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Minding the Little Things

Edward Weston suggested that the most important message he had for a beginner is that "there are no short cuts in photography."

The creative approach I teach on my workshops consists of several phases, starting with a rough concept, through visualization, composition, capture and processing – ending with the presentation of a work to its audience, whether in the form of a print or a digital image. Each stage introduces approaches and techniques aimed at guiding the image toward its ultimate expression, but each also involves various ancillary aspects that may seem minor but which may also add up to significant distractions, and that can be overcome with some investment of attention.

Perhaps the one area where attention deficit may have the greatest impact is one not often considered – the conception of an image. So many wonderful images require careful attention to one’s environment – to visual relationships and nuances of light. Even a small distraction may mean the difference between seeing a good composition or walking away with no image at all. Most ominously, the photographer likely will never even know what they missed.

Visualization, the ability to imagine, or to see in the ‘mind’s eye’ the finished image before making exposure or processing decisions is a skill dependent on both experience and attention. Most photographers only visualize the end result as perhaps more colourful or ‘contrasty’ versions of what’s in front of their actual eyes, but go no further. Photographer Minor White suggested, “One should photograph objects, not only for what they are, but for what else they are.” Indeed, simply slowing down to consider what else something might be can result in images that are more creative and imaginative than that which a casual observer may see.

Once a worthy image is conceived, composition is the one area where attention to detail is of utmost importance. Even small variations in the way elements are arranged within the frame can make or break a great image. A rogue branch or tripod leg peeking into the frame, elements not properly separated, the inclusion of unnecessary distractions or the accidental exclusion of important lines and shapes, etc., are but a few examples of little things that may spoil an otherwise excellent image.

When capturing images, proper exposure and focus, use of a tripod, etc., all have obvious benefits, but minding some little things also is important. For example, some photographers I have seen keep polarizer filters on their lenses at all times, even when their use is unnecessary, and are too lazy to remove them when not needed. Any filter may degrade the image and increase the risk of flare. A polarizer, in particular, also significantly reduces the amount of light reaching the sensor, resulting in slower shutter speed, increased risk of motion blur, noise in shadow areas, etc. Furthermore, even when everything is dialled in correctly, it is worth paying attention to such things as shading the front of the lens to avoid flare, and always making a second exposure – a ‘safety shot’ – just in case a small bump of the tripod or sudden gust of wind spoils the first, often without the photographer being aware of it.

In processing images, most photographers I know pay great attention to color, contrast, and clipping, but some may miss such things as chromatic aberration, pixel-accurate selections and masks, etc., which may become unsightly distractions, especially when an image is enlarged and printed. Likewise, working with a color-calibrated monitor may result in inaccurate prints or digital files that will not appear to others as the photographer had intended.

Perhaps an area that receives the least attention to detail is the presentation of images, whether in print or online. Here, some fail to acknowledge that the viewer’s experience of an image is a holistic one. In other words, the image is experienced in the context in which it is presented. Prints often are presented in poor lighting, or exhibit sharpening halos and other artifacts. Online images often are presented alongside verbal information, which at times may be misspelt or include extraneous information distracting from the image. Consider, for example, some photographers’ tendencies to list location and camera information alongside their image. Why? If the viewer already has knowledge of the place, equipment or techniques used, they will associate the image with their own impressions of them, rather than the photographer’s. If they have no knowledge of these things, they may become curious and head to Google or some other resource rather than spending the time with the image. Either way, their attention may be diverted away from the image and from the photographer’s intent.

Edward Weston suggested that the most important message he had for a beginner is that ‘there are no short cuts in photography.’ All the little things I mention above, and many more, can easily be overcome by a simple technique: slow down and pay attention.

Read this and many more articles in High Definition inside Issue 45 of Landscape Photography Magazine.

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About Author

I am a full-time photographer, writer, and naturalist living and working in the Colorado Plateau – a scenic and diverse desert region of the western United States spanning an area larger than most countries and states.

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