A great photograph, or a photograph of something great?

Pre-Dawn Coast - Bermagui NSW

Something I have been learning, sometimes a little painfully, is that there is a chasm between these two concepts. Furthermore this chasm is really only apparent to those within the photography cabal, leading to further divisions between those who take photos, and those who simply view.

Let me elaborate…

The most striking example where this is apparent is family portraits, particularly babies and children. How many of us have been shown countless photographs of friend’s and family’s offspring, having to constantly agree as to how great a photo this or that is. Truth be told, most of the photos are usually ghastly. Flat lighting, flash blasted, fuzzy focus / slow shutter movement blur, cluttered backgrounds, mis-matched clothing, over/under-exposed, photo-bombing elements, you name it and they’re usually there. But… there is no way in the world I’m going to be the one to break the bad news. The fact is, the budding photog is fixated on the subject, and all other elements are irrelevant, or else completely invisible. When you’re looking at the most beautiful thing in your world, any photograph will inevitably also be beautiful, right?

Take this to the next step, travel photography. This is where I started my journey, taking photographs of majestic objects such as mountains in the Himalayas, the iconic buildings of Venice, ancient temperate rainforests of Tasmania. So long as one can focus, get the exposure at least close to correct, and some semblance of composition, you can almost be guaranteed a good shot. Combine this with the quantity percentage phenomenon (if you take a thousand photos, at least a few have to be good, right?), and almost anyone can come home with a photo that just screams “YOU COULD BE A PROFESSIONAL”.

So I keep taking photos, even though I’m no longer on holidays, usually of my more familiar environment. But now I’m wondering to myself where the magic has gone. My photos just aren’t inspiring anymore. I have come to a fork in the road, and just quietly, I’ve taken both branches at various times. I put my camera back in its case (usually something expensive and professional looking because my journey isn’t complete without the appropriate accoutrements), and there it stays for that “some day” moment. Then of course, “I don’t have enough time”, or “I couldn’t be bothered lugging all that equipment around” so “my (insert camera phone here) will do just as good a job”, or any one of a dozen other excuses raise their daemons in the back of my mind and become self-imposed obstacles in my path. Occasionally I might pull out the old-girl for another session at a friend’s wedding or children’s birthday party but those photos inevitably end up lost in the cyber world of hard-drive oblivion and the camera returned to its undeserved internment.

Is there a solution? Of course, but it does involve a journey of self-discovery. Ergh… I know, but stay with me for just a bit longer.

I revisited all my favourite photos and studied them. I still love them, nothing’s changed there. I subscribed to magazines, websites, social-networks and even went to galleries. My mind was filled with spectacular images, but I still didn’t understand why only those special picks of mine “made the grade”. I studied articles, tutorials, even took classes. My own photography was improving, but at a measured, incremental pace. I still did not understand why I could make such giant leaps of talent when confronted by majesty, but exhibited banal when confronted by the familiar.

What happened?

The answer was always there, but it took the wise words of a very experienced wildlife photographer for me to make the connection. I invested in a workshop with Steve Parish, listened intently, pad and pen in hand, and tried to ingest all the secrets from the inner sanctum of photography holiness he could impart within 8 and half hours. The fact of the matter is, like most things in life, there were no real secrets. Although obviously possessing less skill and experience, I understood already by this stage the general photography and post-processing principles. Whilst there was still a lot gained from this session, one uttered phrase, oft-repeated stuck in my mind. Of course, I’m paraphrasing here but it goes like this.

Your image must tell a story, or it will never hold attention.

In this specific example, the advice was specific. He literally was reinforcing the need to write a story the support the image, and capture the imagination of the viewer, who was never there, at that moment in time, seeing the beauty you saw. Steve was, and is, a publisher of books, not just a photographer, so his view of the world is to share stories. It’s not enough to just show something pretty. Like a person, being pretty is good for a glance, but having substance can hold attention for a life-time. The same rings true for photography.

Having mulled this over in my mind for some weeks, this explained all these mysteries to me, and changed the way I see photography forever. My images were not just beautiful, they told my story, back to me, invoking emotions, feelings, transporting me to happier times and places. Henceforth, for my images to work, I needed to invoke that same sense of feeling, the passion, the awe-inspired, the breathtaking, and convey this to a disconnected viewer. For me, words would not work, it had to be the image, the story must be written in the colour, the mood, the drama, the detail (or lack thereof). I was no longer content to capture the image alone, I now had to capture the emotion.

Now how does that work with 16million dots of electronic technology sitting behind layers of polished glass...?

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