The following is an excerpt from The Heart of the Photograph by David duChemin.
If we are to go beyond the idea of good and create a series of questions that informs our work and pushes us to make work that does what we want it to do, then we need to discuss the alternatives to “good.”
The most obvious alternative to good is perfect. We often talk in terms of something being good, but when it’s even better—when it can’t be refined any further—it is perfect. But if the question “Is it good?” is problematic, then “Is it perfect?” is even more so. It’s unanswerable. And as a goal, it’s unattainable. If “Is it good?” is trying to hit a moving target, then “Is it perfect?” is trying to hit a target that doesn’t exist but which has a very real and toxic effect on the creative spirit. But since the word comes up so often, I want to offer two thoughts before we move on to explore what better than good means—instead of what it doesn’t.
Much as we seem to strive for it, as humans, we do not resonate with the perfect, at least not with the idea of perfect as “flawless.” In fact, it is often those things with flaws to which we are most attracted. In books and movies, it is never the perfect character with whom we identify, for example. Photographically, I think one of the reasons we’re seeing an increase in the use of film is that it is a less-than-perfect medium—like vinyl records, where the quality of the analog recording, while richer and more attractive to many ears, is imperfect. It is to these imperfections that we are often drawn.
The Japanese have a name that honours this notion. It is an idea called wabi sabi, and while I do not pretend to be able to communicate the finer points of it, wabi sabi is about finding beauty in the imperfect and the decaying—not despite those things, but because of them. The term itself and the art created from this perspective recognize that we can do better than perfect, that soul and meaning are to be found in these imperfections, that flaws have their own meaning and beauty.
The second thought is that the pursuit of this flawless perfection often results in less work getting done, and when we are paralyzed by the need to make something perfect before we release it into the world, we never finish it. This is in direct opposition to the notion that we need to be mindfully creating more and more work in order to improve our craft and make better work. So, paradoxically, the pursuit of the flawless can be the very thing that sabotages our process of learning and stops us from creating work that is better than good.
So when we talk about “better than good,” we do not mean that it transcends good or that it is perfect. We mean that it is an alternative to (merely) good as a way of evaluating and talking about our images.
For example, if you understand how blurring motion can imbue a photograph with that feeling of movement, giving it both information (I understand now that the person is moving) and impact (I feel the speed of that person moving), then it can inform your choice of which shutter speed to use. The person in the photograph being blurred because of slow shutter speed does not make the photograph good or not good. What matters is your intention and vision for the image: what you hoped the photograph would do, first for you, and then for those who read the image. Remember, good is not the point. For some purposes in this example, the image in which the subject is blurred would be exactly on point, and for other purposes, that very technique would give the subject anything but its best expression.
Before we make those choices, however, we need to consider our subject, beginning with identifying what that subject really is. Traditionally, we’ve been taught to consider our subject as the thing we are photographing. That’s not such a bad definition, so long as we’re free to include ideas themselves as those things. Imagine you and two friends are photographing in a forest, all three of you pointing your lenses at the same two trees. Is your subject the trees? It could be. But it could also be the height of the trees towering above the forest floor. It could be the relationship of one tree to another, one old and dying, the other young and thriving. It could also be the small songbirds on one branch of the tree, made tiny by their context and the scale the trees give them. Or it could be the motion of the trees in the wind.
Each subject in this example is different. Though you’re all photographing the same thing, the ideas being photographed are different. And because the ideas are different, each one will be best expressed differently. One photographer might choose to photograph in black and white to get the attention off the rich green colours and instead direct it to the textures. Another might use a wide lens to get more context in the frame or create a different sense of scale, while another might use a longer lens to isolate a particular juxtaposition or contrast. Each aims to include what is important to the expression of the subject the way they see it and to exclude what is not.
In my work as a teacher to photographers, I’ve found that often their photographs are much improved not by learning techniques or refining an ability to make a technically competent photograph, but by gaining much greater clarity on the actual subject of the image and what that photographer wants to say about it. I have found the following three questions helpful in that exploration:
• Does the photograph have a clear, single subject?
• What about this subject matter makes me care, hooks me, or pulls me in?
• What am I trying to say, or point at, about this subject?
Let’s discuss each in turn.
Does the photograph have a clear, single subject? This seems like a good first question, as there’s no point discussing how your subject is best expressed if you have no idea what that subject truly is. If this question doesn’t get you all the way there, or you need to pull back further, then try this: Don’t allow yourself the luxury of your subject being a thing at all. Make it an idea.
“But I photograph landscapes; how does that work?” Make the photograph about the relationship between the land and the sea. Make it about the contrast between the rough bark of the foreground tree and the delicate wisps of cloud in the background. Make it about the play of texture and colour. Then find ways to draw that idea out—to give that relationship or contrast more impact and to reduce the impact of other competing elements or ideas.
Another way to approach this is to ask yourself what one thing this image is about.
“Well, it’s about the bear.”
Okay, but what about the bear? Is it about the power of the bear, the movement of the bear, the bear and his environment, the struggle for survival?
“Yes! All of those!”
No. It’s not all of those. That’s a list of subjects, not one subject. It’s too much to ask of one still frame. No photograph can contain all of that and still have impact. The more information you try to cram in, the less impact you’re likely to have.
What about this subject matter makes me care, hooks me, or pulls me in? This is another way of looking at subject and the need to find a single hook. For those of us who ultimately do care about connecting our vision of the world with others, being able to isolate that one idea or distill it down to the one thing we most care about is a good way to find that point of connection. If you care deeply about it, there’s a better than good chance that others will connect to it, too, assuming you’ve been faithful to yourself and your vision.
I think Russian playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov said it beautifully: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” The former is about facts simply stated; the latter is about interpretation. And even if your desire as a photographer is to convey information and facts, you still need to find a way to connect because no one wants to read a story without a point or a hook.
What am I trying to say, or point at, about this subject? This is where we start to find clues about how to give our subject its best expression—by figuring out what we’re trying to say about it and how that might be translated visually. It begins with basic decisions, such as the orientation of the frame. A vertical frame asks the reader to read the image up and down. There’s a vertical energy created when we do that. But if your subject is much more horizontal, then there’s a good chance you won’t be expressing your subject well.
The same is true when you use a really dynamic aspect ratio, like a wide 16:9, to express, for example, a serene scene. It can work well, depending on the scene, but often it’s a better choice to use a more serene frame, like a square, to create a better expression of that subject. Another example: a couple at a wedding is dancing, and there’s movement and energy everywhere. Is the image about that energy and abandon? It could be that a slow shutter and a f lash synced with the rear curtain of the shutter—often called “dragging the shutter”—gives better expression to that subject than a more literal 1/1000th of a second shutter speed that freezes it all. Sure, it’s sharp as a tack. But it might also be boring. It might lose the energy that is the whole point of the image. Asking yourself what’s most important, or what this image is truly about, is the first step in exploring the possibilities for how to best express it.
Because I talk in terms of a subject’s best expression, please don’t mistake me for saying that there is only one set of “correct” decisions out there and it is the task of the photographer to find it. I can’t even imagine the pressure and creative paralysis that would happen if we approached our work this way. What I’m saying is that there are all kinds of options, and you get to choose which one works best for you, in this moment, under these circumstances, with the gear you have. There is incredible freedom in this perspective, but ultimately we have to choose. We play and risk and do what thrills us, but we have to begin with an understanding of—or a willingness to discover—what the photograph is about, and then find ways to show that.
When I teach these ideas, I am often met with dismay from photographers who say they don’t always know what they want to say before they pick up their cameras, and they wonder why it’s so clear and easy for others and not for them. It’s not. Not always. One of the beautiful things about this craft is that the camera is not only a means of expression; it is also a means of exploration. So while the next part of the book is about the means of expression, I think it’s probably helpful to begin talking about the camera as a tool for exploration and discovery.