What do you use your camera for? This might seem like a silly question at first glance. ‘Taking pictures of course’, would be the just as silly reply. But there is a lot more to photography than simply taking pictures. What do you take pictures of? How do you frame and portray your world? What role do you see a camera having in your life?
Depending on your nature and how long you have been involved in photography, you might or might not have asked yourself these types of questions already. And one the most amazing things about photography is that there are so many ways to use the camera and each of us bring ourselves to that task. There is no right or wrong way. But one thing is for sure – the more we think about the what and the why, the more we will expand our idea of what photography can be and the more our photographic practice will expand.
I spend a lot of time in and around the photography community on the Sunshine Coast, both in person, in classes and social groups, and on the web as well. In recent months I have been increasingly intrigued by the type of photography I see the vast majority of people practising (or at least sharing). By far the largest “type” of photography I see is what I would call ‘natural light landscapes’. This could be characterised by the photographer finding already existing scenes (beach scenes, forest scenes, waterfalls, storm and lighting scenes, etc) and using different techniques like long exposures, nd filters, hdr, as well as the usual photographic skills of being there at the right time of day with the right settings and composition, to create a pretty representation of reality.
When I think about it, it is not really that surprising to me that this is the case. Landscape photography is a genre that pretty much everyone loves and it’s an obvious way for people to get some use out of their camera. Portraits are the other most common genre, but most portraiture is personal and domestic and those pictures don’t get shared as much. The natural light part comes from the fact that the world is often beautifully lit, and so it makes sense to use that available lighting. There is a smaller issue as well, that some photographers simply haven’t learned how to use external lighting, but considering the difficulty of mastering external lighting it’s no surprise that it is said that more than 85% of photographer use only natural lighting.
So now, let me explain my position. I love photography. I love pretty pictures. A beautiful landscape hangs on my loungeroom wall. But that’s NOT what brought me into photography and it’s NOT what makes me tick personally as a photographer. I have absolutely no problem with natural light landscapes and I take them myself on occasion. But what does intrigue me, is why there aren’t more people using the camera for other purposes, particularly in the amateur sphere. In the commercial realm, things are very different of course. Suddenly people become the most common subjects and external lighting is almost ubiquitous. But in many ways I think the narrowness of what the amatuer world seems to be doing (and granted, it is a huge generalisation that I am basing this post on) comes from the way people think about cameras and therefore how they use them. So if you are still here, let’s look at this.
The camera is a great tool for documenting places and capturing moments. We know that. (Some people, who aren’t photographers, have such a limited idea of photography that they think that’s pretty much all a camera does! And I’d think the mainstream media has a lot of responsibility for that attitude) And let’s face it – the camera is indeed a remarkable device for both these tasks. I love using my camera to record special family moments, milestones, events, or just momentary expressions or actions. Wedding photographers practically live off this side of the camera.
Due to the nature of photography, an image is a slice of time; a ‘moment’, and depending on when we press the shutter, we typically freeze that moment in time. Who hasn’t heard of Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’ after all.. But what is a moment in photographic terms? Photography is the only medium I know that plays around with time so amazingly. A moment might be that shot you took of a tree-lined country lane at 1/250th of a second. But isn’t a 30 second exposure also just a long moment? Photographically speaking it is, as it’s still recorded in one single frame. Time compressed into one shot. So using the camera’s ability to play with time is a great source of creativity and fun, and we already see that in those long exposure landscapes I see all the time. But how could we use that special trick of the camera in other ways? Well, that is for you to discover. The world of long exposures is a remarkable one, and there are more possibilities than most people could ever imagine. Start with a google image search on the term long exposure. Have a good long look and you will never think of the term a ‘moment’ in the same way.
The other main thing I want to discuss is reality. Now that we realise that the camera can do MUCH MORE than depict reality, and that we are in no way beholden to reproduce reality, we can ask ourselves what subject matter we want to use in our images. As a teenager, I came into photography from a perspective of storytelling. I have always loved movies, music, books; in fact anything that told a story. And so when I saw the wonderful work of American photographer Duane Michals in he late 70s I was amazed at what photography could do as a storytelling medium. It could tell amazing stories and there were no limits to what you could do with reality. I got my first camera and I was instantly hooked.
Portraits, as well, are under-practised within the amatuer world. Or perhaps just under shared. A portrait is a powerful story and like landscapes we are all interested in a good portrait. Biologically we are interested in people’s faces and shooting portraits will teach you a whole new set of skills than what you have learned doing landscapes. It requires a totally different approach. But I don’t see many people sharing portraits. Obviously a tree or a beach is a much more patient subject, but a good portrait can be as captivating as any other photo.
So let me make this clear. Shooting sport, or landscapes or birds or macro shots of flowers and insects is all good. They are valid subjects and I see some incredibly great shots from talented and dedicated photographers, and I totally appreciate all the great work I see. But where I’m coming from is to try and awaken the creative and adventurous spirit of people with cameras to try something new, particularly if they are drawn to the storytelling aspect or the camera’s ability to represent time. For these are two incredibly strong areas of creativity with the photographic medium, and are basically inexhaustible.
So try something new. Think about what you want to use your camera for, and what subconscious limitations you might have placed on yourself. As an aside, I would really recommend the David DuChemin book, Within The Frame, for some deep reading and thinking on the art and craft of photography. Once you’ve thought about it, take your camera out and take a different photo. Try a portrait. Or an abstract. Perhaps a long exposure with light painting. Or a portrait with all of the above :)
PS. Perhaps there are other reasons for the preponderance of natural light landscapes and nature shots out there, and if you have a take on any of this please leave a comment.