One day this past week a couple of my friends and I were looking at the photographs that had been posted on different online forums. I have an extra monitor attached to the laptop I use in my shop so several people can relax in the comfortable chairs I have and view photographs and articles on photography.
There were some very good images on a couple photographers’ pages that showed the mastery and artistry of the photographers. Most pictures one sees posted these days are pretty good. Of course it’s hard to know the skill level of photographers when most of the process might be left up to the camera’s program. We talked about the images and were very critical of those that we thought had nothing to say.
As I began to write this article I remembered another I wrote some time ago and searched my blog posts to find it. In April of 2012 I used a quote attributed to photographer Robert Capa. (In 1938 Capa was referred to as the greatest war photographer in the world.) Capa said, “ If your photographs aren’t good enough, it’s probably because you aren’t close enough”.
One might think he meant that we should be using a long lens or maybe doing close-up macro type photography. However, that isn’t my interpretation. In my opinion it really means is that a photograph should be about something specific and the photographer should hone the image so that only the subject, to the greatest degree possible, is what the photograph is about and all those elements that are left in the composition should relate to that subject.
Why leave things in a photograph that don’t visually discuss it?
When I was just a young photographer I always questioned photographers who I felt were successful at their craft, and I was given the following advice by a retired photojournalist. (I wish I could remember his name, but the 1970s are a long time ago) He talked about pre-visualizing a photograph, and composing it with all the elements in the scene, and then stepping closer to “tighten up” (his words) the image.
His advice was from a time period when very few photographers were using multifocal or “zoom” lenses. Quality glass and sharp images depended on fixed focal length lenses, referred to as “prime” lenses in modern jargon.
I’m not going to get into a discussion of prime versus zoom lenses. Some people enjoy arguing about equipment, and they pull out charts and make lots of test shots to prove their point of view. Personally, when I select a lens it’s because I think it will help me do the best job for the subject at hand.
Whether one is using a prime or zoom lens let’s refer again to Capa’s quote, “ If your photographs aren’t good enough, it’s probably because you aren’t close enough”.
Getting closer changes the perspective and builds a relationship between the foreground and background. With a wide-angle lens features in the foreground become more important, and with a telephoto they become less important, for example, in a scenic taken with a 300mm lens things in the photograph “flatten” and appear to have equal importance.
My advice to photographers that want to make their images more interesting is to examine the many features in their composition. Start with the center of interest, or main subject, decide what in that composition relates to that centre of interest, and step closer or “zoom in the focal length” to remove areas and features that have no relationship to, or interfere with whatever you want your viewer to concentrate on.
After marveling at Michelangelo’s statue of Goliath-vanquishing David, the Pope asked the sculptor, “How do you know what to cut away? Michelangelo’s reply was: “It’s simple. I just remove everything that doesn’t look like David.”
I’m not sure if that is a true conversation that actually occurred, but photographers can ask themselves, “Do I really need to include that stuff?” Then they should strive to position themselves closer (or “zoom” the lenses closer) to the subject, and only include those things that relate to the subject of the composition, as well as pre-visualize what they want to see in their final photograph.