The most frequently asked question I get is, “How do I take better pictures?” The answer is a simple one; stop taking pictures. Instead, consider what the photographer Ernst Haas suggests; be taken by your pictures.
So what does it mean to be “taken by your pictures?” Being taken by a photograph is very much like the moment you first fell in love. The person you fell in love with took you, and if you were lucky enough, they were taken by you. Imagine if you could have that happen with every one of your photographs. You were so taken by the events you saw through the lens that you made a photograph, and when someone views that image they will be taken to same place you were.
Okay, that’s a great metaphor, the moment you fall in love thing, but the pressing question is, Do I have pictures to show the difference between taking and being taken? Yes I do; I have four. I was recently in Morocco… …teaching a class for the Palm Beach Photographic Workshops. (Here’s the link to the images on flickr .) I was in a swiftly moving crowd in the Medina in Marrakech when I saw a boy on his father’s shoulders. He turned his head to look at something and as he did, I focused and shot. No thought other than his pulled me through the camera and caused my finger to fire.
Then, being the paper trained Hollywood photographer that I am, I proceeded to take three more images in which I filled the frame with just good ol’ text book composition. What I got was three boring shots.
So let’s look at the first shot, the decisive moment, where my attention went in the direction the boy took me. What is it that took me and why? The photographer, Jay Maisel, believes that there are three key components to a photograph: light, gesture and color. Because I’m me, and I can rarely leave well enough alone, I think there are four components: light, gesture, color and time. What we both strongly agree on is that in a photograph gesture reigns supreme and that should be your primary focus.
What took me was the strength of this boy’s gesture and what I got as a bonus was timelessness. Also, because of the strength of the gesture, everything in the image works. There is a sensation in the photograph that there was a moment before and after – that motion was caught with stillness, and the only still thing about the image is that the picture is not moving. That element is lacking in the three subsequent frames.
How a photograph can be timeless has to do with the very nature of how we experience time. There is always a where and when with time. If someone asks you to meet them at a certain place, you will always ask “when?” If someone asks you to meet them at a certain time, you will always ask “where?” What is unique about a photograph is that it has the ability to capture a when and a where and have that past moment be in the present over and over again.
Ahh but I digress….
In my opinion, one of the big issues that keeps many a photographer from being taken by their photographs is that they are too worried about following the rules of composition while they are shooting. We are so frequently busy making sure we follow the rule of thirds, quadrants, asking ourselves the question to bulls eye or not to bulls eye, or Grecian mean, that we either miss or avoid being taken by a shot because we are so busy trying to consciously “compose” it correctly. The problem with this approach is it’s like taking apart your watch and then expecting to be able to tell the time. I think it’s best to follow the wisdom of the Dali Lama here, “learn the rules completely so you can then break them correctly.”
The problem is that we operate under a belief that one actually composes a photograph. Unless you are in a studio doing a still life, where you can move the objects in your image around, you don’t compose a photograph, you frame it. That’s a big difference in how you conceptualize your images. To prove this point let’s test it. When you are shooting a picture and there is a tree that’s in your way, can you move the tree or do you move? If the answer is that you move then you’re framing. If you are moving the tree, then you brought a backhoe with you….nice…. In any event, when it comes to framing, there are many more things at play then just the simple rules of composition. The bio-mechanics of the way the eye sees comes to mind as just one example. (Which is a whole other blog.)
But what does this have to do with being taken when taking photographs? We get back to those ancient words of wisdom “Learn the rules.” Know the rule of thirds and so on, and take the time to practice them when you are at home, walking around the block, going to get coffee, and just going about the day to day. I suggest carrying a camera with you wherever you go and go crazy spending the day doing nothing but following the rule of thirds, or everything to the right – whatever floats your boat. Do this so that when you are in the field, on a trip or wherever you find yourself shooting, you can be so adept that you can “break the rules correctly”. When you can do that, you’ll find yourself being taken to the place in your photographs that you fell in love with in the work of others.
A photograph, as Ernst Haas believes, should be “less descriptive – more imagination, less information – more suggestion, less prose – more poetry.” Which gets us to the core of this rant and that is – What is a photograph if it is not a visual poem? Which begs us to ask the question what is poetry? Poetry is the language of heightened emotion. Prose is what we use to describe things while poetry is what we use to express how we feel.
We did not decide on photography as a hobby or a vocation because we needed a place to spend money so we have enough equipment to start a camera store. We came to photography because the world moves us in such a way that we want to photograph what we see so others can be moved the way we were, at least that is why I do it.
So what I invite you to consider is this, next time you go out to shoot, slow down to the speed of life instead of trying to see the world according to a predefined “check list for photographic success” which does not allow for random acts of life. What happens when we confine ourselves to someone else’s definition of correctness is we come up with images that are the same and we take them over and over again.
It is in absolutely spontaneity that we find absolute truth. To be taken by a photograph is to tell the truth of the moment. It is through spontaneity that we find the ability to take extraordinary photographs of simple things. It is easy to take a mundane photograph of an extraordinary thing, the extraordinary thing does all the heavy lifting. But to have the ability to take extraordinary photographs of the everyday…. Not only will you have been taken when you do this, but you will have created an image that will take others there with you. The architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, expressed this concept the best, “An interesting plainness is the most difficult precious thing to achieve.” Think about all the great photographs that moved you, that took you, were they not of the simplest of things?
So again, I invite you to slow down to the speed of life, make visual poems that take the viewer the way you were taken. To visually speak poetically and to write with light using the language of heightened emotion. But most importantly be sure to make it so you always allow yourself the buzz of being taken by your photographs.