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Three Considerations That Change the Way We Shoot Photographs

Besides focus, exposure, and composition, there are three other interlinking elements that we need to consider when taking photos. Sometimes, we overlook one of these, concentrating, maybe too much, on the other two.

The Power of Three

Have you noticed how so many things in photography come in threes: aperture, shutter, and ISO for exposure; weight, stability, and price, the compromises for choosing tripods; aperture, subject proximity, and focal length when we look at depth of field? We often divide our compositions into thirds, three objects in a frame can make an image compelling, and we sometimes display our images as triptychs.

However, there is another trio that we often consider subconsciously but would do well to pay more attention to: the subject, the audience, and the photographer.

They can vary in importance, depending upon the purpose of the photograph. Can being aware of each of these priorities help improve our photography? I believe it can.

The Subject

In any art form, be it music, painting, dance, sculpture, or photography, we are creating representations of reality. We, therefore, have a responsibility to do that with consideration for the subject. If we ignore that, we do so at our peril.

For example, if you photograph a model, then they will expect that your photograph will cohere with their public image. They have a reputation that they may well have spent a lot of time and money building, and they want you to uphold that. A badly composed shot with unflattering lighting, uncomfortable poses, or unattractive facial expressions won’t leave that model, or others they talk with, wanting to collaborate with you again.

A story construed by this image could be the person in the mid-ground meeting the figure in the background, who seems to be waiting for him. But maybe that wasn't what was happening at all.

Those considerations go further than studio photography. If we are shooting street photography, we must be mindful of what the people in the photo are doing. A photograph is a fleeting moment that doesn’t tell a whole story, it can be misinterpreted. You might capture your subject accidentally dropping litter but miss them picking it up again. Perhaps they may be asking a police officer for directions, but your photo could be misunderstood as them being arrested. A friendly smile between strangers or a hug by friends might be misconstrued as something more intimate.

Newspapers, of course, take advantage and abuse this. Shortly before the last General Election here in the UK, one news media outlet was exposed for doctoring photos of a politician supposedly being disrespectful at an Armistice Remembrance service. The uncropped images told a very different story from what had happened. This mistreatment of the subject is nothing new, and it happens anywhere on the political spectrum. In 2005, a photo of Condoleezza Rice was doctored to make her eyes look evil.

That consideration of the subject doesn’t stop with people. Photographers know that their images can help raise awareness of the subject; delicate landscapes are usually shot to appear beautifully attractive, minuscule creatures are enlarged to show off their amazing features, and bird photography reveals remarkable behaviors. However, we don’t always shoot images to show the subject positively. Photographs of murderers and rapists are rarely flattering. Landscapes ruined by human destruction and the horrors of war are usually shot to emphasize their ugliness.

Not every photograph reflects the beauty of the world, and highlighting ugliness can have an impact.

The Photographer

I always tell my workshop clients that if they like the photograph they have shot, that is all that matters. If someone else likes it, well, then that’s a bonus.

Photography is art. So, putting commercial photography aside, we are fulfilling our personal creative needs. It’s a joyous, frustrating, and never-ending process of improving. But, when we are concentrating on getting the shot, it’s a mindful process where we enter a state of “flow” and exclude all thoughts other than capturing the image. That’s one of the reasons why photography is so good for improving mental health: it distracts us from negative thoughts.

There are images I shoot that I know won’t have a wide appeal, and that doesn’t bother me. I take them purely for my own creative needs. Yet, I am constantly frustrated by my results, knowing I can do better. Perhaps then, I should say that if I like it, it is a bonus.

Taken some years ago, this image was shot solely for my own gratification. Although pleased with the result, I know it will not be everyone's cup of tea.

Good photographic artists develop their style. However, that style will evolve and change over time. Discovering that style is one of the biggest challenges photographers face. We should regularly consider what, who, or how we are photographing, and whether it coheres with the rest of our body of work. If we are going to move away from our usual approach, then we must contemplate how we do that. For example, if you shoot exclusively in color but want to try black and white, then doing that as a standalone project would probably work much better than throwing an occasional monochrome shot into your portfolio. Similarly, if your subjects are always beautifully wrinkled, craggy-faced old folk, then you would need to work out the best way for you to diversify into photographing babies.

The Audience

This is the factor we have the least control over. All creators know that those who look at our work are a mixed bag. It doesn’t matter whether it is composing music, writing articles like this, painting pictures, or shooting photographs, there will be those who like our work and those who don’t. Most problematic are those critics who don’t understand what the work is about because they don’t have the mental capacity. Of course, some cantankerous misanthropes will object to anything you create because it is their sad nature.

Additionally, the meaning that an intelligent viewer attributes to a photograph or any creative work may not be the same as the artist intended, and that’s a good thing.

Audience watching dancers.

Like others who earn a living from photography, I shoot images aimed at specific audiences, usually those who commission me. The needs of one client will be quite different from those of another, even when shooting similar subjects. Consequently, I need to adapt my style to fit that client.

Then, there are those images I produce solely to attract clients to my workshops and courses. I take photos to make them say, “I want to learn to shoot images like that.”

But the audience is much wider than my potential clients. I display my photos in different ways and on different platforms so others can enjoy and interact with them. That is what most non-professional photographers do. It's not about earning money; it's about sharing art with an audience, hoping they will get satisfaction or enjoyment from that.

I also photograph for myself. I am my audience. However, I know that those I shoot for my gratification are not going to have a wider appeal. If I publish them, then fewer people will appreciate the meaning behind those images. For the same reason that low-brow TV programs get the highest viewing figures, photos that don't say much more than “this is pretty,” get more interactions than those that need greater thought and analysis.

Who do you shoot for? Are you fulfilling your own creative need, winning over an audience, or trying to help your subject in some way? Have you had critics who missed the point of your photos? It would be interesting to hear about those and the reasons why you pick up your camera.

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12 Comments

kellymckeon's picture

Good article Ivor. My approach, the work creates the market, don't allow the market to dictate the work. When photographing, you need to shut out the noise and stop questioning yourself on how others will perceive your composition. You need to work intuitively. Allowing your brain to ramble will hold you back from your true work.

In regard to image context. Beyond the frame lines, the balance of the story unfolds. Richard Avedon said it clearly, all photographs are accurate, none of them are the truth.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thanks, Kelly. That's a great quote.

Justin Sharp's picture

I strongly recommend the book, "Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking," by David Bayles and Ted Orland. it should be required reading for all who aspire to make art. It provides some of the most insightful writing on the role of the art maker and that of the audience as well as many other topics for artists. I reread it at least once a year if not more.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thanks for the recommendation, Justin. I'll look for that and add it to my library.

kellymckeon's picture

I have that book. Yes. Great reading.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Just ordered it!

Jan Holler's picture

Ivor, interesting article! The triangular relationship of three equals. Without it, none of the three gets attention. One could perhaps add something about the relationship between subject and photographer: The subject is then also part of the audience. And if the photographer has succeeded in portraying the person(s) in a way that pleases him or her or them, then trust will also grow in future cooperation, which eventually leads to better work.
To answer your question, I can make it short, I have more or less the same motivations. The big difference is: you are a professional and make a living from photography, I have a different profession and only photograph occasionally for income.
For me, photography is mainly a very pleasant balance. I am impressed that you, as a professional, also see it that way. I keep away from my job more and more in my free time (and take photos). Cheers! -jan

Ivor Rackham's picture

Hi Jan, thanks for the super comment, as always. Although I am a professional photographer and make my living from that, I wouldn't do that unless it brought me joy. I get the impression that there are some photographers who have lost touch with that aspect of photography.

Tom Reichner's picture

I think I have always been rather intentional about these three aspects of photography.

When I see an animal that I want to photograph, I look over the animal closely to see what makes it unique - what is a little different about it from others of it's kind.

Each animal has poses and angles that are flattering, and poses and angles that aren't as flattering, just like individual people have. I am not going to photograph one buck deer the same way I would photograph another buck deer, even if they are in the same place at the same time in the same light. Each buck will have his own unique physical features and personality, and I need to assess those qualities of each buck I encounter, so that I can figure out what it is about each buck that I want to showcase in the photos that I take. The same goes for a Woodpecker, a Cottontail Rabbit, an Owl, Squirrel, Warbler, etc.

I am never just photographing "a rabbit". Rather, I am photographing this one particular individual rabbit that is in front of me. He/she is different than other rabbits of the same species, and therefore should be photographed differently.

As far as the photographer - me - is concerned, I take that into account, as well. I am well aware of all of the photos in my body of work. I know what I have. And I know what I don't have. I know what types of photos jive with the overall look and feel of the photos I already have. And I know what kinds of photos I need to round out my body of work, and to fill the holes that are in it.

I have a lot of portraits of American Pika. But I don't have nearly as many behavioral images as I would like to have of this species. And I don't have anywhere near as many environmental portraits as I would like to have. Hence, when I hike up into the talus slopes where these critters live, I am consciously looking for opportunities to capture them in action. I am also on the lookout for opportunities to capture them in a way that not only shows the Pika, but also shows the beautiful Alpine terrain in which to they live.

I have a few different audiences that I consider when I am photographing.

The first audience I consider is ... me! I primarily shoot to please myself, and to create what I am inspired to create. That always comes first.

Another audience I consider is my peers - other wildlife photographers who I know personally. People who are as passionate about wildlife photography as I am. People who share information about wildlife with me, and I with them. Some of the photos I take are taken specifically so that I can show them what a particular opportunity is like at a given venue for a given species. A picture is worth a thousand words, right?!

I also need to consider those people and agencies that would license my work, so that I can continue to earn an income from it. This means that after I have taken the kinds of photos that I most enjoy, if the animal is still cooperative I will compose images in a way that work best for publishers and advertisers. This could mean shooting some vertically oriented images for use on covers or for single full page use. Or it could mean shooting a wider area of the scene, so that there is a generous amount of negative space for the publisher to use for text and/or insets or sidebars.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thanks for that detailed reply, Tom. It's great to hear that experienced photographers agree with this approach.

That's an interesting and good point about shooting for your wildlife photography peers.

As wildlife photography is a very specialist field and requires a great deal of time and commitment to do it well, I have great respect for the wildlife photographers I know who study the creatures' behaviors and consequently know how to get great shots. They also do a great deal to raise awareness of conservation issues. I think it is the one genre that has come further than any other since the digitization of photography, would you agree?

Tom Reichner's picture

Ivor asked (concerning wildlife photography),

"I think it is the one genre that has come further than any other since the digitization of photography, would you agree?"

Yes, Ivor, I agree wholeheartedly.

There are two ways in which wildlife photography has greatly advanced since the mainstream digitation of photography: the photos themselves, and the amount of information available to wildlife photographers about the animals themselves and where we can find them

Most of the wild animals that we photograph are most active, and most readily found and approached, in low light conditions such as dawn and dusk.

Many of us want to capture wildlife photos that are intricately detailed, with each hair and/or feather clearly and distinctly rendered. And we want to capture the animals in action - running or flying or engaging in some unique behavior.

So, if you want a gorgeous shot of a running deer that shows the hair detail very sharply and distinctly, and you want to be able to take such a photo well after sunset, when the woods are already quite dark, and you want it to make for a perfectly detailed large print, say 48 inches by 32 inches, with no noise and nothing soft, you can do it now with today's latest gear. No way you could ever do it with film.

I know that the example I just gave is quite extreme, but I did that to show just how far we've come in the image quality department over the past 20 years.

We may have advanced even further when it comes to information about the species we are planning to photograph.

After years of specializing in certain mammal and bird species, I recently began to expand my photographic interests to include "herps" ... a.k.a. reptiles and amphibians.

I am amazed by how much I have been able to learn about snakes, lizards, salamanders, frogs, turtles, and toads in just a year or two. This has only been possible because I quite literally carry a whole world's worth of information around in my pants pocket. On a whim I can find the world's leading expert on any given species, and send him or her an email full of questions about that species. And more often than not, within a day or three, I get an email response, or a phone call, with very lengthy, highly detailed answers to all of my questions about that species.

Also, via social media, I can instantly find hundreds of quality photos of any species that I enter into the search bar. And then I can send personal messages to each of the photographers who took those photos, and ask them all about their experiences with that species, and where they would recommend that I go to find the species for myself.

None of this kind of super-productive research was ever available before we had such constant access to the internet. Even if we could find the information we were looking for about a species, we could never do so anywhere near as efficiently as we can now. The amount of information we can discover and learn in just one hour of research is staggering. Now to think of how much we can learn when we spend 3 or 4 days on the internet learning all we can about one kind of animal!

Ivor Rackham's picture

Super comment! Absolutely spot on.