What Type of Photographer Are You?
John A. Benigno
Where do you fit in? Are you a photographer who must constantly search out visually exciting subject matter or have you learned to make the subject before you appear visually exciting?
Photographers who fall into the first category constantly have to search out new subject matter. They are limited to a subject’s obvious visual appeal, and they are entirely dependent upon this. They can produce visually exciting pictures only by seeking and finding subject matter that already exists in an easily recognizable state of visual excitement.
Photographers in the second category, however, have learned to see beyond a subject’s visual reality. They see the subject not only as it exists, but also as it may exist. They realize that camera and eye do not see alike and know how to take advantage of these differences. In their hands, camera and lens become creative tools.
It is the photographer’s treatment of the subject — not the subject matter itself — that makes for great pictures. Photographers who can see a subject’s visual potential do not have to continually search for exciting pictures; they can create them anywhere. It is this ability that is often referred to as the difference between taking and making pictures.
Your ability to create a visually exciting image relates directly to your approach to your subject. Your perception of the subject will involve one or more of three separate but interrelated ways of perceiving your subject — the subject as it exists (its actual visual appearance), the subject as it may exist (its possible visual appearance), and the unseeable potential of the subject (previsualization). My experience is the most photographers use a combination of these approaches, and they are definitely interconnected. I do not mean to imply that one approach is better than another, nor that one will produce more interesting photographs than the others. I separate them here into three approaches only for the purpose of discussion and outlining the most obvious difference between the three.
The Subject as it Exists:
Using this approach, we do not attempt to change a subject’s existing appearance. Making an exciting picture is totally dependent upon your ability to recognize the subject’s existing visual excitement and to record it.
All you have to do is set the correct exposure, focus, frame the image, decide on the camera angle and distance from the subject, and, if the subject is in motion, your choice of the precise moment to press the shutter.
While this approach may simply cover the basics of photography, it is by no means a simple one. It requires a trained eye and the vision to recognize visual excitement. Moreover, the results can be as impressive as those produced by using any other approach.
To sum up, this approach includes all pictures in which, other than choosing moment of shutter release, a specific viewpoint, and perhaps rendering the scene in black-and-white rather than color, you did not purposely alter any of the subject matter’s visual attributes.
The Subject as it May Exist:
In this mode, you will use your knowledge and experience to enhance visual excitement. Changes are made before, not after, the shutter is released. For example, the use of a filter, a change in quality and/or quantity of light, using a large f-stop to minimize depth-of-field, or using a telephoto lens to compress the spatial relationship between objects in the image will affect the tonal and visual appearance of the subject in a manner that can immediately be seen by the eye.
This advanced mode involves purposeful changes in the appearance of the subject matter. Not only must you be able to perceive a subject’s visual excitement, but you must also perceive the various ways in which the subject’s visual state can be affected and changed.
However, here is the key to both of these approaches. Unlike the unseen subject, which I will discuss next, you can see the subject as it exists, or you can see any changes that you might make in your viewfinder before releasing the shutter.
In review, this second approach includes pictures in which you deliberately alter the subject’s appearance in order to maximize its visual excitement.
The Unseen Subject:
This is the most difficult approach because it requires you to perceive or previsualize changes to the subject that cannot actually be seen until after the photograph has been taken and the file or negative processed. In other words you must be able to apply in your mind’s eye all of the variations that can readily be seen by the human eye and all the
possible variations such as movement blur, changes in tonality, multiple exposures, etc., that cannot be seen by the human eye until they have been made visible through the processing the image.
Just because this approach is the most difficult to master, it does not mean that you will necessarily make more interesting photographs when you apply its principles. It is not the “better” approach. It is simply one more tool in your photo arsenal. Since the beginnings of photography, photographers have made visually exciting images utilizing all three approaches.
In this mode, both the camera and the photographic process are used to create visual excitement.
This third approach includes those pictures produced through conscious and deliberate exposure and development manipulations of tone, solarizations, multiple exposures, HDR, stitched panoramas, movement blurs and any other manipulations that could not be seen by the human eye before the photography was processed.
Count the number of your pictures in your inventory that fall into each of the above approaches. Different situations require different approaches, and the number of your photographs that fall into each category need not be equal. But, if each approach is not adequately represented, you’re limiting your visual expression.
Last, determine how skilled you are in using each approach by counting the number of pictures you consider to be truly successful in each. Compare this number to the total number of pictures in that category. The lower the percentage, the more you need to work on that particular approach.
Note: The approach use to make some photographs may depend upon the type of camera used to make the photo. For instance, the effect produced by selective focus can be seen directly through the viewfinder of a single-lens reflex camera and, therefore, would be classified as the second approach (the subject as it may exist).
A rangefinder camera, however, does not allow you to see the actual image formed by the lens. The visual effect produced by selective focus could not be seen through the camera’s viewfinder and would not become visible until the picture was processed. In this instance, the use of selective focus would fall into the unseen approach.
John A. Benigno