Some Things Never Change

Det danses tango på Prado

In my post A Delicate Balance last week, I wrote about the dialectic process that photography is. On one hand, you have the technical foundation, that a photograph comes into being by technical means; and on the other hand, that for a photo to capture its audience it needs to hold some emotional content. I also stated that the later is the more important factor. As I wrote, an emotionally loaded but technically poor photo trumps a technically perfect photo lacking emotional content—any time.

What I find interesting is that today it seems like it’s easier than ever to take photos. Present days cameras have become so advanced and at the same time so easy to handle, that everybody can make a technical well capture photograph without knowing much about the technical part of photography at all.

I want to underscore that I just wrote that it seems easier than ever. Because it still isn’t easier to capture the emotional content—and not even technically is it easier, really, with respect to using technique to emphasize a photograph’s content and story. Yes, it is easier to get a perfectly exposed and focused photo, but technique is not only about this. Technique has a far more important role to play—at least if you take your photography serious. You want to understand how you can use for instance shutter speed and aperture visually and how they impact the visual language to substantiate the story you are trying to tell.

The reality is that taking photos that both engage and capture the essence of a moment requires more than just having a advance and intelligent camera—no matter how much of a technical wonder it is. As much as any camera today operates stunningly well under most conditions—and their capabilities keep improving every year, they cannot make the decisions that result in great photos. Only you can. No automatic setting can determine how you want to frame your subject. No automatic camera can decide the best moment to press the shutter button. No camera can choose what you want to photograph. Only you can.

Photography is a skill and a craft. Yes, the technological development has, on some levels, made it easier than ever to take photos. But if you desire more than just perfectly focused and exposed photos—which, by the way, is not guaranteed in and of itself even with today’s cameras—you still need to learn the craft. The camera cannot think for you or distinguish between a terrible photo, an ordinary photo or the masterpiece. You still have to take command of the photographic moment and the camera—whether it is a cell phone, a point-and-shoot camera or an advanced DSLR you use.

Two very important factors that has a huge impact on the visual expression of photography is complete independent on the camera you use and how advanced—or not—it is. The fact is, these two factors are all yours to decide and this has not changed a bit since photography was invented in 1826 when Nicéphore Niépce captured the first ever photograph.

Your choice of space and time when you take a photo will always be independent on the camera and camera technique. If you want to take photos that respond with an audience, you will need to learn how to use both space and time to capture those telling images. In many ways, this is the classical time-space continuum. This space-time continuum is a mathematical and physical model that combines space and time into a single idea. We all exist in this continuum, whether we are aware of it or not, and every photo captured will relate to it.

Don’t let me over-complicate things, though. Understanding that a photo is taken in a certain place and at a certain time is easy enough to grasp. That in itself will have some historical value, but the space-time continuum has far wider implications on how a photograph is perceived.

Space, for instance, as a primary consideration, goes to what you point your camera at, your choice of subject. You need to be in the same space as the subject you want to photograph in order to be able to photograph it. Maybe one day you will be able to capture images formed in your mind without having to direct a camera towards a physical object. However, as I see it, it would no longer be a photograph.

Therefore, you need to pick a space that coincides with the subject you want to photograph. Furthermore, once you have decided on what you want to photograph you also have to decide how you want to frame it. This is clearly space related, too. Which point-of-view you decide on will have a huge impact on how your story in the photo is told. Then finally, you have to decide how you want this stage to be built. What do you leave out and what do you keep in? All these considerations are related to an understanding of space.

Time, on the other hand, is a variable that has other implications on a photograph. First of all, you need to consider when you want to take a photograph. Traditionally, most photographers know that taking a landscape photograph when the sun sits low on the horizon creates a very different result than a photograph of the same landscape taken at midday when the sun is in zenith. Time has also to do with your choice of moment, when to push the shutter release. In a landscape photograph just mentioned, the exact moment will not be as critical as when you a shooting some sport event in which a fraction of a second between two photos can make a big difference in the end result. Finally, time is also a cause for consideration as to what shutter speed you want use to render your idea of the subject. This later time factor is of course a little more technically depended, as you will have to choose a shutter speed that the camera lets you use.

Being consciously aware of space and time will make you a better photographer. The good part of learning to navigate them? You will never have to relearn how to use them if you want at some point to change your camera, because these factors—which have a huge impact on the visual expression—are complete camera independent.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a Canon EOS-5D and a 24/105 mm lens set at 24 mm. Shutter speed: 1/200 of a second. Aperture: f/5.6. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

52 thoughts on “Some Things Never Change

  1. Well said, Otto! It’s all about emotion, and engaging the viewer….. The greats like Cartier Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Steve McCurry, Don McCullin to name a few, all knew/know this

  2. Great post, Otto.

    I’ve just spent a couple of hours viewing Black & White images of some great 20th C street photographers trying to gauge which one grabs my attention and why. Sometimes its hard to put into words, but if you’ve got that Time and Space perfect, it makes such a big difference.

    (and I love the image you included in this post too).

  3. Amen for that post.
    Photography still is a skill. The camera alone does not do it. I wish more people would realize that it’s the person behind the camera who is responsible for the shot and it’s not a great photograph because you have an expensive camera.

  4. Last week here in the earthquake-ravaged zone, I was driving very slowly through an area that was basically leveled. Tents held down one lot; vacant lots at an intersection represented ghosts of the houses that once anchored those four corners.. Squeezed between one ‘government’ concrete shoebox of a house and a vacant lot was a small wooden structure made of old boards. A lady with a somber face peered from the lone window. I paused as she watched me, and I wondered, “Do I intrude? Do I stop/get out? Do I ask permission to take her photo and explain how she looks through my eyes?” I started with a ‘Buenas—‘ and said that I was so sorry what had happened and would it be OK if I took her photo.

    We visited for half an hour, and yes, she allowed photos but they did not capture what I saw… I was aiming for the mood/emotion and also her inner beauty and strength.

    I’ll be returning most likely today and plan to give her a blouse I bought for her.. One of her ‘wishes’ is to have better clothes, as she lost it all… I can help a little, one blouse at a time!

    Thanks, Otto, for guiding us to better skills! Now if I can make this burro send this your way! The cursor won’t move!

    1. The burro was corroborative this time. Thanks for making the hassle to comment, Lisa. What you tell about the lady peering out of the window, is very much how it often is. As photographers we should always ask ourselves if it’s okay to capture pictures of people in dire straits. Most of the times people are willing and open enough, as in this case. If you are returning to her, I would certainly aim for more shots, particularly if you want to capture her inner beauty and strength. It’s always easier when you already know those you photograph at little. Besides, what a lovely gesture to bring her a blouse when you visit her again. What about bringing photos from that first encounter?

  5. Hola, Otto. First of all I cannot stop looking at your photo at the top of your post. The angle/composition of the dancers in the foreground with the trees seeming to form a path they could follow, and the squares on the plaza on the diagonal from the perspective you chose , the buildings on the sides providing the outer frame….oh my and wow. Time and space. I keep learning from you.

  6. What I found out, Otto, is that it seems that everbody has to learn this lesson – trust your eyes, trust your feeling, follow your impulses, be human – all alone, while the usage of the camera can be taught. And all the shortcuts, especially those appealing ones dealing with the toy and gadget factor, come out as deviations on the way to stronger images.
    But as everybody can learn at her/his own speed, the important thing to me seems to be that we appreciate the way, work on our approach, and not too much compare, not in content, but even less in machinery, what others do or have. And it took me ten long years to get to that point of understanding photography…

    1. I think you can be helped on the way to understand how to follow your heart, although in the end, as you say, you will have to walk the distance yourself. I certainly agree with you last point, not to compare, just work on and appreciate the process itself. Thank you for sharing your experience, Markus.

  7. Great capture of the dancing event.. I love it.

    I like the analogy of space time continuum and taking a picture. Indeed, the photographer needs to take both space and time into account and both are intertwine in certain way!

  8. Thank heaven they are completely camera independent. I know it seems like the new cameras are easier but for me it seems like you need a Masters in computer science to be able to accomplish what you want. They really do overwhelm me and am happy that some things are still relevant that I studied way back when.

    1. And of course today’s cameras are very complicated and advanced. But even the most advanced camera will have an automatic setting, that will turn it into a point-and-shoot-camera. Not necessarily what you desire, but it’s an option. However, some things never change…

  9. Underbar bild Otto, gillar verkligen detta inlägg. Lång väg dit men resan är ju en del av målet. Att byta kamera har inte varit lika stort problem som byte av objektiv………
    Ha det så gott, här har vi vårligt väder alldeles för tidigt.

    1. Takk for tilbakemelding. Gjør meg glad å lese at du har sans for denne posten. Synd med våren som er for tidlig. 🙂 Her i Bergen er det fortsatt vinter med kuldegrader. Nesten uvanlig kaldt i disse tider…

  10. You’re very, very good at these instructional essays, Otto. You make them just long enough, they hold one’s attention, they make important points and they make them clearly. Your “voice” has confidence without being too heavy handed. It’s not easy to do! (As far technique and camera advances taking over these days, to the detriment of artistry, I’m with you – it may be easy to take technically good photos but clearly, artistic skill mustn’t be neglected).

  11. While I was looking at your splendid photo at the top of the page and thinking about what you said about space, time, and artistry, it suddenly occurred to me that dance itself is an almost perfect representation of what can happen when space and time are put in the service of art. The differences among the tango, ballet, swing, or waltz basically are different arrangements of time and space. In the same way, the “dance” between photographer and subject will look different, depending on how time and space are arranged — if that makes any sense. One thing seems certain: dancing with a subject will allow for more emotion than manipulating a subject!

  12. Dear Otto! It’s a gift being able to make theory so easily understandable. And so practice-oriented. That’s the very idea of theory, isn’t it? Thinking hard and clear about things important to your life.

  13. Pingback: Myriam Braggs

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s