From Taking Pictures to Making Pictures

May 16, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

When most people take a photo with either their camera or smartphone, their primary aim is to capture what they see before them.  When we travel or get together with family or friends, we often want to document and record those moments to help tell the story to others and for ourselves as time goes by.  

Taking a photo can also help imprint the moment for those holding the camera.  Many of my most memorable moments while traveling are often connected to the act of bringing my camera's viewfinder to my face and clicking the shutter button.  No more than a few seconds after taking this street-life image in the fortress city of Jaisalmer, India was I struck in the head with a tennis ball used by kids playing cricket (you can see them in the distance).  While I'm sure I would likely never forget being hit with a hard-stuck ball, it's this photo that brings the moment back to life in a way that non-photographed moments during my travels do not.  Capturing what we see in front of us to relive these moments later is an often unconsidered but important component of picture taking.

However, with more experience and study I've realized that photography can be something other than just capturing what I see.  A spectrum exists between taking pictures and making pictures.  What is the difference?  We take pictures when our main objective is to simply document what we see before us.  The term "photojournalismis synonymous with this concept.  The goal here is to photograph a scene with little to no influence by the photographer that would affect the scene and its subjects.

We make pictures when we use the various tools at our disposal - composition, exposition, perspective, light, posing, lens choice - to shape what is captured by our cameras.  To give an example of these two concepts, take a look at the two images below:

 

   

 

The image on the left is a clear example of taking a picture.  This is an unscripted moment I captured of a groom consulting with the minister while his groomsmen in the background pass the time through the fine art of taking a selfie.  This was a natural moment captured with no direction or requests by me the photographer.  

Contrast the image on the left with the image of the bride on the right.  Almost every aspect of this image was the result of my direction and vision.  From the position and pose of the bride, to the composition of the image to include various elements, to the off-camera lighting that highlights the dress - all aspects were crafted and directed by me.  This image also received more attention in Photoshop than the image on the left because the nature of the image called for it.  This bridal image was made by me, the photographer.

It is important to note that no image is an absolute illustration of picture taking or picture making.  As I mentioned earlier, the principles of photo taking and photo exist on a spectrum.  Photojournalists may strive to remove all traces of their involvement, but decisions regarding exposure, composition, and lens choice incorporate a level of picture making by the photographer.  A fashion photographer may strive to control every single element of a photo, but they're still at the mercy of their subject and the emotion and feeling they're able to capture from them.  Here are two examples where it could be argued that elements of both picture making and taking are present:

 

      

 

The image on the left of the newlywed bride and groom involved elements of posing, perspective and additional lighting.  But the emotion expressed by each subject is genuine and reflects how they felt about each other.  Twenty years into their marriage this image will hopefully recall how they felt on the day of their wedding.  The image on the right, of a grandmother overwhelmed with emotion as she embraces her granddaughter's new husband draws on photo taking but also includes elements of photo making.  The emotion of this image is enhanced and elevated both by using a telephoto lens to isolate the subjects and the assistance off camera lighting.  

So why is this important and why does it matter to you?   For those currently looking for a photographer to capture their wedding, it's crucial to examine a photographer's work for their ability to both take and make pictures.  Being able to take great photos does not necessarily indicate how good a photographer is at making great images.  Both represents and demonstrates distinct photographic skill sets.  When evaluating potential wedding photographers, a good starting point is to examine how much of their portfolio includes unscripted moments that capture the feel of the moment versus how adept are they at making photos. If a certain approach to wedding photography matters or speaks to you more, then one should consider this factor when shopping for a wedding photographer.  Just because a photographer can capture wonderful and whimsical candid moments does not necessarily indicate their ability to make photos through advanced lighting, posing, or composition.

However, even if you're not in the market for a wedding or event photographer, this understanding of photography can greatly improve your own image results. 

Considering photo taking versus photo making can be brought into your own photography, whether at home or on during one's travels.  We can use elements of composition and perspective to greatly affect how we record a scene with our cameras.  A great way to emphasize one aspect of a scene is to bring that element closer to your camera.  On my return walk back to my hotel in the early morning hours in Prague, I noticed the sunrise was reflecting off the windows and kissing the cobblestone street before me.  To bring attention to what I felt was the focal point of the scene, I lowered my camera to a few inches above the ground.  This image could have been taken at eye level but such a perspective would not have emphasized the cobblestone street and the early-morning light, thus producing a less compelling image.

Another method to make pictures during our travels is to play with exposure.  This can be done with most modern smartphones and cameras by telling the camera to record more or less light (a future blog post will explain how this can be done).  Sometimes it's worthwhile to lower or raise the exposure to capture elements that make the image more compelling.  In this image, photographed by my wife, the exposure was set to capture the sky instead of the foreground, creating a beautiful silhouette of myself in Iceland:

 

 

If the camera had been exposed properly to capture the foreground and myself, the sky would have been blown out, making it a far less compelling image.  Check back to my blog soon for instructions on how to play around with exposure to capture different elements within a scene.

One final method to making pictures while either at home or away is to play with a camera's depth of field.  Controlling how much is in focus within your camera's viewfinder or smartphone screen can greatly affect the look and feel of an image.  Newer smartphones and all DSLRs have the ability to manipulate depth of field by raising or lower the aperture in the lens.  Without going into too much technical detail, the larger the aperture the fewer elements will be in focus.  When taking images of great landscapes, it's preferable to raise your camera's aperture to ensure as much of the scene is in focus.  But there are times when a low aperture, and hence a shallow depth of field, can create a different look and feel to an image:

 

 

This image actually incorporates all three concepts I've just covered.  The perspective is from a lower vantage point, allowing me to capture the swan as my subject while using the city of Lucerne, Switzerland as my background.  I've also exposed for the swan despite blowing out the sky since the swan is a more compelling subject than what lies behind (another travel photography tip: get up at day break to capture better images due to better lighting and far fewer people/tourists).  And finally, a low aperture helps isolate the swan from the background while also providing a more dreamy look and feel to the scene.  This image is still largely an example of image taking, since I have little control over the lighting, the setting, and the swan as my subject, but by including elements of image making it was possible to produce a better image than had I taken this image mid-day, at eye-level, and on auto camera settings. 

 


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