Cameras are tools that take pictures. They’re a fantastically complicated and often expensive tool. That often mean we can easily get lost focusing on what the camera does and ignoring what it is we do with the camera. People buy cameras to take pictures, but—to end a sentence dramatically and in a preposition—what are the pictures for?
This seems to happen more with complicated tools than with simple ones. People generally don’t buy an axe to chop wood without having a goal in mind for the aforementioned chopped wood. But people often buy nicer and nicer cameras in the hopes of taking nicer and nicer pictures while thinking very little about the purpose of pictures. Taking it one step further, people will even hire an expensive photographer to take pictures of their special event because that’s what you do, not because they have some objective those pictures will accomplish. With this post, I’m hoping to help change that.
Goals Through A Glass Dimly
Most people have a very blurry idea of what they’re going to do with their photographs. They want the pictures to be looked at later by themselves or other people. They would then like a smile and rush of warm fuzzies. Contrary to what you might think, I’m all for smiles and warm fuzzies. As we move through life, it can be very beneficial for us to look back at God’s past blessings and enjoy the memory of them—and hopefully that memory will ultimately result in thankfulness.
This post isn’t about thankfulness for past memories, though. That is a matter of the heart and this post is a matter of the camera. This is a post about how best to capture those memories on film (or a digital sensor). If your goal is for people to look at the pictures you’ve taken and smile thankfully, this is going to change how you take pictures and what you do with them afterward. Everything you do as you take the picture should be geared toward that future memory, smile, and of course the warm fuzzies. I believe that the best way to do this is through storytelling.
Snapshots of Stories
When you look at a photograph, you don’t spend your time looking at the precise texture of the carpet. You remember the story that was acted out on that carpet. Much of our money is spent trying to buy cameras that can capture, in the most detail possible, the herringbone pattern on Grandpa’s jacket. We would all do much better if we cared as much about positioning our camera to best capture the story that is happening while Grandpa wears his jacket. It’s far more important that the viewer has his eye drawn to little Suzy’s big smile than it is that he can read the fine print on the gift she’s just opened.
As a matter of fact, capturing every detail can be distracting. People who tell stories and include all the dry details tend to make the story intolerably dull: more like reading a technical manual than remembering a good time. Because still photos are frozen moments, elements that didn’t distract us in the moment (like that large purple minivan that drove by) can be incredibly distracting in print. It is the job of the photographer to remove or diminish these distractions so that the photo tells the story the way everyone remembers it. If you didn’t notice the power lines when you took in that sunrise, your photograph should do its best to minimize them as well. This can be done through changing your composition, adjusting your angle, shifting the lense’s focus, tweaking exposure, and even using the clone brush in Photoshop. The goal is not to provide an accurate visual model; it’s to tell a good story.
This means that, except in rare cases, I’m not altogether in favor of boring, staged shots. They can be good as far as they go, because grandma does want to see how the kids have grown. But wouldn’t she also like to see them having some fun? That’s the reason the photographer asks everyone to smile, but I’d like to think we can take things a step further than that and give everyone nerf guns or dry-erase boards to write something funny on.
Studying Photographic Technique and Your Camera’s Manual
One of my favorite parts about photography, oddly enough, is the challenge of getting the camera’s settings just right. Battling low light or other conditions can be quite fun and it’s important to know your camera and understand things like composition. I am emphatically not trying to diminish the importance knowing what shutter speed is or having a camera that lets you control it. What I’m advocating is using these things for a purpose.
By all means, read your camera’s instruction manual and watch Youtube tutorial videos. I even intend to start posting more photography-related articles on this site. But remember that in photography, knowledge is knowing that your camera has a maximum shutter speed of 1/4000th of a second; wisdom is knowing that you don’t need that speed to photograph a fruit salad.
I know a lot of people who are morally outraged by the existence of Photoshop. Your pictures should be natural, they write on their picket signs outside Adobe’s central office. While I’m opposed to drastic editing, you’d probably be surprised by how far I’m willing to go in editing pictures.
One of the arguments for not editing pictures is that photography used to be a very simple process before Photoshop gave us all these controls and ruined the good old-fashioned naturalness of it. This, however, simply is not the case. Photographers have been tweaking their photos with things like white balance, exposure compensation, dodge, burn, and more since long before Photoshop existed. These tweaks were simply a part of the film-processing process. Photographers would either do this themselves or hire a trusted professional to do it for them; either way it was done and it was done quite extensively.
Moreover, even if your camera is set to full manual mode, your pictures are being processed for you by a computer. It is determining your white balance, exposure, contrast, and the rest of it for you. Taking control of many of these variables in post processing is, if anything, a more natural process than just letting some computer engineer do it for you by proxy.
Remember the goal is capturing and preserving memories. Over-processing to the point of looking artificial will fall short of this goal, but often, so will not processing your photos at all. My eyes and memory work vastly differently than a digital image sensor. I have a very nice camera and I know how to use it, but sometimes it can’t do justice to what I’m seeing without a little tweaking after I press the shutter button. So long as my post-processing serves to bring out what I remember seeing and not to contradict it, I’m being true to the story and helping to preserve the memory, which is my goal as a photographer.
If I had to sum up my philosophy of photography, I would say that I take pictures in order to tell stories, resulting in joy and thankfulness. I’ll use everything at my disposal as a photographer in order to tell that story as well as I can.
This particular philosophy might not work for you, so by all means alter it or use something else altogether. A photojournalist, for example, can’t take the same liberties that I can with post-processing. Regardless of what philosophy you end up with, I want to encourage you to think about why it is that you take pictures and work to ensure that each shot you take servers to accomplish that goal.