Identify What Works and Work on It!!!

I say it all the time.  I mention it at every workshop.  I bring it up in every critique session.  I preach it to the point of people being sick of hearing me say it.  But, there IS a point when I say “Identify what works in a scene and work on it.  Identify what does NOT work in a scene and eliminate it”.  I know it’s a boring statement, I know it sounds fairly lame, I know it is not a nugget of wisdom that the photo gods will applaud me for but, it’s a true and virtuous piece of advice.

“Identify what works in a scene and work on it.  Identify what does NOT work in a scene and eliminate it” 

Think about that statement.  Read it and think about it.  Say it out loud if you have to.  Write it on your hand if you have to.  Do anything you can to remember it.  It works.

When you are in the field and find a scene that resonates with your feelings and your eye, take the time to identify what it IS you like and focus on that with your compositions.  In the process, look for things that DON’T work (distracting elements that are shiny, out of place, or impose upon your borders will distract the viewer from what you DO like) and eliminate them during your composition.  To me, this is essential.  To me, this is a giant step toward making images instead of taking pictures.

 “Identify what works in a scene and work on it.  Identify what does NOT work in a scene and eliminate it”

Last night I went to my son Danny’s basketball game.  He is 9 years old and plays in a league with other 9 and 10 year olds.  This is his first year playing basketball so, like his other sport endeavors, I wanted one great “keeper” shot of him playing hoops.  Once the game started I realized I had much more working against me than the horrible gymnasium lighting.  Nine year old kids run a lot and they run around even more.  To say the game was a chaotic mess is an understatement.  Nine year old kids don’t play positions.   What they do is chase the ball like a pack of wolves running down an elk.  I tried and tried to get a great shot of him, isolated, dribbling or shooting the ball but, there were too many little bodies running amok to get the image I had envisioned.  Fail.

“Identify what works in a scene and work on it.  Identify what does NOT work in a scene and eliminate it”

 So, I stopped shooting and thought about what was going on in front of me.  I watched the game and thought about all the movement.  There were sneakers squeaking all over the wooden floor, there were bright colors rushing past, there were arms and legs everywhere, and  there was the sound of someone dribbling the ball.   I watched and then I changed my perspective.  By changing my perspective, I came home with some images I am thrilled with.  I came home with images that FEEL like the game I watched.  I wrote about this same revelation a few weeks ago in my blog “Emotion in Motion”.  Changing your perspective and making adjustments in the field is critical to your photographic success.

Taking photos in an old school gym is difficult at best.  A flash has no effect and the available light is HORRIBLE.  I already knew that I would be shooting my D800 at ISO 6400 and higher in order to get a shutter speed fast enough to stop some action.  I knew this would mean more contrast and grain in my images, so I already had visions of black and white images with an old school photojournalistic edge to them.  I planned to shoot my 85mm f1.8 lens on my full frame camera to bring in as much light as possible and get rid of the backgrounds.  I just needed Danny in a reasonably close position to get what I wanted while I walked up and down the sideline.  Once I realized my initial vision would not work I changed my perspective and my tools.  I switched to my 70-200 f2.8 lens.  This was NOT going to let in more light but, it meant I could reach further onto the floor to isolate a new vision.  I cut my ISO to 3200 on purpose to slow my shutter speed down intentionally.  I sat on the floor and began to focus on the elements in front of me:  squeaky sneakers, blurs of moving color, and a bouncing basketball.  I smiled and got to work.

“Identify what works in a scene and work on it.  Identify what does NOT work in a scene and eliminate it”

I chose a low vantage point that would allow me to shoot the legs and feet of the kids as they rushed past me.  I purposefully panned with them and chose a slower shutter speed to convey the feeling of movement in my images.  Instead of an isolated shot of him with a basketball, I now wanted to take home the motion of my son playing basketball.  Success!

When you are in the field and faced with a difficult situation, do NOT be afraid to change your vision.  We all have pre-conceived ideas of what “works” and what doesn’t.  We tend to think of portraits in one way but, an image of just hands IS a portrait.  We tend to think of landscapes as wide angle images showing a broad range of space but, patterns of sand at the beach, close up, is still a landscape.  Action photography does NOT always meaning freezing action.

 “Identify what works in a scene and work on it.  Identify what does NOT work in a scene and eliminate it”

 Like everyone else, I am constantly learning.  Many times I have to remind myself to look past the obvious and find another way to photograph my chosen subject.  The lighting and chaos in the gym was NOT going to change so, I had to change ME.  For some reason, THAT always seems to be the hardest part.  Change is good.

“Photograph What You Feel”


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Emotion in Motion

I am an emotional person therefore, I am an emotional photographer.  Whenever I am in the field, I do my best to photograph with purpose.  How can I not?  What happens in the world has a profound effect on me. Making images of my world has a lasting, meaningful effect on me.  What I see today stays with me through many, many tomorrows.   When creating an image, to me, it is my composition that defines my story and my set shutter speed that adds drama.  However, it is my emotion that dictates both.

The world is in constant motion.  Time and light never stand still.  As photographers we can stop action in an instant but, it is just that – one fleeting moment.  No sooner has the image appeared on our LCD screen than time carries on.  However, not everything needs to appear  frozen in time.  Shutter speeds allow us to capture many types of scenes; varying our shutter speeds allows us great creativity.  Being a photographer makes me very happy but, it is the process of making images that fulfills the greatest part of me.  The process goes well beyond just pushing some buttons.  The process means being involved, physically and mentally, in why you pushed the buttons.  This is the difference between taking a snapshot and creating an image.  I want to look back at my image and remember the feeling of THAT moment, not simply view a photo.

Just like time and light, emotion is in constant motion as well.  Your emotions can be a great tool if you use them in your creative process.  When I say “Photograph What You Feel”, I mean just that.  A slow shutter speed can render your scene with different feeling.  A slow shutter speed transforms moving water into smooth wisps of white that can look like cotton candy.   I love that.  A slow shutter speed blurs action and conveys a feeling of increased action. This is very dramatic.  Panning is when you purposefully move your camera during your exposure.  This technique has long been used for blurring out a background while keeping your main subject sharp as you track them in motion (such as a running horses, or kids playing soccer, or a race car).   I like to pan my camera during exposures to “paint” a scene and give it a more creative, abstract feeling.  Most often, I do this with trees and the colorful coast as my subject.  There is no right or wrong way to do it;  there is no better technique than another.  You simply set a longer shutter speed and move your camera, either horizontally or vertically, during the exposure.  The images you “keep” are all based on how you felt about what was before you.  Connect to your scene and be creative.  Do more than just push buttons on your camera.  Visualize the moment and create what you feel.

During a recent workshop we were at Annisquam Light for sunset.  The bold, bright colors in the sky created beautiful reflections on Ipswich Bay.  I composed my scene to capture the colors of the sunset in the sky and water but, also have some part of land mass visible for scale and contrast.  I clicked and clicked and clicked but, nothing resonated with me as a “keeper”.   As the light began to fade I became more anxious, more hurried, to capture an image that shared the beauty of this sunset.  I felt like I was going to lose the moment since I could not freeze the scene with a press of my shutter.  Staring out over the bay I could literally see time and light moving and, with it, my opportunity was fading away.  Wait!  I could SEE time and light moving!  That was it!  I quickly changed my perspective, set my exposure, loosened the lateral movement of my Kirk ballhead, and panned with the moving light.   I did not want to freeze the action;  I wanted to capture the feeling of a beautiful sunset moving over the bay.  In a moment I felt my image and created it.

Occasionally, it is best to slow everything down and move with time.


Photograph What You Feel

Don Toothaker

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