In my last article, I suggested studying the work of others as one path toward making your own work stronger. To shoot what things feel like requires that we first have feelings about things but also to understand what possibilities exist for translating feelings into photographs themselves. It’s a conversation that could get touchy-feely really quickly, but if it gets too far from the practical nitty-gritty of how this actually happens with a camera in hand, I’m not sure it’s a helpful conversation.
What makes that conversation difficult, however, is that there are no formulae. I can’t tell you which choices to make to create a sense of mystery, which colours to include to make an image feel sensual, or which aperture best expresses your own reaction to a person of whom you are making a portrait. Any one-size-fits-all recommendation would only hamper your creativity and fail more than it succeeds. What I can do is point you in a direction that has helped me become much clearer about translating my emotions to photographs in my practice of this craft: studying the work of others.
The last photo book that landed on my doorstep was Ernst Haas’s The American West. I’ve been a fan of Haas since I first discovered his book Color Correction, and I eagerly anticipated The American West. My journey through the book has been much like the others that weigh down my bookshelves.
I start with an overall impression. I flip through it and enjoy the whole book, image by image. I take note of the things that jump out at me and my reactions. Sometimes those reactions are to the images themselves; sometimes, it’s to the curation. For example, while much of The American West features colour, there are a handful of monochrome images, and I noted my strong reaction to this. There is an image on the cover (later repeated in the book) of a bronco rider caught with a slow shutter speed, and I love this image. It’s a great example of “don’t shoot what it looks like but what it feels like.” Here again, I note my reaction. I’ll come back to this.
Once I’ve casually flipped through the whole book, I go back to the beginning and read the introduction. The introductory essays in photo books are sometimes a little tough to get through but are almost always worth the effort because they can help me understand what the photographer was trying to accomplish, as well as the constraints and motivations or the historical importance. Understanding what any artist is trying to accomplish goes a long way to understanding the work itself. Once I’ve done this, I go through the book much more carefully, usually a little more informed than I was when I formed my first impressions.
The questions I’m asking are many, but they all come down to this: why did the photographer make the choices they made? What do they seem drawn to? Is it colour? Moments? Patterns? Why this framing and not another? And what might they be trying to say? It’s certainly speculative and we can often only guess, but it’s helpful all the same.
Remember Stephen Shore’s comment about good photographers having a combination of interesting perceptions and an understanding of how the camera translates the world into a photograph?
When you study the work of others, you’re asking what clues you can find about how they perceive the world, what they’re interested in, and how they choose to use their cameras to express or explore that.
You’re also asking how you feel about the photographs, and why? What visual effect are you responding to, and how? If you feel agitated about the image, don’t turn the page until you determine what’s causing that feeling. Is the lack of negative space making you feel claustrophobic? Is it the intense red that dominates the image? Maybe it’s the quality of the chosen moment that brings tension with the look on a face within the frame. If your eye rests on a frame and lingers longer there than another, why is that? If you find an image particularly soothing or serene, why? Is it funny? What makes it so?
Ultimately, you’re not only studying the work of others but your own reactions to it. You’re studying yourself.
You’re taking inventory of how you feel about the depth of field, the colour, the composition, the moment, the light. You’re acquiring tools, especially if you never let yourself off the hook until you can put it into words, as in: “I feel this particular way because the photographer made this particular choice or combination of choices.”
Some Helpful Questions
What choices are other photographers making to create the images to which you react? You’ve probably got to know that before you can know how to do it yourself.
When you see a photograph and the only words you can find are “I like it” (or don’t), then the next step is to figure out why. Which visual tools were employed?
How did the photographer treat the light? Describe it. Is it hard or soft? Does it create shadows? Is it dramatic or sensual, or does it have some other quality?
How did the photographer compose the image? How do you feel about the space? Is there a real sense of scale, or is it tight and confining? How does that make you feel? Would you feel differently if there were more (or less) negative space?
What about the relationship of the elements to each other? Do they imply a story? Do they complement each other or contrast? Is there a juxtaposition that makes you laugh?
What about the use of colour? How do the colours themselves make you feel, not only in terms of the hue but how saturated they are—how light or how dark? Is it cool or warm? Cool and warm are visceral (not visual) words. That’s another way we react to what’s in the image.
What did the photographer include or exclude? Does the choice of moment stir your imagination or emotions in a way another moment might not have done?
Where was the photographer standing? Does that affect how you feel? The photographer who looks down with the camera upon a beggar in the street also forces us to look down on that beggar. How does that choice make you feel? You are reacting to the choices the photographer made.
There will also be images to which you do not react, and I think that’s as instructive. Remember, you are ultimately studying yourself. Why are you not responding to this? What’s missing? You’re not judging the photograph; you’re scrutinizing yourself. You’re learning what you react to.
There is great benefit to be found in reverse engineering the choices of another photographer in order to understand your reaction to them. You’re not saying “this is a bad photograph”; you’re saying “this choice makes me feel this way.” You can use that.
To study the work of others is to learn what you respond to. It helps give meaning to your choice of one shutter speed over another because one choice will create an effect in an image that another choice will not. The same is true of apertures and focal lengths. You can learn all of this not just from looking, scanning, or scrolling through the work of others but by studying it.
Cause and effect, my friend. That’s what you’re looking to become sensitive to. The photographer did this (cause), and it created an effect in the resulting photograph that I experience in particular ways.
To look at it a different way, maybe you could ask questions like these as you study:
- What is the light doing?
- What does colour contribute?
- What role do the lines and shapes play?
- What’s the point of view?
- What’s the quality of the moment?
- Where is the story?
- Where is the contrast?
- What about balance and tension?
- What’s the energy?
- How does the space and scale make me feel?
- What about depth?
- Where’s the mystery?
- Are there elements that are symbolic?
These kinds of questions can guide your study of the work of others. They can guide your study of your own work and the creation of your photographs. These are only some of the questions, but they will teach you if you’re open to it and willing to put in the work to understand how you respond viscerally to these visual choices. If you’re just starting out, this will be much harder, but I promise you’ll get there.
That list, by the way, is part of a longer list that comes from the table of contents of my book, The Heart of the Photograph, which I wrote to explore the big question: what do we respond to in a photograph?
If you don’t have The Heart of the Photograph, the timing on this is perfect because my publisher, Rocky Nook, is offering 50% off my books (and the books of others like Joe McNally, Chris Orwig, or Guy Tal, to name a few) until November 30, so you’ve got a few days to get in on it. And if you live in the continental USA, they’ll also cover the shipping.
Just use coupon code DUCHEMIN50 at check out. If you don’t already have them, Within The Frame, The Soul of the Camera, and The Heart of the Photograph make a great set!
Some Favourite Photography Books
For those of you asking for a little guidance on how to study the work of others, this is my starting point, and I hope it helps. I’d love to hear how you approach studying the work of the masters. In fact, I’d love to hear which photographers you most love to study. Leave a comment, and we’ll all benefit. A few years ago, I made a list of some of my favourite photography books, and that might also be a good place to begin for you.
The Backlight Feedback Winner Announced
Finally, a big thank you to those of you who took a moment last week to give me your thoughts on a project I’ve been contemplating. Your feedback gave me a lot of food for thought, and I thank you. As promised, I have drawn one name for those who replied, and I’m thrilled to offer an hour of mentoring or any one of my online courses to Cindy Mirabella. I’m so thankful for all your thoughts, reactions, and many kind words.
Questions? Thoughts? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
For the Love of the Photograph,