Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Total Photographer - Lost in Translation


So often in teaching photography, we go from vision to technology. But I think that there is a vital, crucial step, that many photographers stumble through. And although there is no way to completely by pass this step, it is often sub-conscious and turns out to be the weak point in a photographer's process. What am I talking about? I am talking about how a vision should be translated into an image.

What I hear very often of photographers is 'Ohhh, I like that look.' or 'That effect is killer.' And how an image is produced is generally a subconscious mixture of visual influences and chance. Although photography needs an element of spontaneity to remain alive, it does help if the photographer is conscious of how a vision is translated to an image.

What are the elements or tools needed by a photographer to translate a vision into engaging photographs?

1. Composition -
How is a subject framed in an image? A portrait of a person filling most of a frame and in the centre of the image is a still direct image. A portrait of a person only using a small part of a larger composition, places the person in a location and implies a relationship between a person and that place. Going in close and taking parts of a person's face, is an abstraction, and can provoke the viewer to engage more into why the image is not complete, or is it?

2. Design -
The rule of thirds is a very popular design rule in photography, based on the simple fact that people tend to look at things in the thirds of the image more than the centre. But that is not the only design we should be looking out for. As a photographer, taking the straight lines in an image as a diagonal instead of horizontal of vertical makes the image more dynamic. Or are there circular swirls in the image we are shooting that we can highlight. Are there repetition of objects like chairs or shoes that can add a pattern to the image?

3. Colour -
There is a psychology of colour. Red tends to get people excited, green tends to calm people down. Blue reminds people of water and the sea. Sunset light does not just add nice long shadows to an image, it also introduces a warm, living glow to an image. We, as digital photographers, have a lot more control over the colour and tint of an image that ever before. We should all know how to get a daylight adjusted look with our images, but we must also be able to add colours to create moods. Sometimes the absence of colour, as in a black and white image, creates its own mood. A black and white image, very often seems to be like instant history.

4. Harshness and Softness -
There are two things that can determine if an image looks hard or soft. One is the quality of the light. A hard light is quite often used to make contemporary, clean images. A soft light is used with romantic images or images reflecting on memories. There is also the sharpness of the lens we use. Although it is nice to have a really sharp lens, sometimes opening a lens up wide to have a short depth of field helps to create a soft mood. There are lenses that are specially designed to give a soft look while maintaining the ability to hold edge detail. So what type of look do we as image makers want?

5. Object relationships -
The act of putting a couple of more subjects in an image creates a relationship between those objects. Depending on the placement of the subjects, different implications can be read and the photographer must realise at least what the relationships imply. For example, in a group shot of a company, would you put the chairman at the front of the image, or put the chairman amidst everyone else. All these relationships matter.

6. Shooting angle -
If every image is shot while we are standing up, then there is only one view and it is a common view for adults. To see what a child sees, shoot from close to the ground. To have an overview of what is happening, shoot from a high location. Shooting angles can change how an object is perceived.

7. Story telling elements -
With what you are trying to say, you have to consider what people, if any, should be in your shot. You need to find a location for your vision and make sure that it is properly dressed up. If you have people they need clothes that are appropriate and they may need make-up and styling if your vision calls for it. Are props needed for the shot and how does one get these props?

8. The decisive moment -
When do we click the shutter? It seems more obvious in street of candid photography that we are looking for moments of drama and human interaction. Or we could be waiting for a moment of sunset or sunrise to create a dramatic landscape. People may think that portrait photography is dead, but the best portraits are moments of interaction between the sitter and the photographer too.

These are just a few things to consider when translating a vision into an image. Even a street photographer considers some of these issues, albeit on a different scale from a creative photographer. At a certain point of shooting, these types of considerations become superfluous, a hindrance to the immediacy of making an image. But just like driving, cooking, speaking a language, learning the tools of vision translation will enable the photographer to become a more complete image maker. For very experienced photographers, the tools of translation are internalised. But for young image makers who have the vision and know the technology, understanding translation is a vital step.

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