How do you create a photograph which is of the moment?

Dinner
When reading about photography, being of the moment or capturing the moment is a recurring theme. By it’s very nature photography allows you to stop time and hold it in your hand but capturing the moment hints at more than just taking a picture. When we say “You captured the moment really well there!” we are normally implying that the image conveys an emotion or an idea which is evident in it’s viewing. So what makes an image of the moment and how can we capture it and hold it within two dimensions? I’m afraid like many things there is no magic formula but I have been investigating the practical things you can do which help to define and convey an idea in a photograph.

In a recent post I spoke about how I have started to understand what it means for an image to say something about me. Since writing that post I have been reading Dan Winters Road to Seeing. The subtitle of Dan’s book is Voices That Matter and in his book he writes about the importance of having a voice in the photographs you take. Dan explains that photography is a form of visual communication and if you are conscious of this fact you can use it as you would a spoken or written language.

With a spoken or written language, culture has a part to play in how it is understood and with a visual language there is no difference. Essentially visual culture is built on a set of conventions which hold meaning to those who are a part of that culture. These conventions are part of our everyday lives and are used by advertising companies, designers, artists and many other to convey a visual message. These ideas of visual culture are so prevalent that most of the time we don’t even notice they are there or that they are shaping the way we think or feel about something.
Colour
So if we go back to the idea of capturing the moment being about conveying an emotion or idea we can start to see why thinking about a photograph as a medium of visual communication is a useful thing to do. When you also combine this with the idea of a visual culture we can try and understand how how these conventions play a part in that communication.

This is all easily said but like many things it is not necessarily straightforward to do. Most of us are well practiced in speaking or writing to communicate and we can see how someone is feeling by picking up on visual cues but communicating a complex idea in a photograph can be a daunting task. The world of portrait photography has a good example of this. Quite often you will hear people say that  a portrait captures the soul of the individual who is in the picture. Photographing a smile is easy but how on earth do you photograph somebodies soul!?

The Lunar Society IV
What happens if we dissect the idea of capturing somebodies soul in a photograph? For the sake of my own sanity and yours, I’m going to define the soul as the facets which make a person who they are. This could include whether they are a serious person, a happy person, a friendly person, a creative person, a workaholic etc. If we go back to our idea of a photograph as a form of visual communication which is based on a visual culture we can use cultural conventions to communicate the facets of a person along with their smile.

You can of course take a picture of your creative, animal loving friend holding a paintbrush and hugging a cat but you might find that you have neither captured their soul or the moment. There is also a good chance that it won’t feel like it is your voice which is speaking through the photograph you have created. Sometimes cliches are useful in photography but one of the most beautiful and engaging aspects of the medium is that there are numerous techniques which help you to convey an idea in a subtle way. Many of these techniques rely very little on the subject itself. For example; the way in which you use expose can radically change the way the final image makes you feel. Again this relies on our visual culture to communicate the idea the same way a paintbrush conveys creativity.

I have found that in order to capture the moment I need stop looking at the dials on my camera and start looking around me. I try to make a connection with the place or person I am photographing and convey the way I feel in my composition. I have also found that trying too hard to make this connection can be just as bad as not trying at all. Personally I find the photographs which give me the most satisfaction are created when I have the time to walk around a place with my camera at my side or still in bag. This helps me to soak up the atmosphere and find my voice. I have now started to see images out of the corner of my eye, sometimes almost as I am about to walk away.

So now I can see my voice I am hoping to try and nurture it by the way I approach my photography and the way I edit and review my work. Like many of my posts it has helped me to write this down in black and white. I wonder how I would convey this in a photography!?
From a low angle

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Deconstruction of images in black and white

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I only started taking black and white photographs last year but I’m already hooked. I had always admired B&W images but I had never used the technique myself for a few reasons. As a teenager when I was shooting film I think colour seemed more real to me. There was also a thought that black and white photography was a little up itself. A feeling that the shear fact that something is black and white it makes it high art. This lead me to think that somehow taking B&W pictures I was being a pretender, that I was a fraud.

The age of digital photography and post processing made it even easier to create black and white images and whilst I gave it a go I was never that impressed with the result. The ease of a one click conversion to black and white made the whole process seem even more fake. Two things happened last year which changed my mind about B&W photography. The first was that I purchased a copy of Lightroom 5. I know lots of people have used Lightroom but if you haven’t done so I recommend that you give it a try. It is a fantastic application for post processing of all types of images but for me personally it really opened up the possibilities of black and white photography.

The second thing that happened was that I was that I picked up a copy of Black + White Photography magazine from a newsagent before a train journey to London. There are so many photography magazines to choose from but few are as well edited and have such wonderful content and contributors. The magazine opened my eyes to what people are doing with black and white photography today and how you can make an image your own if you think about the image that you are creating and use post processing effectively.

Mike

This is where my journey really began and black and white photography started to teach me about the core techniques and ideas of photography in general. Partly through articles in the magazine and partly through trial and error I started to learn about dodging and burning and why it is important as part of post processing. Somehow I found this much easier to understand with a black and white image than with colour. I now tend to dodge and burn my colour images before I convert to black and white but I learnt this technique with a black and white first.

Post processing aside the  biggest gift that B&W photography has given me is an appreciation of tone and a better understanding of composition. It’s not that black and white photography magically makes you take better pictures it is just that it raises a magnifying glass to aspects of an image that you might have missed before. It is all there in black and white as it where. By ignoring the colour and focusing on the tonality I started to see how elements of an image come together to build up a composition. I also started to see geometry which I had missed at the beginning.

Once I started to see my images in this way I started to apply the same ideas when I was looking through the view finder. Visualising the image in my minds eye and building up my composition. Post processing can do a lot for an image but if the important elements of an image aren’t there to start with then they won’t be there after post processing (Not unless you do some heavy manipulation of course but that isn’t what I’m interested in personally). In essence black and white photography has helped me to de-construct the images I create which has lead me to understand how to create new images by bringing these ideas together as they are taken.

Bikes of Loughborough I

As well as Black + White Photography magazine I have also been inspired by Jim Mortram of Small Town Inertia and the fantastic photography books of Cafe Royal Books. Jim makes especially good use of the medium and has created some of the most beautiful and sometimes haunting images. Whilst Cafe Royal Books does print in colour many of the works are in black and white including Jim’s book and another of my favourites Notting Hill Sound Systems by Brian David Stevens. If you have a love of black and white photography or have been inspired by the black and white images of others then please share any links in the comments.

Taking photographs on your own is easy

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In my last post I mentioned how I recently joined a photography community on the online community platform Meetup. After entering one of Birmingham Photography Meetup’s monthly competitions I thought it would be worth going along to one of  group’s photoshoots. Luckily the next meeting was a street photography shoot in Birmingham, which (excuse the pun) was right up my street.

I knew that going along to the Meetup was going to have an effect on the way I thought about my photography but I didn’t realise just how much. In the back of my mind I thought I would meet some interesting people who would be able to give me some technical pointers about how to get the right exposure in this situation or with that type of lens as opposed to another. The friendly bunch of photographers that came along to the meetup where more than happy to share their techniques and I learnt some great stuff but these pearls of wisdom aren’t the main thing that I have taken away from the experience. Somehow going out and shooting with a group of other people has made me focus on myself.

Up until now photography has been pretty much a solitary exercise. I’m often shooting  when out with my family but it’s normally only me that has a camera in their hand. I find myself walking around from point to point thinking about what it is that I am trying to capture and moving methodically through the motions. I am usually capturing images with something in mind and I tend to have a single set of ideas. Walking through Birmingham  with the folks from the Meetup had some profound effects on me and hopefully will help me to grow as a photographer.

The first thing that took hold of me was impatience. I had an itchy shutter finger and the only way I was going to satisfy it was to push that shutter release as quickly as I could. Its not that I took a great deal more pictures than I probably would have done on my own its just that I took less time to take a single image. The presence of others with a lens in their hand immediately made me feel like I had to be the first. Street photography generally lends itself to this type of fast paced shooting as you attempt to capture the “decisive moment”1 but it doesn’t mean that you should do this at the expense of a well composed image. Unfortunately at the beginning of the shoot my lust to be the first overtook my photographer’s eye in some cases. Sometimes my speed payed off but in others my lack of attention is obvious in the images that I captured at the beginning of the afternoon.

The next thing I noticed was that every time I went to take a shot someone else was already there. The guy beatboxing, the bored looking burger flipper texting on his phone, the trumpet player, the atmospheric side alley. Snap, snap, snap, snap! This made me feel like I had to go faster but it made no difference, the photographer in front of me just became the first behind me. My competitive nature started to grow in my panic. Luckily for me I have an emergency kill switch. I came to a halt on New Street and assessed my situation.

I’m sure many of you have read photography books that give tips on how to improve your photography and one tip that tends to come up again and again is don’t just turn up and take the picture that’s right in front of you.  It occurred to me that this was exactly what I had been doing and to some extent that’s what I was observing from my fellow photographers. There nothing wrong with this approach and it doesn’t mean that from a technical point of view that you are going to get “bad” images it’s just that on my journey into photography I was hoping to find something else. I was hoping to be able to find something about myself in the images that I create, an ability to communicate my perception of the world. I might be a long way from having my own style in my images but if I don’t think about why I am creating a certain compositions then I’m never going to find it.

So instead of walking down the center of the street and being drawn to “the obvious image” I started to stalk around the edges of the street. I began by searching for stickers, the little pieces of graphic design which adorn our urban environments. I expect that many people view these vinyl wonders as vandalism but to me they tell a story about the creativity of the people that live in a city. The type of people that live their lives through the bold colours and alternative images that the self adhesive artwork  represents.  One of my favourites images from the shoot was found stuck on the side of a phone booth in the corner of large a square in Birmingham:

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This might not be the most technically perfect image but it feels much more like it belongs to me. I have found recently that its the small incidental items which intrigue me.  For example on a recent trip to the pub with friends, a shot of my best friends Doc Martin resting on a beaten up coffee table was one of my favorite images. For me that image captures a little piece of the day. Perhaps the same can be said for the image of the sticker.

In conclusion, one trip out with a group of fellow photographers has made me look at the way approach my subjects as well as help me to think about what an image means to me. They also helped me with some new ideas, one person in particular mentioned using a square crop and I decided to use this as a way of bringing together my final collection. These are some pretty deep subjects and not was I was expecting to get out of the Meetup. Taking photographs on your own is easy, meet some people and get out of your comfort zone.

1 http://www.openculture.com/2011/11/henri_cartier-bresson.html