensor would. Further, the camera is going to immediately make some decisions about the file, even if you’re shooting what’s known as RAW (a file format designed to maximize data gathered to give the most range of control and detail from your exposures). Almost all digital cameras are going to make some decisions about noise reduction, sharpness, saturation, and color that you may or may not be in control of. It’s important to learn your tools, and how they process different scenes and exposures.
- Post-processing. After your camera makes some decisions about the image, you get a chance to affect the final result in post-processing. This is when you take the files from the camera’s memory card, and edit them. This can be done with a tool like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop, or even just when you take a photo off your iPhone and post it on Instagram. Even when shooting film, choosing how long to develop for, what developing chemicals you’re going to use, or what lab you’re going to send it to will have an effect on the negatives you get back. Film processed at a local drug store will look very different from something shipped to a film developing house!
- Finally, delivery. After you’ve made some edits or forgone the opportunity to (by sending film off to be developed without any special instructions, or just taking the files off of your camera and putting them directly onto your computer) it’s time to decide what to do with them! Most of the time now, this is deciding where to take your edited digital files and how to post them to share. This can be through your personal website or portfolio, or a social network. Important to note, no matter what you do with a file, it’s almost always going to be processed slightly (or just compressed) by the platform. Knowing the ways each platform wants to make your files can help get the most out of your images, for example, Instagram wants the longest edge of your photograph to be 1080 pixels long. Any larger and they’ll compress your photo down to the right size!
Whew, that’s a lot. There’s a ton of decisions to be made in the process of making a photograph, and knowing each step of the process can seem overwhelming. However, you don’t always have to make a conscious choice for each one. Even as an experienced photographer, I trust my camera to solve for certain variables for me, which is why I shoot JPG + RAW. What’s most important is knowing how a photograph is made, and how each step affects the exposure, much like the different pieces of the exposure triangle.
If you've enjoyed this article, please consider buying me a coffee, which directly supports my ability to write articles like this for free! If you want to be notified of future articles, please consider subscribing to my almost-weekly newsletter.