What is the goal of photography? Is it to document the literal world? If so what does that mean?
Photographers make a huge number of choices (or abdicate many of them to the camera) when they take a picture. What depth of field is used? How much motion blur is captured? Is the photo noisy or clean?
Beyond limited exposure choices, there are an infinite number of locations to take the photo from, and the photographer must choose the perspective (lens focus length, field of view) they want. Never mind considerations of time and weather that add two more degrees of freedom.
Great photographers make most or all of these choices intentionally in service of the story they are telling, whether that story is simple: “look at this beautiful natural landscape” or complicate “these people are in pain because of the social relationships captured in this photo.”
All of these choices, from simple choices like exposure values to complex ones such as what is in the frame and the relationships between those elements, are an interpretation of a scene. That interpretation guides the viewer’s experience of the photo. That applies equally to a bridal portrait or a landscape photo and any other subject. The act of creating a photo is an act of interpretation.
The act of creating a photo is an act of interpretation.
In the 1920s, in the very early days of photography the f/64 group formed to showcase “straight photography”. At that point, photography was seen mostly as a way to imitate other art. Picorialist photographers used a set of techniques, from soft focus to heavy vignettes, to simulate other forms of 2D art.
Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and others in the era were striving to gain recognition of photography as an art in-and-of-itself. Their response was to focus purely on found scenes and subjects, sharply focused throughout (f/64 produces a large depth of field, which is what the name references) , documenting the “literal” wold as they saw it through their cameras.
Today, many landscape photographers idealize Ansel Adams. Sharp focus and depth of field are the norm in landscape photography. Submit a landscape photo for a critique, one that does not confirm to this rule and 9 out of 10 times the first comment you will hear will be “you need more depth of field.” We’ve all been trained to assume that correct landscape photos have everything in focus.
The irony of the situation is that landscape photographers have largely abandoned the underlying principle but kept one specific “rule” from the the f/64 group. Modern landscape photography is flooded with images saturated with unreal color, HDR effects or other computational photography. In many ways, looking at modern landscape photography is like eating a cake with a cup of salt in it. A pinch of salt makes a cake taste good. A cup of salt ruins it.
Art & Interpretation
Photographers religiously use large depths of field, but then distort time, intentionally allowing motion in the frame to create dreamlike images. See waterfall photography…
When I make images like this, I am trying to capture what it is like to stand next to a waterfall. Our eyes don’t see individual drops of water, tack sharp and frozen in time. We see ribbons of water, we see the flow, not the drops. The photo is an interpretation of the scene to convey a feeling to the viewer. A photo with a high shutter speed that freezes every drop is equally an interpretation that carries a different message.
Blurry But Not Out Of Focus
I recently visited Bosque del Apache in New Mexico. During the winter (now) tens-of-thousands of snow geese gather in the refuge along side thousands of sand-hill cranes. I might say something like “the only way to comprehend the maniac chaos of this many birds packed into a tiny area is to be there.”
But, I’m a photographer, so instead, I set out to show you what it feels like.
This is not an out of focus picture. This is not a mistake. The blur is a result of the birds’ frantic chaotic motion over a short period of time. My goal was to capture the insanity of a large flock like this. I want the viewer to “feel” it, not have to infer it through logic.
A “straight” photo of a similar scene feels entirely different. You see the birds and intellectually know they are a chaotic mass, but the picture contains no queue to the motion. Like the waterfall, the experience of seeing a huge flock like this is about seeing the mass, the flow, the motion, not the individuals. I wanted to share that experience, not the “straight” photo of it.
Like the waterfall, the experience of seeing a huge flock like this is about seeing the mass, the flow, the motion, not the individuals.
Flocks are on thing. In many ways, they are an obvious analogy to a waterfall. The scenes are about the overall motion and flow, not about the individual birds or drops of water.
With individual creatures it is often desirable (or seems so given the number of people making 1000s of this type of photo each and every morning) to get a tack sharp image with great light. Unlike a waterfall, this is a photo of an individual. Why can’t it still be about motion and flow?
The sandhill cranes move in small groups or individually, but their motion is still beautiful. I still want the viewer to experience the motion, to feel in their gut what it is like to glide through the air at high speed.
Focus is on the bird, but it hardly matters with a long exposure like this. There is so much motion blur, nothing is sharp. The image is about the light and the motion, not about fine detail. In fact, fine detail would detract from the message of the image.
Panning photos are hardly new in photography. We see them for birds, cars, jets, bicyclists and just about anything else moving. They are the default way to show motion. The rules say you should still get the subject (or part of it, usually the head/eye) sharp.
Keeping part of the subject sharp is a balancing act between the speed and motion of the subject, the shutter speed and your skill panning the camera.
These photos show motion, but are much closer to “straight” photos. This sort of shot requires a short long exposure (yes, you read that right). I’m adding as much background blur as possible while (almost) freezing the bird. But that isn’t the only way to approach it.
What am I trying to convey to the viewer?
What am I trying to convey to the viewer? What experience do I want them to have when they view the photo? Do I want part of the bird perfectly sharp? Or do I want to show all of the motion?
Like the flocks of snow geese, the motion of the sandhill cranes is chaotic if less frantic. I can present a picture that says “this is a crane” or I can present a picture that says “this is flight of a crane.”
Swinging for the Fences
There is as much art in choosing which frames to share as there is in taking the frames. Like the other photographers blasting away at 10+fps each and every sunrise and sunset, I took a lot of photos to get a couple good “blurry” photos I like. 99.5% of the shots end up in the garbage. Here is some garbage:
The slower the shutter speed, the more dramatic the effect, the stronger the message right up until you can no longer recognize the bird. Slower also makes it harder to get a photo that still is recognizably a crane in flight. My goal is as much motion blur as I can capture but where the bird is still recognizable. I only need 1 photo in the end and extra shutter clicks are almost free.
Mistakes, Failures and Opinions
Not everyone is going to “get” the blurry photos. Some will actively tell you there are bad, wrong, or mistakes. If you insist you meant to make them and they are exactly what you intended, they may actually get angry at you. For me, a photo people love or hate is much better than a photo people are indifferent too. Find the people that like what you do, and don’t worry about the rest. Don’t let someone, however “senior” to you in photography convince you to change your photography against your will.
But, also listen carefully and take away what you can from their feedback. While they might not “get” what you were doing, listening can help you understand how to help them “get it” the next time you make a similar photo.
Andrew is a photography instructor teaching students of all skill levels in Austin, TX through Precision Camera and independently in San Diego, CA. He runs workshops around the United States.
He is a self taught experiential learner who is addicted to the possibilities that new (to him) gear open up. He loves to share the things he has worked out. Andrew started with a passion for landscape and night photography and quickly branched out to work in just about every form of photography. He is an ex-software developer with extensive experience in the IT realm.
Andrew is a full time wedding and commercial photographer in both Austin and San Diego. Andrew is a club founder and multi-time past president of North Austin Pfotographic Society.