It’s all about intentions

So, you’ve found something you want to photograph. Do you just point and press or do you stop and think first? What goes on in a photographer’s mind between the time a possible shot is seen and when the button is pressed?

Let’s assume I have a subject in front of me which has attracted my attention. It may be a subject which tells a story, which I find visually interesting or which has evoked an emotional response. My first and most important thought is, “What is my intention?” What is it about this subject that makes me want to photograph it? How do I interpret that subject using all the tools at my disposal? By tools, I don’t just mean the camera and all its settings and gizmos. I also include the skills, knowledge and experience that I’ve built up over the years. My purpose is to take the photo in the best way I can to realise my intention.

COMPOSITION

This is my usual starting point. Deciding where the camera position should be in relation to the subject is critical. There are several factors to consider:

  • Direction of the light. There may be no choice here or it may be that it’s not very important for this particular shot. The quality and direction of the light may, however, be the very reason I want to take the picture in the first place and may dictate where I stand.
  • Framing the shot. What do I need to include? Are there distracting elements in the scene which don’t deserve to be there? Can I move the camera position to reduce their impact? Is there balance (or intentional imbalance) in the relationships of the different elements of the image? Is the scene ‘straight’ or do I want it to be deliberately squint?
  • Angle of view. Should I stand, kneel down, lie down, climb up on something? If I lie down, will I be able to get up again? Will I tilt the camera or try to keep it straight?
  • Focal length of the lens. A wider angle might help to get it all in but that will have an impact on perspective and the relationships between the different elements of the picture. Will moving closer or further away give me a better viewpoint? I try not to be lazy!

Once I have established the composition I may lock it down using a tripod. This is a good idea in many situations even when there is plenty of light and you can use a fast shutter speed. More of tripods later.

Often I will compose generously to allow for cropping and straightening in post-processing. I’m not always an expert at holding the camera straight. I think it’s an age thing!

Cows and Giraffe

Can you spot anything in this image which distracts?

In this shot, I had to tilt the camera which resulted in the building leaning back.
A generous composition allows for straightening in post-processing.
(Drag the vertical line to see Before and After)

FOCUS AND SHARPNESS.

Focus isn’t just about deciding where to focus the camera. It’s also about deciding how much of the scene I want to be sharp. This is influenced by the focal length of the lens, the chosen aperture, the distance from camera to subject and the depth of the scene in front of me. My decisions here are based on my intentions. How much of the scene needs to be sharp to meet my intentions?

Choosing a shutter speed is also to be considered here. The speed needs to be fast enough to guarantee there is no camera movement. I may also want to freeze any movement in the scene. Plants are notoriously prone to being unhelpful where movement is concerned. So, a sufficiently fast shutter speed (or a tripod) will be required. Of course, I may deliberately choose a slow shutter speed as it may be my intention to have some movement in the shot!

My intention was to have the plant in focus with a very soft, out-of-focus background. This was achieved with six shots taken with an aperture of f5.6 (100 mm Macro lens) which were then focus stacked in Photoshop.

Moving Cars

The intention was to capture the movement of cars against a sharp background.
A shutter speed of 1/6 second was sufficient to blur the cars. I used a tripod and a 17mm lens with an aperture of f5.6 ensured all the static elements were in focus.

EXPOSURE

The key here is reading the light and deciding which exposure will realise my intention. Rarely do I rely on the camera to expose the scene correctly. The camera’s light meter simply offers a suggestion which I can choose to accept or vary. Exposure captures the mood of the scene and there are always choices to be made. Where there is a low dynamic range in front of me, it’s relatively straightforward. But in many cases, it’s not so easy. Where there is a high dynamic range AND you want to retain detail in both the highlight and shadow areas, it may be that multiple exposures are required to be blended later in post-processing.

In many situations there just isn’t enough light to expose the scene correctly if I’ve concluded that a small aperture is needed to get the depth of field I need. I can turn up the ISO but that will inevitably reduce quality even with newer cameras which give much improved results at higher ISOs. Again, it comes back to intentions. If my end result will only ever be published onscreen then higher ISOs will be more than acceptable. If I want to make a 24” x 16” print, they won’t! A better solution is to use a tripod, assuming movement in the scene isn’t an issue. The real power of the tripod isn’t its ability to hold the camera steady or to lock in a composition. It’s the freedom of aperture choice which is much more powerful.

This iguana was shot at 3200 ISO. The image is perfectly acceptable for screen use but the enlarged version clearly shows the quality loss associated with higher ISO settings.

The image on the left was taken with exposure settings recommended using a Centre Weighted Average meter reading. As is often the case, there is considerable loss of detail in highlights and shadows. The shot on the right is the result of blending
3 bracketed shots using HDR Merge in Lightroom.

Then I press the button!

Immediately after I will review the result on the back of the camera. Reading the histogram is essential to see if I’ve lost information in shadows or highlights. If sharpness is a possible issue, I’ll enlarge the preview to check that. If I’m not satisfied I’ll take the shot again, assuming that the ‘moment’ hasn’t passed.

POST PROCESSING

Once upon a time I used to use film in my camera. In those days I would always be attempting to take the perfect picture in camera. I no longer do this. Now I use RAW files so, by definition, I can’t hope for the perfect shot in camera as all RAW files will require some processing before they can be used. Now I set out to record all the information I’ll need to create the image which fulfils my intentions. Post processing is an extension of actual picture taking and consequently I’ll already be bearing that in mind before I take the photo.

FINALLY

It may seem that this is a very prescriptive and clinical approach to taking a photograph, perhaps analogous to a helicopter pilot going through all his start-up checks. Many years ago, I sat beside my daughter who was behind the wheel of a car for the very first time. She was bemused by the number of things she needed to do, some of them simultaneously, before she would be able to drive off. Experienced drivers will carry these steps out effortlessly. It’s not so different with photography – these things become second nature with experience and it all happens very quickly and organically.

Over the years I’ve learned that you get nowt for nowt in photography. Everything has a cost whether it’s reduced quality with higher ISO settings or badly exposed shots because you don’t want to compromise on your chosen aperture and shutter speed combination. It’s the interplay of those features which have multiple effects that makes it all so interesting. For example, aperture isn’t just about the size of the hole which lets the light in – it’s also about how much of your image is in focus and how you choose to interpret what’s in front of you. Shutter speed isn’t just about how long that same hole remains open – it’s also about how the camera will record movement in any scene and whether your shot will have no evidence of unintentional camera movement.

Photography is all about choices and decisions. There are many ways to take any photograph and it is realising your intention for any photograph which is paramount.

4 Comments

  1. Ah! But what if you have no idea what your intentions are, at the time? That’s my area of research. I’m trying to understand why has a particular scene and composition has sufficiently excited me to press the shutter. For me it seems to be related to having perceived something in a way I believe is unique to me. I want to show others the weirdness that I enjoy when taking pictures.

  2. I can relate to that entirely as many of my photos are opportunistic. However, I will usually have decided on my intention between seeing the possibility of a shot and taking it. In some cases at least this may be a purely functional exercise which is designed to ensure a well-composed, steady, correctly exposed shot.

  3. I think a photographer will always have “some” sort of intention when pressing the shutter button. Unless of course you’re positing some kind of involuntary spasm resulting in an completely surprising outcome!

    Whether the photographer can put that intention into words as some sort of specification must surely depend upon experience. We’ve all seen pictures where its just not clear what the photographer thought they saw, or whether they thought at all.
    “What’s this a picture of?”
    “Well, a,b, and c (of course)”
    “Why did you include w,x,y,z,kitchen sink?”
    “Umm….”

    After a while you garner enough experience to have a pretty good idea what you’re aiming for without having to itemise it all up front which may feel like having no intentions at the time. Closer to an involuntery spasm than may be comfortable!

    But then I find myself repurposing images while I’m processing them. New intentions suggest themselves, new ways of looking at the same thing. Rejects from my initial intention decide they want to demonstrate something else altogether. If I’m lucky!

  4. I think one of the dangers of writing about how you approach photography is giving the impression that it’s a very calculated, clinical process. This is especially true when thoughts you may have are sequentially listed. It’s really not like that in real life though. It’s a much more organic and instantaneous thing perhaps more akin to a car diver taking off rather than a helicopter pilot going through a list of pre-flight checks.

    I’m sure every photographer has some kind of intention between seeing a photo and pressing the button. However, it may be nothing more than “That’s pretty, I’ll take a photo.” With experience of successful and failed photos, I think we become aware of things that spoil or elevate a photo and we process these almost subliminally.

    In some cases I’m aware that there is a really good subject in front of me and I’ll think much more consciously about how I want to photograph it. Funny thing is that invariably it’s the first, instinctive shot which I like best!

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