In our living room there are two types of photographs hanging on the walls. There are those of family and friends taken at birthday parties, family reunions and holiday gatherings and then there are those of the beautiful places we’ve been. Each and every photo has a story to tell. There is something distinctly different about these two types, other than their subjects, it is the importance of their composition.
When I see a photo of a friend or loved one that brings back the memory of a special moment in time, I’m not focused on the beauty of the photo, I’m focused on the emotion, the bond I share with the subjects. When I see pictures of the places we’ve been, particularly those which I’ve taken myself, composition tends to be more important. In part because my purpose with these is not just to remind me of where I’ve been or what I’ve seen, but to inspire others and to share just how amazing some of these places are with the world. As an artist, I can say that I like most all of my art, but most of the time that’s not why I’m doing it.
It’s about expression and it’s difficult to express the beauty of a place through a blurry photo or a landscape that has no depth or scale. So the picture of my daughter on her first birthday will always make me smile, no matter how many imperfections the image might have. But a blurry picture of a beautiful place like Avalanche Lake has a good chance of just being deleted.
Over the last six years I’ve gone from capturing our vacations through the scratched lens of my iPhone 3G to renting the right types of lenses for special situations to use on my DSLR. Now this is not to say that you cannot capture amazing photos on almost any camera, but at least for me, having a dedicated camera forces me to think more about the shot and be deliberate. Unfortunately, when it comes to capturing amazing places, I have on many occasions felt as though I had the shot I wanted and when I review it later, I’m sorely disappointed. It in no way diminishes the fun I had getting there, doing whatever it was or even the time and effort spent trying to capture the moment. But it does sometimes mean that I have to settle for the memory and lesson learned rather than the beautiful image I set out to capture.
One of the first major disappointments I had of this sort was during our trip three years ago to Grand Teton National Park, when we came across our first bear. This was the first time either of us had seen a bear in the wild and it was a fairly tense few moments given that the bear was on the trail ahead of us a few hundred feet or so and our options were basically wait for the bear to move on or turn around and hike six miles back around Jenny Lake to our car. While the bear eventually moved on and we were able to finish our hike, this was the photo opportunity for which I had been hoping. I snapped probably twenty or more shots during the few minutes we were there and when reviewing them on my camera, I was pretty happy. Then awhile later while downloading them to my computer, I was able to see that my camera had actually set the focus on a branch that was in front of the bear by maybe a couple of feet and rendered the bear’s head almost completely out of focus. So much for enlarging that shot to put on our wall.
Part of my issue was practice. I hadn’t had the new camera very long at this point, then some of it was impatience or fatigue and part of it was just bad luck. Something I’ve begun to come to terms with is that the digital age of photography has in some ways, made us careless. The odds of running out of disc space for images today is pretty low. Set your camera up to bracket your shots for color or exposure and you’ve added a bit of a safety net for your perfect image.
But back when I was learning about photography and techniques in high school and when I was running around with my point and shoot 35mm as a kid, it was all film and not only did you have no idea if your shot was any good until days later, you likely only had a few rolls of film and only 24 shots on each roll. You couldn’t really afford to not spend some time setting up your shot and framing it correctly. That is a discipline that I need to recapture. I’m not sure how good I really had it back then given that on more than one occasion I was told to take fewer pictures or I was going to be doing extra chores to pay off my development costs. But, I’m more self aware now and once you’re self aware you can start to manage yourself better.
As a technology enthusiast and an engineer, I enjoy the hardware aspect of photography a great deal and I know that having the right equipment is important, but even the best equipment is useless if you can’t compose a decent shot. So as I move forward and plan our upcoming adventures, I’m working on my discipline and technique so that when that once in a lifetime opportunity comes around I can hopefully turn it into the shot of a lifetime.
Thank you for reading. If you’re interested in improving your photography there are two books I’m currently reading that I recommend, Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson, which appears to have a new edition coming out in March 2016 and is great for all types of photography, and The Art, Science and Craft of Great Landscape Photography by Glenn Randall if you’re into landscapes. They’re my favorite if you couldn’t tell.
Just out of curiosity, if you’ve read this far, take a guess at whether the featured image at the beginning of this post, ‘Black Dragon Canyon’ was taken with my DSLR or with one of my old smart phones and leave your guess in the comments.