Seeing beyond the camera manual

For a while now I have felt that my photography is not going anywhere. It’s repetitive, not creative, technically average and frankly rather dull: just snapshots really. How to improve?

Through a combination of circumstances, I had the idea of doing a project on a particular theme, to help give me a focus and a way of improving my technique.

After my first day’s shooting, I wasn’t satisfied with the results and wanted to get an objective view on my pictures to help me see how I could improve. So I asked a friend to do a critique of these first shots. I thought before I saw her that the shots were OK, but they just didn’t grab me as engaging images. So I expected my friend to suggest improvements in composition and point of view.

‘All these images are too soft’, she started.’What did you take them with?’

‘My 18-105mm Nikon’ I replied.

‘Don’t use a zoom lens. The glass quality isn’t good enough for what you’re trying to do. You need to use a prime lens, preferably a 50mm which gives the same sort of view that your eye sees. The type of photography you’re doing is reportage. So what are you trying to say with these shots?’, she asked.

I tried to articulate the purpose of my project which is aimed at capturing old country crafts and in particular the end to end processes involved.

‘Photographs should tell a story. It should be clear what the shot is showing. So, for example, if you’re shooting someone tying a knot, then it should be clear that this is what they are doing. They should also show the craftsman at work in the context of his craft. You should look at the work at the great reportage photographers, Emerson, James Ravilious, Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau.’

So now it’s almost like I am starting in photography again but this time with renewed purpose and a clearer sense of where I am going . I have put my zoom lens away and live with my 35mm lens (roughly equivalent to 50mm on my cropped frame sensor) on my camera. I have to move around much more to find better angles to shoot from rather than standing in the same place and using the zoom on the lens to move in closer for me.

I am now very conscious of what’s in the frame when I’m shooting and I try to think about what the picture is saying. Of course, all this feels very artificial and clumsy because I am not used to shooting photographs in this way. But it’s essential if I am to improve my photography.

One other recommendation from my friend that I am finding challenging is studying the work of other photographers. I do look at a lot of photographs, but with an uncritical eye. I tend to register like, dislike or indifference and then pass quickly on. Rarely do I look beyond that initial reaction at why I react in the way I do. In the past week I have been looking at the work of a local photographer who published a book of her pictures of local crafts. Many of these are very well composed and captured, and I find myself thinking about them a lot, though I find it very difficult to articulate what makes some work well and others work less so. Nor do I understand how this will carry over into my own picture-making.

This all seems strange and new to me. It’s going beyond photographic technique to trying to train myself to ‘see’, to look at the world with an artist’s eye. And that’s not something I have done before which is why it seems so hard. I look forward to starting out on this new journey and sharing my experience, both good and bad, on this blog.

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