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Why did you take it?

Michael Pilkington

This is one of the most fun­da­men­tal and com­mon ques­tions I ask when look­ing at client images on pho­tog­ra­phy work­shops. It seems a sim­ple ques­tion and one to which is eas­i­ly answered. How­ev­er, the answer in real­i­ty does not reflect this. Indeed, the ques­tion Why did you take it?’ is not giv­en a lot of thought and this can be dif­fer­ence between an excel­lent image and an aver­age, or even a bad one and respons­es can be con­vo­lut­ed and unclear.

As land­scape pho­tog­ra­phers we are often for­tu­nate enough not be rushed. This does not mean that we don’t have to work quick­ly as some­times this is the case. In fact, many non-land­scape pho­tog­ra­phers have the impres­sion that we are involved in a leisure­ly pur­suit, hang­ing around wait­ing for the light to change in our favour. As you know, this can be far from the truth. Perch­ing on a rocky out­crop by the edge of a storm charged sea with the wind and spray blow­ing towards you and a bliz­zard about to hit you, requires the pho­tog­ra­ph­er to work fast ensur­ing you do not drop any equip­ment into the swell. You need to know how to assem­ble your kit, load your fil­ters, and set the nec­es­sary expo­sure in dou­ble quick time, and all with­out falling in yourself!

How­ev­er, in the main, we can take time to con­tem­plate and choose the image that we will take. But is this the case? Often when arriv­ing at a loca­tion there is an incli­na­tion to walk around ever so briefly and then set up your tri­pod, attach the cam­era and start shoot­ing. There is an emo­tion­al surge and men­tal oblig­a­tion to get one in the bag’. Let’s face it, you have dri­ven or walked miles to a par­tic­u­lar loca­tion, and you have an oblig­a­tion to be suc­cess­ful, to bring home some great images. The ques­tion is what are you doing to make this happen?

My expe­ri­ence, hav­ing worked with lots of pho­tog­ra­phers over many years, both as a work­shop leader and one to one, is that peo­ple do not take the time to stop, think and expe­ri­ence their sur­round­ings. Often there is an urgency to start tak­ing pho­tographs, with the hope that the dis­cov­ery of a suc­cess­ful image is back at home scan­ning the raw files on your com­put­er. On con­sid­er­a­tion, this is very much after the fact’, and you are often a long way from where the pho­to­graph was tak­en so nip­ping back out to have anoth­er go” can quick­ly turn into dis­ap­point­ment at the lost oppor­tu­ni­ties. To add to the dis­ap­point­ment, whilst you are look­ing at the image files and recount­ing the time you where there, you piece togeth­er the places you should have set up and see with stag­ger­ing clar­i­ty were you could have done better!

The first thing to do when arriv­ing on loca­tion is to stop and look around you. This means not just look­ing at what is in front of you, but turn­ing around and sur­vey­ing what is behind you, sur­round­ing you. The change of per­spec­tive on the direc­tion of light and sub­ject mat­ter can be trans­form­ing. When you stop to look you will start to see the pos­si­bil­i­ties avail­able to you. The shape of trees, branch­es or grass­es may be inter­est­ing. The play of light and shad­ow. The jux­ta­po­si­tion­ing of dif­fer­ent com­po­nents in the scene. It is impor­tant to take stock of the poten­tial pho­tographs and to give your­self time to assim­i­late and digest the oppor­tu­ni­ties, in short, allow your­self to con­nect’.

Tak­ing time to think is per­haps one of the most impor­tant things in mak­ing a pho­to­graph, decid­ing on what should be includ­ed and more sig­nif­i­cant­ly what should be exclud­ed. Often when review­ing images in the field I find that they can be con­fus­ing and sim­ply do not con­vey to the view­er what the pho­tog­ra­ph­er was try­ing to achieve. I often use an anal­o­gy to describe this. Con­sid­er actors per­form­ing on a stage. There should be a sin­gle lead per­former, the star of the show. That lead may have some sup­port actors, but they must not detract from our star, but com­pli­ment. And then there is the rest of the cast who occu­py the rest of the stage and they in turn must not take our atten­tion away from the lead actor or their support. 

Con­sid­er­a­tion should be giv­en to the non-visu­al aspects of the image; the wind, the tem­per­a­ture, the pre­vail­ing weath­er and how these are going to influ­ence your choice of sub­ject and how you are going to embrace them. Are these dom­i­nant aspects of the scene and to what extent do they con­tribute or add to what you are try­ing to achieve and con­vey about the envi­ron­ment you were in?

All of the above can fail with­out hav­ing an emo­tion­al con­nec­tion with what you have pho­tographed. This under­pins the very essence of the image. Con­vey­ing this is per­haps the most dif­fi­cult aspect of our pho­tog­ra­phy but can help realise the image you want. Expe­ri­enc­ing the scene before me is of course dom­i­nat­ed by the light and the way in which it is illu­mi­nat­ing the. Light is the fun­da­men­tal com­po­nent of pho­tog­ra­phy after all. How­ev­er, we have more than sight as a sense with which to expe­ri­ence the envi­ron­ment we are in. We have smell and touch and sound. I used to work in the City of Lon­don decades ago and walk­ing to the office in Canon Street I used to pass an art gallery every day and remem­ber see­ing this paint­ing that was on dis­play in the win­dow for a num­ber of weeks. It was of a field, long grass yel­lowed by the arid con­di­tions and the heat of the sun beat­ing down on it. There was a tree cast­ing shade onto the ground below it, with­in which, sheep were shel­ter­ing from the bright­ness and heat of the mid­day sun. I remem­ber star­ing at this paint­ing every day it was there. I could imag­ine, even feel, the heat of the day. I could hear the crick­ets and oth­er insects in the grass and sound of a gen­tle breeze blow­ing. I could even smell the grass and per­haps the odour of the ani­mals. I always wish I could have bought that paint­ing but it was prob­a­bly well beyond what a twen­ty-some­thing could afford.

Your image may be dom­i­nat­ed by colour. It is well known and doc­u­ment­ed how dif­fer­ent colours evoke dif­fer­ent feel­ings. For exam­ple, blues sym­bol­ize ratio­nal­ism, wis­dom, faith and trust. Green is the colour of hope, spir­it, bal­ance and calm. A lim­it­ed palette of colours can be sooth­ing, high con­trast and dynam­ic range may be jar­ring, but equal­ly, could be con­sid­ered as energising!

All of what I have spo­ken of comes down to one thing. Pre-visu­al­iza­tion. The abil­i­ty to visu­al­ize what the final image will look like. When sur­vey­ing a scene, I try to visu­al­ize what the final print will look like and how I would like the view­er to respond. It is at this stage I will begin to con­sid­er the tones of the image. The choice between print­ing lighter or heav­ier tones will huge­ly influ­ence the view­ers response to the fin­ished pho­to­graph. I even give con­sid­er­a­tion at this stage to what paper I would use. Final­ly, I ask myself if I would be hap­py to put the final print on my wall. If the answer is yes, or even prob­a­bly, then I go ahead and take the pho­to­graph. So before you release that shut­ter, before you even set up your cam­era, think Why am I tak­ing this?’