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By Greg Drawbaugh
This is a Black-capped Chickadee seeking shelter in the apple tree in our Minnesota backyard. These little guys are always fun to watch and always seem happy. This one ducked into the apple tree for safety, likely after seeing me point my E-M1 mk11 and 300mm f4.0 his direction, shot at ISO 1600.
What interests you?
I’ve heard it said before that the more successful photographers in the world aren’t actually interested in photography as much as they are interested in the subjects that they photograph. For these photographers the subject is everything and photography is merely a means to an end. I think there is a fair amount of truth to that. If you’re passionate about a subject, it shows up in your work in ways that the unfamiliar photographer isn’t able to reproduce in their work of the same subject.
When I was starting out as a photography enthusiast I was primarily interested in taking "artistic" photos of my family life. I use the word "artistic" very liberally here! At the time I had two young sons who were 9 and 2 years old. My original intention was simply to document their lives in an aesthetically pleasing way, so that at some point in the future (which I guess is now), I could look back at those photos and marvel at how they had changed over the years. I would have a record of the way they looked and also of the things we got up to as a family.
Other people pick up a camera for different reasons. I know so many photographers who started out with an above average interest in something and wanted to make photos of it. Fashion, wildlife, travel, portraiture, sports, etc. This interest then lead them to photography, which in many cases became a central theme around their primary passion. All the serious wildlife photographers I know seemed to get into it this way. I know a few sports photographers who followed the same path and who now, through their love of sports (or a particular sport), make a decent living out of photographing it.
The first and most obvious advantage to photographing something that you are interested in is that you will already have a good working knowledge of the subject matter, which will hopefully give you a bit of an insight into what makes good photos of it. Take surfing as an example. The best surfing photographers in the world were at some time surfers themselves (can you ever give up surfing?), so when they are at the beach taking photos, they already know instinctively when they should be firing the shutter so that they can catch the best moments. Same thing for rugby photographers. Or football photographers. You have to know something about the game in order to get the shots that others who also love the game will get excited about.
I remember the first time I got an accreditation to photograph a professional rugby match. I was petrified. But I knew already in my mind what I wanted to shoot and I set about positioning myself in places where I knew I would get something I wanted. Most of the professionals who were covering that game camped themselves behind the away team’s try line so that they could get shots of the home team scoring. I took a different approach and followed the action up and down the touch line. I got shots of the set pieces such as scrums being set, line-outs being contested, tackles being made and so on. This is because I knew the game. I loved the game! When I handed my photos in to the local newspaper editor he was quite taken aback with this approach and ended up running one of them on the back page of that Sunday’s paper. I was thrilled. Sadly I don’t have any of those images anymore due to poor digital archiving on my part, which is something we will discuss in another lesson, but the point is that if you have an above average interest in a subject you should be able to make above average images of it, provided you know your way around your camera.
In a nutshell, your muse in photography is the thing you are most interested in (not necessarily another human - I’m also being a bit liberal with the use of the word here). It will provide you with the creative impetus you need to push your vision of it. As you spend more time with your muse you will get to know its character better and as with everything you practise abundantly, it will reveal its true character to you, giving you better results than those of other photographers who’s interests may overlap slightly with yours and who spend very little time examining the same subject matter. Nature photographers are particularly adept at this and they are frequently rewarded with the most incredible images. This doesn’t happen out of randomness. These are people who will spend an entire day in a hide waiting for a species they are wanting to photograph to appear. They will not simply fire away maniacally when the species appears, instead they will observe its behaviour, wait and choose their moments. Subject knowledge is key to the success of this type of photographer.
So as a new photographer what things are most important to you? You need to know this at the outset if you are hoping to become a better photographer. I’d like to take a short amount of time to look at three main areas of photographic interest and point out a few observations I have made over the course of my involvement in photography and how interest can help you make better images in those areas.
This is probably the holy grail for many photographers who study the craft in formal settings. It’s the practise of making images that are designed to provoke feelings of desire in consumers and it can range from lifestyle type images to still life, to fashion. The photographer’s job is to get you interested in the product that is being sold by making as loud an appeal to your visual senses as possible.
There are very few who make it in this field. You have to have a superb sense of style and concept to be successful in commercial photography. Often times your clients are not purchasing your technical ability to get a particular shot, but rather your ability to see creatively. What are you bringing to the table that hasn’t already been said about their product? Other times you are just the camera operator on location while the art director spells out almost pixel for pixel how they expect your image to look. As a commercial photographer you need to be able to put your head into both these spaces and produce work either conceptualised by somebody else, or come up with the creative yourself. Confidence plays a huge part in the latter and your vision needs to translate to the product owner in a way that sells them on what you are seeing. You need to be interested in making the product stand out visually, which is a key ingredient to making successful commercial images. How you find that interest can depend on several factors.
Last week I was guest judge for a commercial photography competition on viewbug.com and while there were many technically amazing shots entered into the competition, the image I chose as the winner showed to me that the photographer knew exactly how to make light and colour work together to best illuminate a subject. Those are his interests and he makes them work for him commercially.
Up until I led my first photo safari to the Sabi Sands in 2010 I wasn’t really all that interested in nature. When we were there though I fell in love with the bush and the animals and other bugs who inhabit it, so nowadays I am more inclined to want to go and photograph nature than any other subject, mainly because I am now more interested in it than I am in making (say) images of women's shoes.
I also saw passion for the wild from the rangers who drove us around on those safaris and this bore itself out in the images that they took (with mostly inferior equipment to what we were using). This one time we were in the middle of a herd of hundreds of buffalo and I simply couldn’t find anything of interest about these animals to photograph, but Ranger Rika, who was one of our guides on that safari, sat a couple of feet next to me and somehow saw shapes and patterns in the horns of the buffalo that made outstanding images. From then on I began looking into a nature scene rather than just at it.
Making successful nature photos requires complete immersion into the natural world. You have to have spans of time that you can dedicate to being out there observing, ingesting and then expressing the things you see in ways that others just don’t see. This is probably the one area of photographic interest that requires the most dedication and personal sacrifice to be really good at, but it certainly seems to be to be the most personally rewarding. I have never seen an unhappy nature photographer while they’re out there, even when the light is poor or the animals are winning the game of hide and seek! They just want to be amidst the wild and letting what they see there reflect outwardly in the form of photographs.
I’m taking a very broad brush here to describe photography that includes humans. Everything from portraiture to reportage of news, to wedding photography to the family snapshot could fall under this description.
Humans are the first things we encounter in the world and we either love them, tolerate them, are indifferent to them, or dismiss them. Whatever our attitude towards other humans is will become evident in the way we go about photographing them. Me? I find myself very shy around new people initially, so it takes me a while to build up the kind of confidence that is needed to make great photos of people I don’t really know. Which is why in my professional life as a photographer I don’t make attentive human photography a priority. I’m just not that good at it with strangers, or even sometimes people who I know but who don’t feel comfortable being in front of my camera. This doesn’t mean that I don’t like to take photos of other people, I actually love making people photos, but I do it differently. I like to make candid photos and photos where people are unaware that they are being photographed - no not voyeuristic imagery, just shots of people maybe interacting with their surroundings without being aware of my presence. OK, that sounds creepy enough to be interpreted as voyeuristic, but rest assured, it’s not my intention. :-) I’m usually taking photos of people at events where they are focused on something else and not on me. Probably why I do quite well at events as a “reporter with a camera” where there is no interaction with the subject. Inattentive subjects.
I think for those photographers who are intent on making the human an attentive subject in their photos, being acutely in tune with other humans is key to the success of the images they make. You have to be aware of what makes another human respond in a photogenic manner if you want to get the best out of them. There’s no magic wand for this. Some photographers have a knack for it, others don’t. Some photographers, like me, suck at it. The most important thing to take away from this lesson is that you shouldn’t become discouraged if you’re not making great people photos straight away. Working on your people skills is probably the best thing you can do to get attentive subjects to respond favourably in front of your lens. Tell a joke, issue a stream of compliments (be genuine about this because most people know exactly when they are having smoke blown up their asses).
There are of course many other areas of interest for photographers, most of which either overlap with these three in some way, or are even more specialised (consider astrophotography, UV/IR photography, etc). Directing your photographic attention towards something of deeper interest to you will most definitely result in more engaging photography. It doesn’t really matter what your interest is, use it to further your photographic ability. It will certainly result in better results than trying to photograph something that you aren’t all that interested in.
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