Monday, July 02, 2007

Wildlife photo secrets(5): Which one's are the keepers?

Red weaver ants eat a dead Giant African land snail
Disclaimer: This is going to be my most ambitious post ever. Please disagree with me and tell me how you do it, we will all be the richer for it.
Can't get no satisfaction

So you know how to take photographs? You know about aperture and you know about shutter speed, and you got exposure down pat and you can even light up things perfectly. You got the best gear, your money can buy. You can take pleasant, well lit, aesthetic pictures. But you still can't get no...satisfaction.
You look at your shots and they seem an incoherent mess. Then you look at someone else's, and they seem so... together and each of their shots seem so ...good! What's going on?

Everyone, at least every human hits this plateau. You learn like crazy in the beginning and the curve is steep and then it peters out. You plateau out, and then flounder because you don't know which way is up. You look at shots that once made you the proudest photographer in the world and they aren't enough anymore. How do you get better? As Mike Johnston put it, that is the crucial sentence. You need to want this first, everything else follows. If you don't ask it you're a non-starter.

Recently hatched spiders parachute off their natal leaf
What does this have to do with keepers, or basically good photo-editing? Everything. Get this, shooting great pictures is only the first step. Knowing the good ones from the bad is the second. To become a better photographer, you must know good photography.

Step 1: Intention
Here comes the contentious part. What is good photography? The way I see it, is it all comes down to, what is the intention
behind the photography, whether it is a useful / interesting / whathaveyou intention, and whether it is achieved. The second and the third as you can obviously see are extremely subjective. Whether something is worth it or not and whether it achieve what you want is debatable. Having an intention at all is not subjective...(or is it? Humans are known to make up post hoc for why they did something even when they could not have had any reason to do so.)

So then one of the first steps is to have an intention, an intended goal, preferably before you shoot. Less desirable would be to generate it for a certain specific project when editing through your archive for it. What is the story / narrative / emotion / feeling / thought that you want your photograph(s) to convey? What is it's purpose? Why is it in your keep section? Many people fail right at this step. They don't have one.

A Zitting cisticola zits

To me all the other things, light, aesthetics, composition, colour, sharpness, bokeh, everything is eventually subservient to this goal. If they don't serve it, they detract. Never make these your ends, you'll will have beautiful, sharp, etc photographs not good ones. Because good asks good for what?

Step 2: Is it worth it?
Off course, cueing from the previous section, cleverly you are going to ask for whom? Here is where your audience comes in.
Who is this image intended for and are they/he/she/it going to think it's worth it. It's subjective, but it's better focused. There are no rules for who the audience is (it can even be just you). But once you have picked one, you've got to play by their rules. Or know them, at least, and break them effectively and to some effect.

You cannot (usually) show an orthodox family audience something like Mapplethorpe's revolutionary presentation of human sexuality and expect them to be pleased about being shaken from their conventions . And you can't show art critics your family shots and expect kudos for originality. There are certain situations (and intentions) in which these statements break down, but presumably you get the drift. Worth it, is worth it for whom?

Step 3: Is it good enough?
Can I do better at telling this story? Is there actually a better story to tell that I have learnt about as I made the images for this story? Does this image effectively pull up the response that I want from my intended audience? If not how can I better it? What would be more effective? In a word, iteration.

A bat pollinated bloom of the African sausage tree

And the willingness to drop the not so good ones. Remember your first may be but usually won't be, your best. As I've said before, there is no simpler non-secret to getting better shots than to keep trying. Judge as objectively as you can, when that begins to fail you, find a sounding board use it. Look at other pictures, learn to discriminate between/judge them. Learn what makes one bird / landscape / insect / whathaveyou photograph better than another, for a goal and an audience. then apply what you learn there to your own. Start over.

And that's how I hope to get better...How do you do it?

Others in this series: Wildlife secrets parts 1, 2, 3 and 4.


Anonymous said...


I agree with you a lot.I use to say, it's not so much about the equipment, it's how you know it and use it. I also compose my pictures directly in the display/viewfinder and never touch/edit the composition afterwards.

Some people shoot "perfect" pictures in the technical aspect but miss the feeling.

When I tell people that all my pictures in my moblog (not the gallery) are taken with a three year old cell phone they sometimes don't believe me.

Nice reading!


Techuser said...

Lot of people think that if they have a better camera they will make better shots haha
for me its (almost) all in composition, i think you only gets better with time/experience and knowing what was wrong in the previous shot

Natasha Mhatre said...

hey techuser and J, thanks for the comments.

yeah, but how do you know what is wrong...or what is the right composition? Is it just a feel thing? Does it feel right to you, then it must be right? Does it look good, then is it right....thats just the hardest part? How does one ever know a shot is just right or wrong?

perhaps j caught it a bit better when he talked abt feeling...

:) tu saw some of your photos, good stuff!

Techuser said...

The right composition is the one that you liked yourself, this way you define your own style
but technically if i cant tell what is wrong i need people to critiquize, looks this one for instance:
i think it would be much better if the fly was framed a bit higher, so in next fly shots i will pay more atention to the legs in the framing :)

Anonymous said...

Lighting and composition are everything, even more than the subject itself. But what is composition? For me it's the same as narrative flow in written works. In this case, the mind (eye) needs to be able to follow a "story" within the picture, as though the single shot is actually a part of a moving reflection on the world. There are rules, like the rule of thirds, but we know these naturally, so we need only to give ourselves to these moments and pass them on.

jet said...

Awesome work Natasha.. just saw some of your work on flicker, the Wasp and the dragonfly (bokeh) shot were awesome!

Natasha Mhatre said...

Thanks Jet