Slow Down Your Picture Taking!

by William Lulow

There was an article in the paper last week or so about how many high schools are using analog techniques (film, darkroom, chemicals and photo paper) to teach photography. I have to admit that when I was first learning how to develop film and make prints, I was fascinated by the process and the “magic” involved in seeing a print “appear” in a developing tray under the safelight! (I still have that same entranced feeling even when I see an image come up on the computer screen).

The article goes on to say that the whole analog process made people really think about what they were photographing and why! When you have only 36 shots on a roll (for medium format, it was usually 12 and for sheet film with view cameras, one!), and you have to develop the film, wait for it to dry, make a contact sheet, select the frame you wanted to enlarge, clean the negative, insert it into the enlarger, make an exposure, then run the print through first, the developer, then the stopbath, finally the fixer and then wash it for a half hour….it made you think twice about just which images were worth all that work!

These days, the digital imaging process lets you take as many shots as your SD or CD card will hold, sometimes in rapid succession. Many people just take a lot of pictures in hopes that one will be really great. This is the wrong way to go about the process of taking pictures!

What I have been telling all my students (and anyone else who will listen), is first, to get a clear image in your mind of the kind of photograph you wish to make. Then, either go out and find a location that you know well, or set up an indoor (studio) shot with equipment that you know equally well and try to duplicate an image that you have seen in your mind’s eye. Or, absent a clear vision of your own, try to duplicate a photograph that has caught your eye before! I know that it’s been said that copying something is the sincerest form of flattery, but when learning how to think more deeply about the photographic process, it is another way to train your senses.

I remember trying to duplicate portrait lightings that I saw over and over again from the Avedons, Halsmans, Penns and any other photographer I admired. I would look closely at the catchlights in their subjects’ eyes and shadows in each image to try to determine the position of lights in the studio. I studied endless numbers of magazine photographs with the idea of duplicating the results. I pored over poses, props and angles, then tried to copy the images with my own setups.

My point is that I spent a great deal of time studying successful images before I tried it myself! If you are intent on making better pictures, you should really spend a lot of time thinking about the process first. In our digital age, you can see results immediately, which doesn’t help the thinking process much! When I was learning, I had to go through the whole development process (outlined above) before I knew if I succeeded or not! It sharpened by vision skills! Today, I often find myself imagining what an image would look like without even using a camera.

This is such an image. I was driving by this spot and actually passed it by! Then, it was actually in my rear-view mirror that I saw its possibilities and turned around. All that was left was to find the correct angle to duplicate what I saw in the mirror.

This was a spot that I have driven by several times without actually taking any pictures. Finally, one day, all the elements seemed right to make this pastoral, winter scene…talk about going slow!! This experience reminds me of a photographer I met a while ago who went out to one of the national parks and just sat in one spot for a couple of weeks, waiting for an ideal light! Now, that’s being patient!

This was a shot that I thought about before I actually made it. I just didn’t know what the location would be like, so I had to work around several elements to achieve the image I saw in my mind first!

This brings me back to going slow when it comes to making images. Someone once asked the famous director Alfred Hitchcock if he spent time watching his own movies. His response: “…not really. I’ve seen them all in my mind!” There is really no substitute for having some kind of clear vision when you start to make a photograph. Staying in close touch with your own psychological frame of mind is probably the best way. If you know what you are feeling, you can probably get a good idea of how to translate that feeling into the elements of a photograph. But, you also have to be thoroughly versed in the language of pictures as well.