Having just bought a new DSLR camera and a nice lens to match, as well as having read almost everything that you could about exposure and composition, there would finally be a moment when you have to take the leap of faith – your first foray into serious image making. Except, that the results from that initial effort would be far from what you had ever envisioned; a monumental failure, especially so if you’re very critical of your own work like I am. You get that guilty feeling brewing up inside you, having spent a pretty penny for something that could have been achieved with your smartphone. Take a moment to reflect on where did you go wrong exactly. Is your lighting wrong? Have you misjudged it or wrongly metered for it? Did you shoot in the proverbial P mode and expected the camera to take care of all the other silly things? Or did you make a premature foray into the intimidating manual mode without first mastering the aperture mode as the first logical step? It could be all of the above or something else entirely. It could be something that you may have not paid any attention to, yet.
Needless to say all photography is about light. Without light you cannot hope to capture anything. Composition comes as the next logical aspect. Without it you don’t have a clear image. In the words of the legendary Ansel Adams, “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” But at no point should you burden yourself with getting everything absolutely perfect in lieu of capturing the moment. The moment is everything.
This important concept of what constitutes a moment, the moment to be precise, can be summed up with Ansel Adams words again: “Sometimes I do get to places just when God’s ready to have somebody click the shutter.” This defines what a good image is. It captures a moment in time and place when all elements that actually goes into making a good image come together. When you condition your eyes so that they can instantly pick a moment you will have become a better photographer.
As a beginner photographer you may have surely heard about photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. He is by far the greatest exponent of street photography, the father of this particular genre you can say. You would think that a photographer of his skill and reputation would take only a single shot of a scene and that’ll be it. To break the myth and to realize how things are really done, I suggest you beg, borrow or steal a copy of the Magnum Contact Sheets. It is probably the most definitive example of how legendary Magnum photographers of the likes of Cartier-Bresson and others, worked the scene really hard at times to get the shot they had in their mind. Even highly accomplished photographers would hesitate to walk away from a scene having taken just one photograph. They know enough to not trust the back of the digital camera. Plus, if you are there and the lighting is perfect and everything else just falls into place why not take advantage of it and squeeze the most out of it?
If a photographer is shooting on film he wouldn’t even have the luxury to review his work after each shot. He would be shooting in the blind and hoping that his methods and the techniques would result in at least a few worthwhile shots. The contact sheets I referred to above would be an eye opener for you. You would be surprised to see how some of the legendary photographers struggled to make a good image at a scene, took several shots before finally getting something of value. There are very copies of this amazing book around, and they are expensive too! So if you do get your hands on one hold on to it.
The Cliffs of Moher in Ireland are a fantastic natural formation. At their highest point at 702 feet these cliffs provide a panoramic view of the Atlantic Ocean. When photographing natural formations like these you would be hard pressed to introduce a sense of scale. This is where you have to wait in earnest until something or someone walks into the scene to provide you that sense of scale. When that reference point or scale comes into the frame you have to be ready to capture the moment.
The beautiful Taj Mahal is probably the most photographed monument the world over. Millions visit it every year to stand in front of it and admire its pristine beauty. If you search for tips on photographing the Taj most will say come in October when the sky is blue and you have better opportunities to make a clean shot. But that would mean you will end up with one of the millions of clichéd photos that have already been taken. To make things interesting try to arrive in the monsoon or even in peak winter when north India experiences some of the heaviest foggy mornings. You will have opportunities to make some very interesting images which are off the beaten track and thus visibly better. One such instance could be when the fog clears a bit and a silhouette of the Taj is visible through it. You need a lot of patience to capture a moment like it.
Some of you reading this would no doubt disagree that capturing the moment isn’t always as easy it is to write about it; and you would be right! Some of it depends on luck which plays a big role at times. You may arrive at the most breathtaking spot and yet the light could be completely adverse preventing you from making any decent shot. At other times you could plan in advance, pick your spot and arrive early, only to find the place overcrowded. At moments like these, patience becomes key. As a natural light photographer you have to learn how to deal with such disappointments and master the technique to overcome them to come out stronger.
Capturing the Moment Should Be Your First Priority
It is all right when you are waiting for the moment to happen. You can take your time to setup your camera, get the exposure settings right, take a few test shots and then wait in earnest for the final ingredients to fall in place that make up the shot. Patience becomes a key aspect at that point. But when the moment is fleeting you can ditch everything else and make the shot as quickly as you can.
Working the Scene
As much as I have stressed on the matter of capturing the moment, at times there is no alternative to working the scene. Working the scene means trying different things, different camera angles, different perspectives, different exposure settings, waiting for certain elements to come up in the frame to make the shot and so on. Photographers would often come back to the same location year after year and at different times of the year to try and capture a different perspective and a different composition. This in a sense is good thing to do. With digital photography and instant feedback photographers are becoming a lazy lot. They refuse to work hard or be committed to their vocation. With a rigid regime and a disciplined attitude towards their work they can make good things happen out of a seemingly impossible situation. That is in effect is what we can learn from these great photographers.