By David H. Lyman
“I’m thinking of upgrading my camera,” a friend says. “Which camera would you suggest?”
I’ve made a living as a photojournalist, someone who tells stories with pictures and words, and I’ve been teaching photography, leading and organizing workshops for years.
You might think I’d know a thing or two about photography.
Well, I don’t. There’s too much to know. But I’ve learned one thing I can pass along. I’ve learned how photographers learn, how they master their craft, develop their vision, and find their own, inner, artistic voice. So, if you have a few minutes, I’ll share a few things that might help you become a better photographer, someone who sees the world as a photographer.
“The best camera to have,” I told my friend, “is the one you have in your hand. Not the one in your camera bag or on the store shelf.” She looked puzzled. “It’s like anchoring. It’s less about the anchor and more the technique. If you are a photographer, you can make great photos with any camera, even your iPhone. Just learn its limits, and use them creatively.”
Your camera doesn’t make photographs. You do.
It’s you who needs to get better, not the gear.
We live and cruise in one of the world’s most beautiful places — the Caribbean. Lush tropical rainforests, cascading waterfalls, green islands floating on an azure sea, white sails dotting the horizon and sunsets that are a visual symphony. How can you not make great photographs?
To make a photograph, as opposed to a snapshot my mother could take with her Instamatic, requires a few more things than point and shoot. It requires an understanding of what the camera can do and not do. Your camera is like a guitar to a musician. It’s a tool that can help you see the world and capture those moments you see. And perhaps share. Like a musician, you’ll do a lot of this privately, while you are alone with your music, your images. It is during this alone time, listening to your guitar, looking at your images, that you begin to see what you’re doing wrong, where the creative process is taking you.
To be a photographer, any artist, is to first develop an appreciation for the art form: music, painting, dance, sculpture, photography. And you can do this even without a guitar or camera. Look at monographs and books by famous photographers to see how other photographers see, and use the frame, the lens and the shutter. Go to museums and galleries to see what’s on the walls. Photographers can learn a great deal from studying the paintings of the masters. Look at photographs in magazines.
Look closely at the underlying structure of each image, where each artist has placed the subject, the quality of lighting. Where’s the horizon line? What’s lurking, unseen, just outside the edge of the frame? What’s the relationship of fore-, middle- and background, the geometry of lines, shapes and spaces within the frame? Next, Look at your own work. But if you’ve been idle, there’s very little to look at, so you’ll have to go out and make more photographs. What are you waiting for?
Take your camera out for a walk, along the beach, through an island village, a hike into the hills, along a river. See what you see. What makes you stop, raise the camera to your eye, frame a face, a flower, the curve of a beach, and press the shutter? You’ll see if what you saw is a photograph when you get back and look at it. Don’t look now, just keep walking and seeing.
Have fun. Kids nearly always like to have their photos taken. They are eager to be subjects. Show them what you’ve made on the camera screen. They may ask if you
could photograph their grandfather. Follow the kids home. Your camera and your photography have opened a door to an unexpected adventure. You now have the opportunity to make some truly meaningful images of the West Indian island culture. This is what National Geographic photographers do. Photographing the
private lives of an island family has led you to a cultural discovery few ever experience. And now you have a record if it.
Now you have some work to look at in the privacy of your cabin.
The selection process
Back aboard, download the SD card into a file on your hard drive, and begin to look at what you’ve captured.
First, look at the “take” all at once, 50 images at time. Get a sense of what it was you experienced. Select frames that stand out, copy them to a Prime Folder. Keep the original file in time sequence, as you may be back. From the Prime Folder, scroll through individual images to find those that could us some “enhancement.” I use Lightroom for most of my post-production work. I also find the editing options on my iPhone and on my iPad Pro are often more than adequate. I shoot both JPEG and RAW, and the purist may be aghast when I admit that I work mostly with JPEGs. They are easier to deal with and are more than adequate for magazine reproduction and on websites. Photoshop is for serious manipulation that can move the original image from a true photograph to an illustration.
If you spend time looking at and studying your work, it may begin to speak to you. But if you don’t create enough work, there’ll be nothing your work will have to say. Look at your photographs in the sequence you made them. And look at them as if someone else created them. That way, your ego won’t get upset. Look at each frame and ask yourself: what would make this better? What did I do wrong, or right? What could I have done, that I will do next time?
Your work may say, “You idiot! How could you have missed that one? What were you thinking? I know. Your trouble was you were thinking. Stop thinking. Thinking only slows you down. You are too impatient. Why didn’t you wait until that corner there was in shadows? Next time, hold the camera steady. And, here — this frame should be vertical. Why didn’t you shoot it both ways?”
It’s hard to edit our own work. Emotions, ego, the intellect — all get into a turf war and creativity stops. All of us artists have to deal with this internal conflict. Ernst Haas told his students at my summer school in Maine, “You make photographs with your stomach, not your mind. Pressing the shutter button is a visceral response to what you see, experience. There is no time to think, to consider. If you pause to think, you’ve missed the moment.”
A photographer works intuitively, not intellectually. The time for the intellect to come into play is in the editing process. In the field, your intuition is what should be framing the scene, moving you to a better position, pressing the shutter at the moment of a critical gesture.
An artist’s intuition is developed over time, through experience. Once the tools, camera and lenses, are mastered, skills acquired, a vision developed, the photographer has only to respond and the rest of the field process comes naturally, automatically. It’s fun.
So, how do I get to work intuitively? Simple: Work. Go out a make photographs every day. It was hard and expensive when I was learning. Film cost a lot, and there were only 36 exposures on a roll of 35mm film, requiring me to change film constantly. Today, with digital cameras and a re-useable SD card, to press the shutter release costs nothing.
Here are the tools you need to master photography:
- The camera
- The shutter
- The frame
- The light
- The process
- Post production
- Some software
I’ve used 8×10-inch, 4×5-inch view cameras, 6x6mm and 35mm film cameras. I’ve had a string of digital DSLR cameras. I have two GoPros, a mini drone, and my iPhone 7, which I am about to upgrade to an iPhone 12, along with various video cameras. You will need, at some point, a camera that can accept various focal-length lenses. The camera functions can be daunting, so just keep the camera on “P” for program, or “A” for automatic. Those settings will handle most situations. As you advance, you’ll want to understand the other functions, but don’t get bogged down with the options. They can stand in the way of going out and making more photos.
Lenses have characteristics that distort reality, but used creatively can result in a better picture. Telephoto lenses compress reality. Wide-angle lenses expand the fore-, middle- and background relationships. They also distort lines and faces within the frame.
Telephoto lenses have a much-shortened depth of field, great for isolating a subject from the blurred, out-of-focus backgrounds, but they require critical focusing. Wide-angle lenses have a wide depth of field — great when you want most everything in focus.
Learning the artistic capabilities of each focal-length lens will take a few years, but once you have mastered this, it’ll become the way you see.
The shutter, even in digital cameras, slices time up into small frames, some only a one-thousandth of a second — great for sports and action. Or, it can expand time from a few seconds, minutes, to hours — great for time-lapse photography, waves and waterfalls.
The frame includes as well as excludes objects. The frame can isolate a subject from a cluttered background. The edge of a frame is a critical element in every photo. Make sure nothing is sticking into your frame, or sticking out. Clean up the frame.
This is where a photo is made or ruined — the quality of light. Bill Allard, one of the most renowned photographers at the National Geographic, tells his students, “Okay, now that you’ve photographed the sunset, turn around and photograph what
Where do you place the subject and all the other elements within the frame? For me, this is fun. I love playing with compositions. Where is the center of attention? When should I use The Rule of Thirds and when is it a cliché? Nothing in the middle, symmetry, negative space, trapped space, triangles, the horizon line, a diagonal — these and other elements are options to consider in composing a frame.
The photographic process
There is a sequence to how we as photographers work. We think about our work, what we want to photograph next, a sporting event, cityscape, land or seascape, a person, a sequence, a process. We consider what gear we need. The less the better. It forces us to be creative.
Fieldwork is followed by housekeeping, downloading, storing and backing up our fieldwork. Then comes editing, selecting those frames we want to move to the next
stage. In Lightroom or other image-processing software, we make corrections to the horizon, exposure, shadow detail, white balance, color saturation. Out of this work will come a sequence of photos that beg to be together, even if shot over a dozen years.
If you are a serious photographer, you have a portfolio, maybe a dozen. These are collections of images that hang together: landscapes, portraits, sailing shots, Antigua, Grenada, still lives. These portfolios are constantly changing as new images are added and others removed.
How many images in a portfolio? Twenty is a good number, but you can start with five and build from there.
Take a look at my friend Justyna’s portfolios at www.justynakramer.myportfolio.com. Look at her presentations, then look at her individual images. Building a
portfolio is a great tool to help you grow as a photographer. (She’s Chief Mate on The Dove, Larry Tyler’s 54-foot sloop you may have seen: he’s been chartering in the Caribbean for 30 years. Compass ran my story on Justyna’s photography in the May 2021 issue together with a selection of her work.)
How long will it take?
I’ve asked many of today’s most accomplished photographers how many years it took them before they considered they had “arrived.” Ten years, they tell me. I can
believe them. It takes ten years to become a doctor or a lawyer, so, why not a photographer? In watching my students develop I see their progress. They learn the basic tools and work habits in the first four years. It’ll take them a lifetime to master those skills, but over the next six years, they begin to see the world with their own eyes. They begin to develop their own artistic voice.
I can add one more suggestion. Attend a one-week resident workshop. I led and organized hundreds of them when I was the Director at The Maine Photographic
Workshops, now Maine Media, based in Rockport Harbor, Maine. Getting together with a dozen other photographers who are at the same point in their careers and with a leading professional can be magic. It can be life changing. I’ve been talking to Libby Nicholson at Pineapple House, a West Indian cottage hostelry above English Harbour in Antigua, about leading a series of workshops there this coming winter. You’ll hear about it here in Caribbean Compass!
Now, go out and make a whole bunch of new photos.
Leave a Reply