Take Your Photography to the Next Level: From Inspiration to Image

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This book is for the photographer who strives to achieve a higher level of results in their work. Take Your Photography to the Next Level is based on a series of essays originally featured on the popular Luminous Landscape website. Barr tackles some of the rarely discussed, yet essential aspects of successful photography. Here is where photographers will learn what is required in order to grow in their creativity and to gain a deeper understanding of their craft.

With a foreward by Michael Reichmann.

Topics include:

  • Creativity
  • Dealing with disappointment
  • Developing an "eye"
  • Making stronger images
  • What photographs well
  • Where to go looking for the best photographic subjects
  • How to approach subject material
  • A great image is just around the corner
  • Dealing with failure
  • Mind games
  • Becoming a self-aware photographer
  • Framing, cropping, & manipulating prints to create mood and transmit your message

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6 Slices

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1 Seeing

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Pipe Benders
In this image, I had the task of arranging the objects on the workbench pretty much as I chose, which was a lot more challenging than simply finding a good composition.

I believe the single most important exercise for any photographer is to study the work of the masters, whether of your own particular interest—say landscapes—or of other kinds of photography. I’ll go further and say it is just as important to study paintings and even sculpture. There is much to be learned by a close study of great artistic works. It could be argued that a cold and clinical analysis of these works takes some of the enjoyment out of them; but this isn’t about enjoyment, it’s about becoming a better photographer. We’re talking sweat equity here—putting some effort into improving.

Before you can creatively and intelligently compose an image, you can either learn a number of rules by rote—you know, divide the image into thirds, and so on—or you can study enough great images that you develop both a strong sense of what works and an eye for finding such compositions in your own photography. Rules are for beginners. Real photographers simply put the image together in a way that works, learned through experience and instinct developed from all those images they have studied and made.

 

2 Finding Images

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You have scouted out some picture possibilities and have found fertile ground. Now you actually have to position and aim your camera. For example, let’s say you found a rusting old truck in a farmyard. The truck is the “center” of the image, though it doesn’t have to be positioned that way. Let’s say that for this image, you have decided to photograph the truck while showing its environment in the background, rather than coming in close.

You have a choice of photographing the truck surrounded by farm buildings, or with a harvested grain field in the background. The choice you make will determine the character of the image. In this case, you try for the grain field because the farmyard is full of old machinery.

You wander around the truck looking for the best angle from which to photograph and to determine what will show in the background. Unless you want the junkyard look (and you might), you will want to simplify both background and foreground to help keep the main focus on the truck. Modern buildings or objects are not going to work well with the truck. Can you find an angle from which to shoot where the truck works well with the background?

 

3 Composing

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Driftwood II
Symmetry makes for a quiet, stable, and calm image. It could be thought boring, but that really depends on how much there is to the image.

A powerful tool in learning to see, and subsequently in composing your own images, is to make an outline sketch of the image you are studying or the composition you propose to record. To be honest, I don’t run around with pencil and pad sketching the outlines before I photograph, but that’s because I can imagine the sketch, and there is no reason why you can’t do the same with a bit of practice.

If truth be known, my process of making crude outline sketches actually started years ago with the use of hand metering and the zone system in large format photography. I would draw the sketch to record which zones recorded where. After doing that for a few years, it became easy to make the sketch in my head and to then analyze this imaginary sketch for the various aspects of composition.

However, the process starts with real pencil and paper, making crude sketches of great photographs you admire. You could use a book or look up the images on the Internet. Do not, however, trace the images (which is hard on your LCD screen, not to mention the books!). Simply study the picture for a minute and then draw a small rectangle representing the image frame—no more than 3 inches in any dimension, or even half that is OK. Mine are generally around 2 inches. Neatness definitely doesn’t count, so whatever you do, don’t measure and don’t use a ruler. This is only meant to be a sketch. With a small amount of practice, you will be able to do it in 10 seconds, and even 3 seconds is reasonable. I did say “crude” here. No one is going to mistake this for a master sketch.

 

4 Assessing Images

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Welding Equipment
The subject matter isn’t exactly exciting, but I like the shadows and the shapes.

It is not uncommon to come home from a shoot, download your images (or hit the darkroom), and then find yourself very disappointed with your results. If this happens often enough, you may start to question your skills and whether it is even worth persisting. This can lead to periods of weeks, months, or even years without photographing.

Disappointment can come from a number of sources, some of which are listed below:

In the fall of 2006, I was on holiday on Vancouver Island and returned home with hundreds of images. My initial review of my images left me very disappointed with the results. However, over several months time, I found some nice, if not exactly earth-shattering images, and my opinion of the trip changed significantly. Since that time, I have refined a few of the images and they are now among my best. Had I not rechecked those files again and again, I would be missing some portfolio-quality images. This experience represents a very important lesson.

 

5 Mind Games

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Rock Stack
Never very popular with the public, I still find the balance and composition very nice. I have no hesitation in showing it. If we only showed work which was universally liked, we’d be catering to the lowest common denominator. Which isn’t to say that if you don’t like a particular image, say this one, that you are by definition the lowest. There are lots of images I don’t like for a variety of reasons.

Water Triptych
While nice, none of these four images really stood on their own and I got the idea to hang all four on the wall together and so I present them as a set.

Have you been thinking that many of your pictures are too similar to one another? Perhaps it’s time to break out of the mold and try something new. If you have been photographing football games, you could switch to ballet, but of course, that isn’t quite what I mean. Presumably, you like shooting football and don’t want to give it up, but you would like your images to show some fresh ideas.

It might be time to analyze your current style and see how you might change it.

 

6 Take Your Photography to the Next Level

ePub

Sundance Rose
Background is critical to the image. It took some effort to find the right focal length and position from which to photograph that would show the rose against only the colorful rock in the background.

Bluffs and Bush
While full sun produces harsh shadows, images taken in flat lighting need considerable editing to restore the three-dimensional effect and to separate layers within the scene.

There is a fundamental flaw in the way most of us work toward improving as photographers. We practice what we’re good at and we largely ignore the things at which we aren’t skilled. For most of us, this means many hours spent agonizing over technical issues (sometimes not even the right ones), while mostly ignoring the aesthetic. It was this premise that spurred me to write many of my essays, but ultimately it was the following three essays found in this final chapter that caused Rocky Nook to contact me and suggest the idea of this book. While the book is focused on the nontechnical side of photography, the three articles that follow here also discuss technical problems. We elected to include those parts, since technical failures are every bit as frustrating. A bad picture is bad regardless of the reasons, and my goal is to help you make wonderful images.

 

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