I am certain that a detailed survey of every reader of this article would demonstrate very clearly one main thing: we are all unique. We may share many things in common with each other—race, nationality, ethnicity, profession, interests or temperament, to name a few—but the special mix of your personality and everything that has ever happened in your life combines to make you absolutely unique on this planet. Nobody does being you better than you!
I don’t know about you, but I find that quite satisfying! I’m the best in the world at being Alister Benn (smug face!).
In this article it is my goal to highlight the importance of expression and individuality in contemporary photography.
If you stood five world-class photographers along the edge of the Grand Canyon and they all made a photograph, you would have five very different photographs. Each of them may be equally expressive, equally stunning, but they will all look and feel different.
That difference between the images will be a few minor technical changes, but vastly more creative and expressive differences employed by each of the photographers.
In this article I aim to show how various techniques can be used to deliver creatively different images and open the door to your individual expressive output.
Reality Check #1
There is no fast track to creativity. Nobody is born brilliant and everyone who produces incredible work puts in a lot of time honing their art and craft.
In photography, as with life, you get out what you put in—if you work methodically. Rarely will frenzied, unfocused activity result in superb work. I have always been an advocate of taking creative control of your images. That way you stand a far greater chance of finishing with something that is in line with your vision and articulate as an expressive image.
The Creative Summary
There are a number of disciplines that all go on simultaneously, but for ease of learning are split into separate elements to save the brain from melting!
In the simplest terms, what we do when we have a camera in our hands is this:
Compose | Expose | Focus | Process
Modern cameras are capable of taking care of three of those disciplines, leaving many people to view the art of creativity as composition alone. We’ve all heard, “I have a good eye!”
Can contemporary photography be reduced to the choice of what to shoot and how to arrange the elements within the frame? That’s a rhetorical one, so I’ll leave you to ponder it!
Of course, I wouldn’t be writing this article if I didn’t believe things were a little more involved than that, and for the rest of this article will work with this more elaborate model:
Creative Vision | Visual Design | Technical & Creative Capture | Expressive Processing
The first key distinction here is we have introduced two words, creativity and expression.
Let’s be honest here. If you want to communicate only the following messages…
- I was here.
- The place looked like this.
- The weather was like this.
- I was with these people.
…surely they communicate well with friends and family, but if you want to reach beyond that to people you don’t know around the world, then you should aim to articulate on a more meaningful level. Ansel Adams always said there are two people in every photograph: the photographer and the viewer.
We have to remember that. The viewer has none of our sensory perception that was working on overdrive while we were making the photograph. Touch, taste, sound, moods, emotions, feelings, hormones! Our experience of the world is intense and complete; we are being bombarded by signals every second we are alive. When viewers look at our photographs, all they have are two dimensions of luminosity and tone/color. If we have any chance of instilling even a few percent of what we experienced then we need to load the image with plenty of triggers and emotions.
This is our INTENTION.
Reality Check #2
You have to be honest with yourself as to why you are out there with a camera in your hand. If you can answer some questions openly and honestly you are on the right path to finding your own style and expression.
- What is it about this scene in front of you that makes you want to make a photograph? The more complex the answer, potentially the more powerful the image.
- What is the overall mood of this experience? Is it happy, overwhelming, sad, melancholy, uplifting, or oppressive?
- If you had to explain this experience to someone over the phone in 10 seconds, where would you start and what would you want to say?
The final question here is absolutely critical, because it teaches us to be concise. First impressions are very important and as viewers online are seeing literally thousands of images every single day. You need to get your message across pretty fast.
In the Field
Photography has two phases: times when you are on location with a camera in your hand and times when you are at home in front of the computer. They are different, but linked, and we have to transcend the barriers to creativity that is evident in that separation. You do not feel the same sat in a warm room with a cup of coffee as you did standing in the surf at the beach.
For years, I have called in the field time harvesting light. I am out there and my objective is to find something interesting to shoot, work out how to strip it down to the most simple and logical scenario I can find, layer on some creative capture in terms of shutter speed or focus, and then make the best possible exposure to maximize the data in my camera that I can, either with a single exposure if possible, or with multiple exposures if that is necessary.
As soon as you move your tripod from one composition, your opportunities to harvest light for that image have ended—the moment has passed.
Reality Check #3
None of us lives in a creative vacuum; we are constantly influenced by the images of other photographers. This article is illustrated with my work—like it or not, you have still registered it and will see things a little different the next time you are in the field.
My own personal way of seeing how this can work as a pro rather than a con is to consider all work as inspiration. By all work I mean all photographs (regardless of style or genre), paintings, and music—any art form that is designed to stimulate an emotional response. They all share fundamental similarities in the way they are designed to manipulate the viewer or the listener.
If you feel manipulate is too sinister, let’s try guide instead!
Let us close off this part by looking at ways in which we can be more proactive in the field to return home with not only good exposures, but raw files that have more potential to be expressive and articulate images.
- We are all unique; we all see the world in a slightly different way.
- When you spot something to photograph, ask questions to find out what it is about the scene that inspires you to make a photograph.
- Determine the mood.
- Identify the #1 subject in the scene (mountain, tree, lake, river, waterfall, etc.). Do you want it to be dominant? If not, it is no longer the #1, it becomes a contextual anchor.
- Identify secondary subjects, #2, #3, etc. How do they relate visually to the #1?
- If shooting icons, look for incongruities, twists and fresh angles.
- Shutter speed is the biggest influencer of mood in photography.
- Shutter Speed = Creative Capture*—use it.
- Do not be afraid of taking creative risks. Try new things. Break rules.
- Shoot to please yourself, not others.
* Fast shutter speeds that freeze motion tend to create images with more energy and tension in them. Longer shutter speeds that blur movement are calmer but can also enhance flow through the frame.
The above list of 10 points has taken me over 10 years to come to terms with. The whole thing seems so simple, but once we stop copying other people’s compositions, finding fresh and stimulating ways of expressing ourselves can be difficult.
Every file needs processing. If you shoot jpegs and use in-camera presets, the camera is processing the image for you. How does the camera know how you want to express a scene? It doesn’t!
Just as Ansel Adams did with his masterful prints of the American West, today we have the ability to process our images to accurately articulate what we want to say about our subjects. Expressive processing is not new, the tools have just changed and the time in which we can effect these changes has reduced exponentially.
Everything in photography is progressive and you can learn and improve as you go along. Nobody expects you to get it perfect the first time you try. Play around with sliders and see what the different looks feel like. One thing comes back time and again though—you get out what you put in.
Reality Check #4
You have probably invested a fair amount of money on your camera, lenses, tripods, computer, and travel to go and make your images. Now you need to invest the time in your creative development.
Setting the Scene – Global Adjustments
When you strip it down, working images in Lightroom or whatever interface you prefer, is a question of mainly making adjustments to a very few things.
Color | Contrast | Brightness
I start by setting the overall mood of the image and there are two sliders that control it more than any others.
Temperature | Exposure
In Lightroom I call these the mood sliders.
Look at these examples with this RAW File:
This is the same raw file converted in just two different ways, and each of the images tells a very different story. Which one you prefer is not for me to say, and in reality, you would only see one of these versions, the one that best conveyed the mood I wanted to infer. This simple, yet powerful tool is fundamental to expressive processing.
The next most powerful indicator of mood in an image is contrast and it can be split into various types.
Global | Local | Detail & Texture
The lower the contrast, the less impact the image has, and it tends to be calmer.
Higher contrast equals higher impact and more powerful.
Staying with the same RAW File you can again see how quickly we can produce an image totally different in impact and appearance.
You could give this raw file to 10,000 photographers and let them work it in Lightroom and you would get 10,000 different images at the end. Some better than others, no doubt, but certainly some showing ways I would never have dreamed of.
In this final version I literally spent just a couple of minutes making some very simple adjustments. A recurrent theme in my images is an overly dark feel with a hint of optimism!
Processing is about finding the right Exposure, Temperature, Global, Local and Texture Contrasts to guide your viewer in the direction you want to take them. Advanced techniques of Dodging and Burning are used to enhance visual flow through the frame and further guide the viewer where you want them in the image.
About the Author:
Alister Benn is a full-time professional landscape photographer, author and guide. He lives on the remote northwest coast of Scotland with his wife Juanli Sun. Each year they lead small group tours of Iceland, Scotland, and Tibet.
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