How many times do you walk away from a scene saying ‘I couldn’t see a good picture? The tourist location is generic by definition – everyone standing in the same spot will get the same photograph as you; but this does not mean it cannot become a unique artistic photograph. The key is ‘What you do to the photograph’. We tend to stop short – we expect the camera to do all the work; create the finished image. This is totally unrealistic. It is the ability to ‘create’ pictures not ‘take’ pictures that defines the creative photographer. Being creative is the artistic input that creates a personal photograph which stand out; essential today in a world awash with millions of generic images. The skill of a creative photographer is to gain inspiration from a scene that at first glance, appears uninspiring, but see the creative potential of what it could become. We use the camera as the starting point, only to capture the assets. We create the final image in Photoshop.
The transformation is unique to you, not the location. ‘Seeing a good picture’ is not judging the scene in a literal way, but ‘seeing creatively’; seeing how you can transform the scene. I teach you an artistic photographic workflow of capture then create, that will free you from being a prisoner of making literal and generic images. The camera can only record. You may record the same photograph as everyone else – but you can create a different photograph to everyone else.
However, just because you ‘can’ transform a scene, does not mean every scene can become a great picture – it won’t. Creativity needs an idea first, then technical skill to realize that idea into print form – however, there is an essential third skill; aesthetic skill. Aesthetic skill is understanding, then incorporating aesthetic quality into your photography. Aesthetic skill is ‘artistic language’; proven guidelines evolved and refined over hundreds of years. Aesthetic skill turns ideas into beautifully crafted and refined artistic statements – a bridge between your abstract ideas and the cold mechanics of production; technical skills. Without aesthetic skill, there is no artistic direction; production is unguided, without purpose. The result crude and unsophisticated, having no artistic quality. A soulless photograph degraded to nothing more than a graphic rendition. Aesthetic skill links and guides every step from concept at the camera to print production.
Here lies the biggest problem now with digital photography. Digital cameras make it effortless to get clinically perfect technical images, very sharp and well exposed, giving ‘ready-made’ pictures without needing to think. Digital imaging software made easy with sliders – all this removes the need to understand the aesthetic quality of image making, skill and craftsmanship. Digital photographs worldwide, now have a generic look; as if taken by one photographer. But, how can you make a good picture, if you don’t know – what makes a good picture! You need to transform your photograph and have a set of proven guidelines to help that transformation. Guidelines that incorporate essential aesthetic values into your photography. This is where we can turn to history and the old master painters for guidance. Photography is just the modern continuation of finding new ways for artistic expression.
Why the old master painters? Old master painters are history’s most qualified and best practitioners of aesthetic quality with a wealth of knowledge about how to portray concepts like beauty, harmony, light, mood, drama, atmosphere and spatial depth because they were great observers of the world around them; they create their paintings from scratch, as photographers we don’t. Painters are forced to understand aesthetic quality because it dictates every brush stroke on the pure white canvas. Their paintings contain a wealth of knowledge that we as photographers can learn from. If we understand how Rembrandt communicated light in his paintings – would it not provide invaluable knowledge for how we could portray light in our photographs? Why not learn those same skills and employ the same techniques in our Photoshop retouching as photographers?
Our subconscious is an enormous database of memories and personal experiences built over a lifetime. If we create a photograph that triggers a personal memory or experience then we instantly create a connection with the image and form a bond; captivated as we study it. This connection creates the important emotional response. Photographs must first grab, then captivate our attention; keep us prisoners. Photographs that captivate demand we psychologically walk into and around them providing us with a rewarding personal journey involving our imagination; by searching, exploring and discovering. Often, only offering enough to captivate our attention, but not enough to tell us everything; making us work for the answer by triggering our imagination. Photographs that don’t create an emotional response, simply don’t captivate us. They stop us entering; like hitting a glass door, we can go no further so we leave, giving the image no more than a momentary glance. Without an emotional response we are given no reward, no reason to invest effort in looking further. Images that fail to create an emotional response, fail totally. Emotional response is the primary aesthetic quality we must aim to achieve in order create good photography that appeals and stands out from the crowd.
On a visual, craftsmanship level, the ability to captivate the viewer largely depends on our ability to create an optical illusion of a three-dimensional world in our photographs; something we psychologically accept as an image of reality. Photographs with a three-dimensional quality draw us in to see beyond the literal, printed tones on paper. However, if the craftsmanship is poor, our brain rejects the illusion and we remain outsiders, disconnected. Create the illusion well and we enter a whole new psychological world. Optical illusion is purely the product of technique – if we know first, what qualities are required for creating the illusion. Light communicates the life and soul of the scene, the atmosphere, mood, drama and emotion. Light, form, spatial depth and texture all help create that illusion of reality. However, reliance on technical quality alone, is a common mistake. Technique is only a means to an end. Like a foreign language, the more fluent we are, the better we can express our ideas, but it is only of value if we have something to say.
Would you write a book without an idea? No, it would be a meaningless collection of words, nonsense to read. So, why take a Photograph without an idea! The result is an image that has nothing to say. Worse still, is the modern approach to digital photography; to shoot hundreds of frames from all different angles, then choose the best frame after the shoot. You end up with hundreds of frames – that ‘communicate’ a lack of idea! Volume makes no difference, you are just relying on luck. What makes a good photograph is communicating an idea and a telling a story. The most effective way is to have a ‘one picture, one idea’ rule. This avoids confusing mix messages.
Composition is deciding what content is relevant to communicate your idea, then placing those elements in harmony both with each other and as a complete image so your idea is communicated well. There is no neutral content, everything in the photograph works either for the idea or against the idea. Keep only the most minimal yet relevant content. One object is a fact, two objects make a story; because we want to understand the relationship between the two. Beyond two, creates more complexity to analyze and eventually confusion. The more minimal the content, the clearer and faster the message. Simple and clean compositions, make strong photographs that communicate. A single idea with clarity of thought and simple composition, is most likely to communicate fast and be a successful photograph. My landscape photography workshops, place enormous emphasis on transferring the questions you ask yourself when editing your images after the shoot, to being THE questions to ask yourself – before the shoot; while at the camera and have time to make changes. Without an idea, you will never get the perfect combination of elements. Think first, shoot second. I teach you how to create one great photograph.
Why ‘Landscape Photography Workshops – Yet, I photograph architecture. Photographing architecture contains all the same elements and problems of the landscape, just compacted into a smaller area, making it easier to see and teach how to solve each quality. Creativity requires a fundamental change in your whole approach to photography; from a fragmented ‘shoot then polish’ approach to a far more holistic approach. After running workshops for a few years, I realized what clients were really wanting to learn was not the Photoshop skills, but learn aesthetic skills – aesthetic quality was what was missing in their work – they just couldn’t put their finger on it.
Taking inspiration from the old master painters such as Rembrandt, I teach Photoshop techniques taken from the principles of old master painting. The holistic workflow I teach, factors-in all the essential aesthetic techniques the old master painters used because their techniques work – they are the aesthetic masters. Creating a good photograph is communicating your idea with high aesthetic values and executed with technical perfection. Compose the subject, shoot the light, print the mood; create a personal artistic statement that evokes an emotional response.