The art and science of observation

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Pigs sometimes fly – if you look at the right moment.

Curiously, the question I’m most frequently asked (right after ‘what camera should I buy?’ and that ilk) is ‘how do I make my photos better?’* This is a dangerously loaded question: for many reasons: it assumes firstly that there’s something wrong with your images (in whose opinion?); that I am the arbiter of judgement (I am not, and cannot be, because like all audiences – I am biased); that my personal taste and opinion is in line with yours (inevitably, we all differ) and that you didn’t already manage to get the best possible image to your own taste given the circumstances under which the image was made. My point is that ‘better’ is always subjective: nobody can pass absolute judgement on an image. We can merely give suggestions as to why we may prefer one variation or adjustment over another. But I do believe there’s one thing we can all do more of – and never enough of.

Think of today’s post as a coda to the compromise of the decisive moment article from a few months back.

*Of course, the question is often asked as a thinly veiled way to seek justification for a hardware purchase, but we’ll discount such instances. In very, very few situations is hardware truly the limiting factor, and if you’re good enough to maximise your current setup, you’ll already know it without having to ask.

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This ‘one thing’ is of course observation: a photograph is a very tightly curated view of the world from the biases and preferences of the curator-observer. It eliminates whatever the observer has determined to be irrelevant or unimportant, and forces the audience to focus on that which the observer personally finds interesting (or guesses the audience might find interesting**). There are two important things to take away from this: the observer can only consciously capture/photograph what they really see; and the audience can only see what they are shown.

**The disconnect between the audience you get and the audience you want is something for a future article, I think.

This of course means that there’s going to be losses in translation between each step of the process: if the observer-photographer didn’t have a clear idea of what it is they wanted to capture, or wasn’t paying attention to the collateral and context – elements may have been included in the frame that conflict with the intention of the image. Furthermore, it’s almost impossible to eliminate confusing/conflicting elements entirely: there will always be somebody in the audience who interprets the image a different way from what was intended, regardless of how distilled the remains are. On top of that, the photographer may lack the necessary skill to structure the image in the desired method: for instance, if the background behind the intended subject isn’t clean, then the intended subject may not stand out. Or if the lighting is unflattering, then it may be highly challenging to express aesthetic beauty.

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Even if the stars align, and for an ideal audience, the photographer has done everything they can to compose according to the way most people’s visual cortexes work: the audience themselves may not have the necessary local knowledge or cultural/ local context to read the image in the order intended by the photographer. Or they may simply be more responsive to different visual stimuli – a dog lover, for instance, may notice the tiny dog in the corner first, instead of the enormous bright red bus that takes up most of the frame.

Given all of the potential disconnects, it’s actually remarkable that we have any images that work at all in the way that was intended – fortunately, there are some things that are hard-coded in the way our brains process information (the rules of vision, again) and we can ‘force’ the rest by completely and ruthlessly eliminating what isn’t necessary. At this point, I’m forced to circle back again because I can’t adequately reinforce just how important the first point is: your audience is limited by your presentation, which is limited by your powers of observation. If you didn’t see it, you can’t consciously have shot it, much less presented it in a way that is unlikely to be misinterpreted.

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If anything, the biggest mistake I see most photographers make is a failure to observe and understand the subject before beginning to use the camera. That said, I think there’s a very thin balance between overthinking and responding instinctively and emotionally to something you see; but not many people have enough of the structural and compositional mechanics instilled at the subconscious or reflex level to be able to consistently make successful hail-mary-spur-of-the-moment type images. Fundamentally though, it’s not good to have your imagination constrained by your tools. The kind of thinking that’s inevitably going to result in a conventional image (i.e. the opposite of different, or special) is where one asks first “what kind of lens should I use for a portrait? Or a landscape?” before simply taking a few moments to look at the subject and decide conceptually (‘the idea‘) what you’d like to say first, and how to translate that into visual elements.

This may seem like a fairly basic thing, but I’m 99% sure of how my final finished output image will look before pressing the shutter – I may have a couple of different ideas for presentation, but I can still visualise them. I won’t take the shot ‘just to see what happens’. If you’ve shot enough, experimented enough, (and of course remembered it all) and have the idea clear in your own mind – then this is quite easy to do, and results in far fewer images that get lost in translation because you yourself aren’t sure what you’re trying to say. Such miscommunications still happen to me, of course – and it’s usually because the idea wasn’t translated properly, either because the concepts may be too abstract and require too many other references to recreate, or because I underestimated the impact of other elements in the frame from the audience’s point of view.

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At this point, you’re probably wondering why I’ve selected this particular series of images to accompany the article. There are two reasons to this: firstly, to show you that with sufficiently long observation – over the course of several months, in this case – there’s a very real chance of getting something exceptionally unusual, and secondly, because presentation and context matters. The images come from an as yet uncurated set of a much longer term project; but without the balance of necessary context and explanation, it’s nigh on impossible to guess what that might be – it’s another loss in translation which is the fault of the photographer in this case, despite extended observation. It becomes only possible to appreciate the images in isolation. Lastly, there’s the audience gap: sunsets just may (or may not) be your thing ? MT


Ultraprints from this series are available on request here


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