At every show, a handful of people, upon seeing my work, ask me what kind of camera I use. I suspect many of them really mean to ask “Why don’t my pictures turn out like yours?” The simple answer to that question is that there is a lot more to creating a fine art photograph than having a good camera. In fact, a good camera is not necessary at all!
It starts before you even pick up the camera. You first have to learn how the camera works and what creative control you have over it. Must must also learn your particular camera system’s strengths and weaknesses. That is a result of studying. Lots of and lots of studying. And yes, reading and understanding your camera’s manual!
Once you have a good understanding of the technical aspects, you need to learn the artistic aspects such as color coordination, line, contrast, balance, etc. This takes more studying. And when I say studying, it typically involves a combination of reading, watching and practice over several years.
This is the part where I would say you need to go out and spend ten thousand dollars on camera gear, but usually people just want better vacation or family shots. Gear sometimes makes the process easier, but it is usually not the reason why pictures fall flat. So until you know for a fact that you are up against a technical issue which your current gear cannot accomplish, only then should you purchase new gear.
Actually capturing the photograph with the camera requires making very important artistic decisions. Perhaps the most important and often overlooked is “How do I translate what I am feeling into a visual two-dimensional photograph?” There are many answers and they are all important. Where to frame the subject? Is the light right? Do I need to move three inches down and two inches to the right? How is that dark area going to render? Do I want that area in focus? How do I get it in focus? There are hundreds of these questions, many of them are answered subcounciously. But if you watch me work, you’ll often see me just leave the camera in my bag and walk around, often crouching, moving my head around, trying to see if I can line up the elements the way I want, just with my eye. Sometimes I can’t and the camera doesn’t even come out.
Or sometimes the light isn’t right and it’s better to come back later, or earlier. Yes, early. If you are a serious photographer, you might be on the road well before sunrise, particularly if you are creating color photographs. Natural light is outside of our control for the most part. We must adapt to it.
Once I get back home, the creative process is barely half-way complete. Then I move the images onto my computer where I transform the image from something the camera created, into something I created via software editing. There are photographers out there who proudly claim that their photographs are not digitally manipulated. I find that hard to believe for many reasons which I may write about at another time. But let’s assume they are accurate. There is certainly nothing wrong with that, but I want to create the best artwork I can with the tools that I have. And I want it to be my personal style. I make no claims to be representing reality. And I certainly don’t want my camera or my software to make creative decisions for me. It is only through this full control, and the freedom I give myself to use it, that I can create the finest artwork that adheres to my style. I proudly manipulate the image that camera has handed off to me!
Gateway to Manzanar straight from camera.
Gateway to Manzanar final version. Notice the differences in the detail of the sky and mountains, and the overall contrast difference. A lot of work went into these subtle but powerful changes.
For many, that is the last step. Because much of our social interaction now happens electronically, most will not print and curate their photographs. But if you do, that is a challenge all to itself. It takes a lot of work to get the colors and tones that you see on your monitor to match what your printer puts on paper. Heck, it takes a lot of experience just to get to the point where you can recognize that your colors and tones aren’t right! But the final reward is a tangible, high quality, fine art piece that you can hang in your home or office for everyone to see.
I just wanted to touch on some of the most fundamental of things that go into creating a fine art photograph. For the most part, I don’t believe taking unsatisfying photographs is an issue of talent. And it certainly isn’t an issue of what kind of camera you have. It is instead an issue of misunderstanding how much time and work go into creating fantastic, high quality, fine art photographs.