Recently a coworker of mine has been getting back into photography and I’ve spent some time advising him and talking about how I approach photography. When I started breaking down the thought processes and some of the post processing methods I’ve used, I realized it might be worth sharing. In this introspective post, which hopefully turns into a series if enough people find this information valuable, I take one of my photos and explore the thought processes behind it, how I shot the photo “on the field” and what did I do to it afterwards and for what purposes. This is not meant to be a step-by-step guide or a definite best approach to photography: I just try to share my approach to photography which happens to be comfortable for me. It might not work for you at all but at least I hope it will make for some interesting reading and prove that taking good photos is not an entirely random process. Whenever it is irrelevant, I will steer clear from purely technical aspects of photography, especially the gear, since there already is too much technology-wankery going on in the Internet regarding cameras. I also have to elaborate why I think whatever picture I pick is a good photograph and I hope that it is understood that I don’t mean to gloat. That being said, all my views are entirely subjective and it’s cool if you disagree with me on any of the points I present. Photography is hard to judge objectively and in this sense it really isn’t any different from any other forms of art. Which actually might be a pretty valid definition of art, by the way, but let’s not open that can of worms right now. ;)
Since this is first of its kind, I’d love to hear if there’s any feedback regarding the content or presentation of the article! Or if there are any questions that I left unanswered in the text.
For this first issue of Photo Dissection I picked this photo of some elderly people I shot in Shinjuku, Tokyo in 2006 (I shot the photograph, not the people… Just so that we’re clear) mostly for the convenient factor that I used this photo as an example in one of our discussions with the previously mentioned coworker earlier this week. It’s been a while already but I can remember the situation and the process behind this photo pretty clearly:
Of course this is just the final photo I ended up with but there’s a lot of things that you might not realize just by looking at the end result and that process of how I ended up with the final picture is the core of this article. So let’s dive in and see how I ended up with whatever that thing is that I ended up with… is! I love ugly sentences!
On the Field
Here’s the four photos I took on the field in the span of 9 seconds:
What attracted me to take photos of this particular scene was the old man standing still, fiddling around with some papers and a cell phone, and the cool geometric background. BTW, that 9 seconds thing wasn’t my vivid memory talking, it’s from the metadata embedded in the picture files. Anyways, the photos are visibly taken in a hurry, the camera is kinda wobbling around from shot to shot and they are all a bit crooked but I had two elements of composition in mind when shooting the photos that are consistent in all the pictures: the old man on the left hand side and, to counterbalance him in the composition, the vertical wall on the foreground on the right hand side. Composition-wise there is of course a lot more going on in the final picture than just those two elements but I used them as the stationary anchors to pin down an otherwise hectic scene. When there’s a lot of stuff going on and the scene is constantly changing, it’s often good to try to find some very simple elements to hold on to and just shoot as many pictures as you can, only concentrating on those pinpoints and letting the rest of the scene live its life. Afterwards you can see if you get lucky. In this case, I think I got extremely lucky.
Picking the shot
When I later had uploaded the photos on my computer and I was checking out the photos, the third photo jumped immediately at me. I feel I was incredibly lucky with how the people happened to be placed in front of the background. The background is essentially divided into a grid and the people are in every other square. Each of them is under a light fixture on the ceiling. All of the people visible are dressed very much alike, facing the same direction. And the fact that the last person (or actually two people if you look closely!) is almost covered by the wall might sound like a bad thing initially, it actually seems to enhance the picture. To me, the photo almost reads like a series of comic panels. Too bad that the unprocessed photo is pretty uncomfortable to look at somehow. It feels like the photo is under a lot of tension. And it is! Let me explain…
Processing the photo
I love photos that look very geometric and graphical in a sense that there appears to be more order in the way things are laid out than there conceivably should be. Often man made things are very geometric, like the background here is, but when taking a photo of such a scene, the distortion of the lens and perspective do their best to instill some chaos to the photo. Generally, geometric grid-like compositions lead to a very static composition. Diagonal lines indicate a dynamic composition. In the unprocessed version, the uncomfortable combinations of these two factors leads to a composition that feels very restless: the sloppy diagonal lines try to lazily push the composition in motion but the rigid grid lines of the background hold it in place, creating the tense feeling. So the obvious solution to this problem is to fix the sloppiness of the lines and make them adhere more closely to an actual grid laid on top of the image:
Quite a difference, isn’t it? I only rotated the picture a bit to compensate the crooked camera and used Photoshop’s transform tools to mangle the image to get rid of the perspective distortion, just like someone might do on the field with a tilt and shift lens. Now the picture is geometric but much more relaxing to look at. Your eye can wander around the picture without feeling like it is being forcibly pulled to other directions by the crooked lines.
Since I often go for sort of a minimalistic look, I prefer to turn my pictures into black & white if the colors don’t contribute anything meaningful to the photograph. Here I thought they served only to distract the viewer so I made it monochrome. The other adjustments I did were some fairly basic tweaking of the contrast by using curves and levels and I also added a little bit of vignetting to make the composition to be a tiny bit more center oriented and to make the details pop out a bit more in the dark clothes. I think I’ll dig deeper into these aspects of post processing with some other photo of mine. I’m sure I have better examples for these simple techniques. To conclude, here’s the final photo once again:
This photo has slowly become one among my personal favorites. It’s not a spectacular scene or an epic landscape but the way the mundane narration unfolds on front of the comic panel background makes it feel there’s something more profound about the photo than was originally conceived. You could easily draw some parallels to the rhythm of modern life from there if you were to over analyze the photo even a tiny bit. Also the fact that if you only glance over the initially boring looking photo you’ll probably miss most of what’s going on regarding the characters and their placement on the background makes it so much more magical to me. Could it be that I’m the only one who sees the photo this way?