Be certain. Be sure. Be deliberate.
Now this may sound strange coming from someone who advocates challenging everything, finding new solutions, and experimenting, but they actually go very well together.
When I say be deliberate, I am talking about a process from 0 – 100 with certainty and responsibility at the wheel.
Being deliberate means being responsible for every square millimeter of the image. Every nuance, every gesture, every leading line… every compositional faux-pas.
Every screwed up exposure, or cut off feet, or blown out sky or, gulp, overly HDR’d process disaster.
WE DO THIS – WE DO IT DELIBERATELY.
Well, OK, we don’t screw up deliberately, but the screw ups happen BECAUSE we are not deliberate in our work.
Let’s start with gear.
Photographers tell me they are hard on their gear. They break stuff all the time. That is certainly their prerogative to continue on that path, but for me it is a lack of deliberate attention that is the problem.
When I was assisting in LA, I worked with a still life / food shooter that was extremely organized and deliberate in how he worked. I assisted him for a two week gig and learned a lifetime of good practices from him. No, I am not as anal as he was, but I am very deliberate in my work.
He had a cabinet with shelving custom designed to hold his gear. Lens shelves were clearly marked with the lens designation, stands were numbered and hung, and booms were placed in order on a custom stand rack.
EVERY piece of gear was numbered, ordered and assigned a place on the wall for easy retrieval next time it was needed. And it was always there.
Cleaning up the studio was a cinch when you knew where everything went, and no piece of gear was ever lost, or gone missing – even temporarily. The very deliberate way he handled his gear allowed him greater confidence in his creativity since not a moment was wasted in trying to find some gizmo that had been put away in the wrong spot. Genius.
There was another photographer in LA that I had wanted to assist for over a year. I loved his work, loved his styling and was very interested in seeing how he lit those majestic headshots.
Finally I got the opportunity and for those four days I also learned how incredible deliberate he was with every part of his work.
White cards around the face were not simply put below, but were cut, and edges bound with white gaffers to create a seamless white environment below the face. Moving the softbox or beauty dish an inch or so would make big differences – at least to him – and were part of his deliberate approach to making imagery that was perfect in every way.
We didn’t have Photoshop. It wasn’t an option.
And yeah, we have Photoshop today and it is an option.
And being sloppy and not in control is easily remedied with a few layers, a cloning tool and some applied masking.
But why not be deliberate… what would it hurt?
What would be gained is attention to detail, attention to the craft, and the power of understanding the details that separate good from great.
I am certainly NOT saying that we shouldn’t use the tools at hand, I am advocating for complete mastery which renders the incredible tools we have even more powerful. Instead of “fixing” we are enhancing.
One more thing… being deliberate in what we do leads to mastery of what we do… and masters get more money for what they do.
When I look at photographs I like to ask photographers why they included certain things in their images; a garbage can in the distance, a parked car behind the subject’s legs that ruins the line, or a readable sign in the distance that pulls the eye from the subject.
One answer invariably get is; “I didn’t see that when I took the picture.”
Let me get this straight… other than seeing what was in your viewfinder and setting the exposure, exactly WHAT else were you doing that prevented you from SEEING what was in the damn viewfinder… seems to me that SEEING what was in the viewfinder was your single and ONLY job at the time.
The screwed up background is not a mistake seen afterward, it was a deliberate choice you made at the moment you pressed the shutter button. Either that or you were NOT deliberate and NOT in control of what you were doing.
How is that for a great working style? Maybe you could put it on your business card;
“When I get lucky, I make good photos.”
“Every Now and Then Memories are Made”
“I don’ suck.”
Awesomesauce… as they say.
I use a light meter for a lot of my work, although after working with the same tools and the same light for 40+ years, I have begun to understand and know the light… not a guess, a genuine understanding. It will happen with you as well.
Like seeing the music when listening to it.
A long, long time ago I took a workshop from a famous landscape/art nude photographer on the west coast, Brett Weston. He was the son of an even more famous photographer (Edward Weston) and I was feeling pretty amazing that crisp morning standing on the side of the ocean near Carmel, CA. I had my Deardorff, and my 14″ lens and my big, heavy tripod and we were looking for something to shoot.
I placed the tripod on the uneven terrain and began to compose on the large, 8×10 ground glass, black cloth draped dramatically over my head and shoulders. As I was nearing the moment of making the deliberate decision of WHAT I was going to shoot, the famous photographer Brett Weston drew closer to my setup.
I was feeling pretty amazing that morning… on the same lands that Edward had made so iconic, with his son at our side and making photographs in the hazy light.
I pulled my meter from my belt and, using the ambient dome began to make a meter check for exposure.
Mr. Weston’s reaction was one of horror and dismay… and I was on the receiving side of a blistering lecture on understanding the light, and that light was the same all the time and if I didn’t understand light, then what the hell ELSE was there to understand?
He was right, of course, but it took the bright and shiny part of the experience and made it a little more rough and sort of icky… for a while anyway. I got over it. Fast.
Understanding light IS what we are supposed to do. Cameras do not see subjects, cameras see how light is reflected from the subject. Cameras don’t see composition, they see only what we frame and how we frame it, and then they capture on film or card what we do with the light we are given.
Sometimes we are given light that is so perfect for our subject, that it is like a gift from heaven. Other times the light is not what we want, and we must do something to it, or add to it, or detract from it or something in order for our subject to be seen in the best of it.
And how we do it is deliberate, and ultimately OUR responsibility.
“The light was really crappy that day” is simply NO excuse. The fact is that we did not use the light that was given to us in a deliberate way. We let our conceived notions of what light should be drive us from what the light is. Or at least what it was on that day, and at that location.
And that is not the way a deliberate photographer thinks. There is no bad light, nor great light, there is only light – and what WE do with it is as deliberate as the choice of shutter speed and aperture.
My meter gives me absolute measurements of the light I am working with. I take that information and make absolute choices based on what I want to achieve. Could we “chimp it in”? I suppose we could… but that seems sort of a sloppy, ill conceived notion of technology to me.
And even those choices are defining, powerful and deliberate.
Some ideas for being deliberate in what you do:
- Note all lens choices. Write them down if you must, but KNOW them. Be able to ‘see’ through that lens by being aware of what things look like through that lens.
- Know every exposure, and be able to defend WHY you chose that exposure for the image. If there is no reason, you were not being deliberate.
- Choose ISO with deliberate understanding of how and why it will affect all aspects of the image you are about to make.
- Compose your images with careful attention to EVERY detail in the frame. Search the corners, search the background, and adjust accordingly.
- Use what you have to make what you want. A deliberate photographer is not limited by their gear, but freed from it by total and complete understanding of what they can do with what they have.
- Don’t censor or edit your work while creating, but be as considerably deliberate as you can while making the images.
- Expect to fail. Expect to learn from that failure. Failure with deliberate intentions will teach you more than unexpected lucky shots.
- Choose every piece of gear with complete and focused deliberate intention. What will it do to make your work better… consistently better?
- Concentrate on what you are doing and close out all distractions. Try to find a working method that allows you to be open to the imagery around you… and then deliberately repeat those circumstances whenever possible.
- Enjoy the serendipitous moments that happen within a very deliberate approach. They are revealing themselves to you BECAUSE of the control you have put on yourself.
Being deliberate is challenging and can create some angst in those of us who have never had a lot of discipline attached to our work and our working methods.
But trust me when I say it will make you a much, MUCH better photographer.
If you let it.