At the end of each year do you find yourself with thousands of photos and wonder what to do with them all? Or wondering if you should even keep them? This is a lament that I often hear in my photography workshops and have experienced the same problem myself. Sometimes, this is a result of being too quick to click. You see something that excites you photographically and proceed to snap away, hoping that you’ll cover all the bases and that at least one shot will be a keeper. Sometimes this works and you do get one that you like, but often you find yourself disappointed because there isn’t even one that truly reflects your experience.
But what if you could take a different approach to your photography? One where you make fewer and also perhaps better photos? I’ve found that the simple practice of pausing before clicking the shutter can make a huge difference in the quantity and quality of your photographic output and enjoyment. Let’s break it down.
Pausing is the practice of checking in with oneself. When something stops you and you want to make a photograph, take a moment to notice what’s happening and ask yourself a few questions.
- What do I see, smell, and hear?
- What stopped me?
- Was it a color, shape, or texture?
- What am I feeling? What do I like about it and why?
- Does it mirror something going on in my life at this moment?
If this sounds like navel-gazing to you, believe me, it’s not. Many photographers over the years have said that a photograph says something about the creator. Your choice of subject matter reveals a lot about you. By becoming more aware of why you photograph what you do, you will gradually uncover your photographic vision.
If you take the time to ask yourself these questions, you will become clear on what’s drawing you personally to that subject. In the photograph above, of a reflection on a car, it was the three-color harmony and the sweeping, curving lines that drew me in. It’s vibrant and airy and makes me feel like dancing.
The clearer you are on why the more clear your photographic message will be to the viewer. You get to the heart or essence of what’s there and your photograph will have a greater impact, and you’ll learn about yourself in the process.
Now that you’ve clarified what stopped you in the first place – the concept or message you want to convey – it’s time to focus your attention and look closer. The contemplative monk, Thomas Merton, said, “There are degrees of attention: the glance, the cursory look, the look, the long look.” (Master of Attention)
When you’re too quick to click, you’re only taking a glance or cursory look. Consider how your photography would change if you took more long looks. You most definitely will come to a greater appreciation for your subject.
The image above shows the exterior wall of my aunt’s barn, a structure that is very old and has not been well maintained for some time. A closer look reveals its subtle beauty and rhythm.
Here are some ways to practice focusing:
- Look at the details – the colors, shapes, textures, etc.
- Sketch the general outline of the scene. Get the big picture.
- Jot down some notes on what you see, sense, and feel.
- Change your vantage point. Look at the subject from different angles and perspectives.
- Identify the essential elements. Each should contribute to the main subject in some way.
Finally, once you have determined the best way to compose and expose your shot, it’s time to connect and click the shutter. I think of a photograph as a visual record of the relationship the photographer has with their subject. Once you learn to pause and focus, you will have that relationship. Ask yourself a few more questions.
- How should I compose this subject or scene?
- Should one element take up most of the frame or should I use juxtaposition with several elements?
- What are the essential elements?
- What should be included the frame and what should be left out?
- How is the light and how should I expose the image to best express what I’m seeing?
- Should I use a narrow depth of field or have everything in focus?
- Will this composition best express what I’m seeing, and most importantly, what I’m feeling?
With the image above, I spent a good amount of time pausing and focusing on an amazing rock formation off the coast of New Hampshire. I did some sketching of the whole scene (the ocean was beyond) and it was quite some time before I noticed the little pebble tucked safely inside this crack. To me, it felt symbolic. This tiny pebble was being protected by the stronger forces around it. I felt a connection and composed accordingly.
You may be wondering who has the time to ask these questions, especially when the moment or the light is passing quickly. That is certainly the case in some instances and at those times you must be ready to seize the moment. But usually, you will have the time. Consider it a practice that is well worth it. Eventually, the answers to these questions will become quicker and more intuitive. You’ll do them without much thinking at all.
The rewards if you take the time to do this are great. You will become more aware of why you photograph, what you do, and what’s most important to you. When you take longer looks, you’ll expand your definition of beauty as well as the possibilities for your subject matter. You’ll be more open to surprise and fall in love with the world around you. You’ll have more confidence in what you are saying and that will show in your photographs. And, you’ll make fewer photographs, a win-win all around.
Have you taken any time to pause before you shoot? What is your experience? Please share in the comments below.