Musings on Photography

Working the subject, part II

Posted in process by Paul Butzi on March 3, 2008

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More thoughts from others on the entire ‘Working the Subject” theme, from Paul Lester, and Paul Maxim. Both Pauls have interesting things to add to the mix, and I encourage folks to read what they wrote. I’d also encourage a little participation from those poor souls in the photography world who don’t have the extraordinary good fortune to have ‘Paul’ as their given name.
It seems that everyone has their own special way of focusing attention, and it seems likely that no two photographers are doing it the same way. Isn’t that grand?

What I find most intriguing is the extent to which I find myself in wholehearted agreement with the other Pauls, and at the same time find that in the details, we’re all about as divergent as it’s possible to be.

Paul Maxim writes, for instance:

Paul Butzi had an interesting response on his blog. His opinion, in fact, is fairly close to my own, and goes something like this: “Working a scene” has more to do with time than it does with space. If you’re drawn to a scene, then the “correct” angle or position is often fairly obvious. Not always, but most of the time. If you listen to your gut, you’ll know where the camera should be positioned. If you need to take 20 or more pictures of the same thing to find the “good” one, then perhaps you should look for another subject. This one ain’t it.

What’s amazing here is that although Paul clearly finds that returning to a scene again and again is a good method for him, his process is pretty different from mine when he gets to the scene.

I’ve never felt like I was any good at all at knowing what the ‘correct’ position is. I do a lot of wandering around, a lot of looking at things. As I’ve gotten more experienced, I’ve gotten faster at this wandering around in befuddlement thing, but it still happens. And I rarely know if I’m doing the right thing when I’m doing it. I don’t worry about it; I just leave all that for later. Time is short. Film is cheap, bits are free, and I figure when in doubt, make the exposure and move on to the next one.

More importantly for me, it turns out the angle I picked last time I visited a spot has little to do with the angle I pick the next time. There’s little serial correlation. I don’t hit the same tripod holes over and over again. I just return to the same spot, where spot is fairly loosely defined, and something in that spot captures my attention. One day it will be the shadows on the field; the next day it will be little clusters of leaves on the underbrush, and the day after that it will be the mirror-like surface of a puddle.

Each return visit I learn something new about that spot. It’s not clear to me why learning little details about a spot matters, either in terms of photographs in the future or in the broader sense. But in the end, it does seem to matter, both ways.

There are at least as many motivations to make photographs as there are photographers (and probably many more). That means that there are at least as many good working methods, and the odds are good that just adopting someone else’s methods won’t be very productive for anyone. But it is interesting to read how other people work, and think about changes I might make.

3 Responses

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  1. Paul said, on March 3, 2008 at 11:59 am

    Bravo! Well stated, Paul.

    I rarely take my ‘thinking cap’ with me. I find that it gets in the way. I just feel my way through it and my approach varies greatly … but it’s not something that I worry about because, in the end, it’s about getting the picture that I want.

    Lots of times I come home without that certain picture, whatever it is. I’ll know it when I see it, but that’s what keeps me coming back and trying new things or the same old things, different ways.

  2. Paul Maxim said, on March 4, 2008 at 6:53 am

    It seems that the “Paul’s” of the world have a monopoly on this conversation. Just coincidence, or did our parents know when we were born that the name “Paul” was synonymous with “great talent”?

    Just kidding.

    On a slightly more serious note, one of my favorite movies is National Lampoon’s “Christmas Vacation”. My wife hates it, but I have to watch it every December. It’s become a ritual. Anyway, there’s a scene near the beginning where the entire family is out looking for the perfect Christmas tree. As frostbite begins to overtake some of them, Clark spots the tree that is “the one”. How does he know? Well, he knows because the tree is bathed in celestial light (that apparently only he can see).

    Now, I don’t claim to be able to see images in that kind of light, but for some reason, the correct camera angle (for me) is more or less intuitively obvious. I will walk around and examine other angles, but 9 times out of 10, I’ll come back to the view that initially caught my attention. On that day, in that location, in that light, there’s only one possible viewpoint. Tomorrow, it might be someplace else.

    Having said that, I completely agree with both of you. Everyone works differently, and that’s exactly how it should be. There’s no such thing as an ideal method, just as there are no hard and fast rules of composition, or anything else, for that matter. And as you both imply, “thinking” about it isn’t always a great idea. You let the non-thinking part of the brain take over and let the chips fall where they may (no pun intended, even though I live in Las Vegas!).

  3. My Camera World said, on March 4, 2008 at 6:54 am

    I find my own approach to capturing images varies quite a bit.

    When I am on a walk about, just love that phrase, I tend to arrive at a what I think is a good spot to capture some interesting feature at least for my taste and I will compose the image. More often than not I will move around and maybe take 3-4 more pictures if I think there are better angles to either simplify the image or place the subject in juxtaposition with a unique background element to create more of a story.

    For all the final images I plan to print the image capture is the first part to crating my canvas. I will and do spend a significant amount of effort on some to drastically alter, remove add new element to create the final product. That is why several captures permits me later to review and determine which has the best potential for that final image whether real or not.

    I started of painting and photography, with the use of image editing software allows me to continue with that type of creativity. I don’t try and create painting effects as I still wan the image to look real.

    There are places that I return to regularly which tend to be more landscape type and I find that the weather, season and time of day can completely alter the feeling of the scene. The only extra shots are either to bracket exposure or overlapping images to create a large print.

    When I do macro work it seems that every time is a new discovery and I spend a lot of time probing around the subject.

    Niels Henriksen


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