Foto Tips – How do I decide what to shoot

Mark Alberhasky discusses one to the deepest questions acing most photographers.
During a recent workshop, I was approached by a participant who was feeling overwhelmed by the experience.

“How do I decide what to shoot?”

We happened to be in a crowded urban market, in the rain, and the conditions were intimidating for an inexperienced shooter.  Her frustration obvious, I had to quickly consider how she could approach the situation so she could take control and establish a comfort level from which to move forward.

This is not an uncommon scenario.  Photography is a challenging medium in which to create work because it requires simultaneous decision making on both objective (equipment technology) and subjective (artistic interpretation) levels.  I suspect that when most of us try to think in both directions at the same time, we are prone to feeling

So, the simple answer is stop, take a deep cleansing breath, solve technical issues first, and then move on to artistic interpretive challenges.  By focusing on one task, and then the next, you make a complex problem simpler by turning it into a series of smaller
decisions that seem easier.  Not a bad approach to life whenever you’re stressed out.

What is the most basic question facing the digital photographer about where to start?

Answer:  Is the camera “sensitive” enough to light to make an image in this shooting environment?  If not, you can’t take a picture, so end of story.   In other words, is the ISO set high enough for dim lighting conditions, or low enough for bright conditions (to take
advantage of the better quality achieved with low ISO values)?  Unless you’re using auto-ISO (which I don’t recommend because I want you to understand and have mastery of this creative choice), setting the ISO you need / prefer should be the first thing you do, followed by confirming an appropriate white balance for the scene.  Once this is out of the way (a decision you should be considering at the start of every scene you shoot), you can progress to shutter speed / aperture / auto mode choices relevant to the subject.  Having dealt with the technical hurdles, one is now free to concentrate on subjective (artistic) interpretation of the subject.  This is actually the much more challenging aspect of photography, and we soon arrived at this point after establishing her camera settings.

Deciding what to photograph is a lifelong quest.  Even the world’s greatest shooters face this challenge each time they pick up a camera, though their sense of subject selection has been honed by experience. Once again, if you allow yourself to try and take in everything going on around you, you can easily be visually overwhelmed and waste a lot of time wandering aimlessly.  As a starting point I suggest a two step process.  First, do nothing.  Stand back, completely still, and simply observe your surroundings for several minutes.  In our case it was getting a feel for the rhythm of the street, the type of action happening around us.  (In a static landscape awareness of your surroundings might be studying textures, colors, or the pattern of light illuminating the scene).  Second, try to conceptualize a theme for which there are easily identifiable subjects.  We were in the rain, so I asked her to consider how that made the scene unique, i.e. made surfaces wet (reflective), brought out special accessories (umbrellas), accelerated the pace of people trying to escape the weather ( a sense of hectic pace).  Any of these themes, individually or in combination could provide concepts that narrow down subject choices to a manageable few.  Armed with a “visual filter” you then begin working the scene like a hunter, no longer distracted by feelings of anxiety, but a photographer with a mission, in control.

Another style of selecting subject matter is to sense when unusual action is happening, or is about to happen.  Such a subject often makes compelling images.  We heard music and then saw we had walked into a festival of oriental dancers in costume.  I indicated that this was a great photo-op, but that we needed to be close to concentrate on them, right at the front of the crowd.  She was immediately apprehensive, “I could never just walk up in front of all these people.”  My response was, “Sure you can.  A camera is a license.  If you didn’t have it the people would object, but with it, they understand you are not just an observer, but someone trying to make images.  The more seriously they see you pursue your subject, the more leeway the will give you, provided you respect their space as well. In fact, with a few “Excuse me’s” we can move right to the very front, crouch and get great shots without being in anyone’s way.”  We did, and had the opportunity to make good work.  My advice then was simple. “There is great action going on here.  Pick something that appeals to you, and don’t stop shooting it until the subject disappears.  Change focal length, change shutter speed, change aperture, change compositions, change positions for different angles.”  I think she really got the message and make great progress that day.

I happen to love special light, the kind of illumination that only happens every now and then.  The kind that can take ordinary surroundings or objects and render them unique or mysterious.  The kind that stands out so sharply from the surrounding conditions, that it commands your attention.  I often find this kind of light defined at the interface of darkness and brightness.  Depending on the direction of the light source, this can cause backlighting, side lighting, a spot light effect, etc.  It can be found almost anytime of day if you look in the right places.  It can be especially magical when found at the beginning or end of a storm, when the conditions let bright sunlight in, to contrast with the darker or flat conditions. The problem with this kind of light is that it can be such a powerful inspiration that chasing it becomes addictive, and chase it you must because by its nature it is a fleeting phenomenon.

A few days ago, my wife and I were house sitting for friends of ours in San Diego, a couple of blocks from the beach.  I know, life is full of sacrifices, but we felt we had to help our friends in their time of need.  We were being a bit lazy during our stay, and I wasn’t shooting much.  This often upsets my wife, who constantly wants to see me happy making images!  But the “What do I shoot” happens to us all, and a subject just hadn’t grabbed me.  Lets go to the zoo, she suggested. Almost all the animals were asleep, it was comical.  Inspiration was nowhere in sight, and the camera bag felt heavier and heavier.  As my spirit sagged, we happened to traverse an aviary, because the zoo path went through.  As the elevated walkway wound down through trees, there sat inspiration.  A colorful and interesting bird.  I’ve never been a bird watcher or photographed them, but the vantage point and unusual specie won me over.  The result is picture 1.  I was intrigued and actually went back to the zoo a second time just to shoot more birds. See shot 2, which just so happened to fall into the “light defined at the interface between darkness and brightness” category, since the sunlight falling on the bird just caught his breast and head in profile, providing dramatic lighting.

Mark Alberhasky photography

Mark Alberhasky photography

Mark Alberhasky photography

I’m apologize that this foto tip grew into what could be a whole chapter, but the thought process is so central to what photographers “do”, I think it makes useful reading.  On the other hand you could print this and line a bird cage with it, since in the end, this tip is “for the birds”!


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