I have often encountered a situation where I have pre-visualized a scene or a photography outcome, did all the necessary steps to achieve the intended output, followed through all the right techniques and execution, but what I came home with was not the original photograph which I have had in my mind in the first place. Something was not right, something was different, and sometimes I could not quite put into words what went wrong, or how the shot could have been (in comparison to the original visualized shot). I strongly believe I am not alone in this, and I have also witnessed how many of my friends quickly placed blames at all the wrong places, conveniently on their gear (which should have worked better if they have that lens or that better camera body, or that sturdier tripod), or worse, all other overly general excuses, such as weather, not in the mood or generally just "not in the luck" to get good shots. Not many people actually sit down, think for a while, and willing to discuss what went wrong with the photograph which took so much effort to produce but did not happen as planned. I guess too many people just expected magic to happen right away when the point the lens and click the shutter button, but photography goes far beyond that.
Therefore, in this blog entry I want to explore the reasons why some photographs have fallen short of expectations, and some of the common things to watch out for, as a reminder even to myself when shooting!
All images in this entry were taken with Olympus DSLR E-5 and Zuiko Digital lenses, 50mm F2 macro or 25mm F2.8 pancake.
1) Perspective Matters
To me, when I have reviewed so many of my own photographs and the number one reason why many of them did not happen the way I initially wanted, was perspective. The difference between the perspective I have in mind for the shot, and what the lens perspective produces can break the shot, if not given enough careful consideration. We are talking about a few more other differences in perspective here, mainly for framing, and that includes different focal lengths of lenses used as well as standing positions (how far are you from your subjects). Whenever I could not get the perspective right, my composition would suffer, either I would accidentally leave out an important element from the frame, or fit in some unnecessary clutter that destroys the shot.
To illustrate the difference of perspective, let me give a very easy example. Imagine a girl standing next to a beautiful doorway to a shop. There are basically many ways to approach this scene but lets just narrow down to two for the sake of simplicity. Option one: shoot with wide angle, go as close as you can and worry less because your ultra wide angle can fit in as much coverage as you needed in that one single frame. Option two: use a slightly longer lens, eg 50mm-100mm and stand far away to grab that scene. No one method is superior to another, and no one is right or wrong, as always, it comes down to the photographer's preference and what the photographer wanted to accomplish in the shot by choosing his approach. Nevertheless, those two options will give very different outcomes to an otherwise very similar photography scene.
Lets explore further. For option one, using wide angle lens will create exaggerated distortion, both perspective (door leaning backward) as well as barrel (edges appear warped, distorted). It is a lot harder to control what goes into the frame, because wide angle fits just so much more. These are usually the variables that cause more equations to solve, and often not necessary. The exaggerated perspective will result in a less natural look and that much clutter won't simplify your composition either. The problem usually happens only when the scene was about to be executed and the realization brings two options: to work with the problems presented, or to try the other option: shoot with a different focal length, a longer one perhaps, and stand further away from the subject. Of course we assume that little girl is very kind and will hold her pose for you as long as you need.
Option two will have you shooting the girl from a distance, obviously the longer the focal length the further away you have to stand. Yes you get very natural perspective, since distortion problems are more controlled as straight lines appear to be straight. There are also less elements to fit considering perspective compression of longer focal lengths, giving you less background to deal with. This is the method that I always like to fall back to, but the over simplified background creates another problem: the shot appears too plain. Simplicity is not a bad thing, do not get me wrong, but a powerful photograph usually has something a lot more than that, some drama in the background maybe!
The trick? To find the balance, and to know which perspective to use, and how to use them effectively in corresponding situations. That decision has to be made in split second when shooting, because many times great photography opportunities have very limited time frame. Even if you use a zoom lens, you still have to decide WHICH focal length to zoom into.
By the road
2) What You See is Not What The Camera Sees
I think the main problem with using a DSLR, with the mirrored view through the optical viewfinder, is that we often assume, or believe that what we are seeing through the optical viewfinder is the representation of what the camera sees. Yes, what we are seeing is what goes through the lens, but when that light (analogue data) is being translated to digital information, the image is rarely resembling what was seen through our own eyes.
The sunset golden glow somewhat becomes less golden, and orange, the exposure balance which seemed dramatic turned out to be too harsh or high in contrast. I am a huge supporter of optical viewfinder when it comes to the war against electronic viewfinder (though I do find myself warming up to the increasingly better EVF lately) and I often emphasized on the importance of seeing exactly what is happening. Unfortunately the camera is not as smart as our eyes/brain combination, and will never be able to render the images magically. There are many challenging situations where I have suffered due to myself not being able to quickly decide how the camera would see the image, not just how my eye would respond to the scene. In circumstances where the lighting is dynamic and keeps changing, for example a sudden strong harsh spotlight being shined upon the model on the stage, the camera's metering and response to the exposure balance can be screwed up, if you have based the metering and exposure controls on earlier non-spotlight condition. Yes, most cameras these days, even being left to Auto would be able to make necessary adjustments, but that is besides the point. The camera does not follow what our eyes see. We have to follow what the camera sees. And sometimes, it is just too much work.
3) Timing, timing and timing
Many photographers I know argue that timing is almost everything in photography. Knowing the right time to shoot a location will create a vast difference in your output. Knowing the catwalk and posing routine of a fashion show before hand will allow you better chances of anticipating the model's moves, and capture the predicted shots better than not having any planned timing execution. Then there is that infamous "decisive moment" by that great grandfather of street photography whom many modern photographers have honestly over-emphasized. There is that peak moment and if your timing is not executed in line with that, well, your supposed to be an extra-ordinary shot would appear just as another missed opportunity. We all know how important timing really is, especially that specific moment to press the shutter button. However, it is also a universally known fact that knowing the importance is not equivalent of being able to make it happen.
To maximize the chance of success, some photographers would take extreme measures and do whatever necessary, from camping in one location for days just to wait for the right time to shoot that certain subject (National Geographic Photographers come in mind). For street photographers, many would find an interesting background to work with, and stand at the planned spot until something interesting came along into their frame as they capture the shot. The wait can range from minutes to hours, or until the shot is captured. However, there is NO guarantee of success either. You can be waiting for days and hours and come home with nothing. Anything can happen out there, and quite honestly, sometimes nothing can happen either. Of course it would not hurt to try to maximize the chances of thing happening by being persistent and patient, waiting for the photography opportunities to strike.
In a singular shooting session, I do think that knowing your camera will help enhance your hit rate. Knowing your camera inside out, its weaknesses and strengths can aid in overcoming its possible problems and grab the shots. One crucial parameter in the camera to understand and master well, is FOCUSING. I find not many photographers (newcomers, or young photographers like myself) pay enough attention to their camera's focusing and not doing enough to truly master it. Different cameras and lenses have different focusing behaviour, and knowing how they work optimally will optimize your timing in real life execution. Even as you have timed your shot with as much fore-planning as possible, if you are not efficient at controlling the camera's focusing system, you will still miss the crucial timing. When that occurs, your shots will never turn out as you have planned and expected from the beginning!
Close to Mum
He told me he has not bathed. I said you cannot smell the photograph.
Tying it up
One of the main motivations to go out and shoot, is wanting to do what others can do. It is no secret, and this even applies to myself that, sometimes, after seeing some inspirational photographs, we too, want to accomplish that similar shot, and wanting to believe that by some miracle, we can do even better (can't we all have such sweet dreams?). Then we hear those photographers preaching about originality in art and how we should not plagiarize, oh lets not go there for now.
Bottom line is, we all like to compare, being human beings. When we compare, we always somehow, fall short of expectations. Hence what we have imagined we have captured, is not reflected in our shots. How come that photographer's sunset seem more dramatic? What secret settings should we use or how to process that into an awesome HDR photograph? We often want to achieve that higher level in photograph skill and have great photographs to prove our superiority. Expectations are always different from reality, and reality can be quite painful when we realize that most of the photographs we took were not for ourselves but for some other rather not important purposes when we started to compare.
Don 't shoot to compare! Shoot what you want to shoot, shoot the things that you love or have meaning for you, and shoot for yourself. Only then the photograph is of your own, and you are only bound by the limitations and expectations you have set yourself.
So where does this leave me?
I think it is very crucial to acknowledge that what we expect to achieve in a photograph will be different from what is being captured in reality. Our eyes/brain work very differently from the lenses/camera combination. We can always do our best and whatever necessary to represent or reproduce the original vision, but we should not beat ourselves too hard if the output falls short in some ways. There are many ways to improve a photograph of course, and knowing how the results was not satisfactory we can always engineer or innovate a new method to further explore the shooting execution.
Everyone is unique in their own way, hence there is no repeated vision, even if you intend to copy or imitate another photographer. Tapping into what makes you, you, will unleash your own world of photography. As we work towards producing those "perfect" photographs we seek, we discover more and more interesting experience and great dosage of fun along the way. I believe that is what shooting should be all about, expressing yourself freely, and not bounded by unnecessary restrictions.
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