The title of this post may seem a little odd, and I am willing to bet that most people reading this would say they Take Photographs – so let’s unpack that and see what this is all about.
The first thing to look a little closer at is the language of photography. Phrases such as framing a subject, capturing an image, taking the shoot or the photo, and pressing the trigger are all standard terms in photography. But, more generally, terms like frame, take, expose, capture, and shoot all have violent connotations suggesting a certain level of entitlement built into the language of photography.
A painter would never dream of saying, “I took that painting.” If he did, he would be accused of stealing and thought of as a thief. However, in photography, we constantly use the term when we say, I took that photograph. I speculate that the mechanical aspect of photography is partially responsible for creating these strange terms. Photography seems like a simple process for most people: pointing a camera at something and pressing the trigger to Shoot the Image. For many, the idea that we can somehow control what we put into the camera when the device records everything in front of it seems wrong. The question is how using terms like Taking and Capturing affects our understanding of photography and how we create better images.
A friend of mine wondered about my Bio, where I stated that.
I am a photographer, and I make photographs.
She was curious about the phrase Make Photographs rather than Take Photographs, and I think that is what this whole debate boils down to. Taking a Photograph suggests that a photographer snaps away at a subject without control of the scene unfolding in front of him. Instead, we Take what is offered – end of story.
On the other hand, the phrase Making a Photograph, suggests there is a creative process at work and that the photographer, like the painter, has a choice in how and what goes into the image. New York photographer Jay Maisel is famous for saying.
You, as the photographer, are under no obligation to include everything in your photograph, and you are responsible for every square inch of your photo. There are no neutral elements in your image. Everything either adds or detracts from the work.
Canadian Photographer David DuChemin talks about photography as being
The art of exclusion
And California Photographer Ken Rockwell talks about photographic composition in terms of S.E.X.
Simplify and EXclude
They hint that you, as the photographer, are responsible for how you frame your photo and what you choose to include within the frame. To the snap-happy-phone-camera-yielding crowd, this may seem like an odd statement. But, short of using Photoshop, how can you exclude what is in front of your camera? I believe this is where the difference between Taking and Making comes in.
Anyone can Take an Image – point the camera in any direction and press the trigger. According to the Queensland University of Technology, in Australia, we collectively upload approximately 3.2 billion photographs daily to social media. I'm sure the vast bulk of these images is snapshots that belong in the Take Category. I think the probability of one of these snapshots becoming a memorable image is about as likely as the idea that an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters will accidentally create a Shakespearean sonnet.
On the other hand, Making a memorable Image requires vision, ideas, and careful consideration of how best to frame the subject matter and allude to the subject. This proactive, creative approach to photography is much more likely to produce better images to create a lasting impression with an audience. To be clear, I am not talking about post-processing using Photoshop to add and subtract stuff after the image is made. Instead, I am talking about simple changes done at the moment of capture, like changes in focal length, depth of field, inclusion and exclusion of some aspects by the placement of the camera and so on. Well-known photographers like Sebastiao Selgado are famous precisely because they can consistently frame only the elements that make the image a great one.
If you line up ten photographers in front of the same scene and ask them to photograph what they see – you will get ten very different images.
The difference between Taking and Making boils down to the level of attention afforded the task when the photographer creating a photo decides where to point the camera and when to press the shutter. The difference is that the Take Category of image makers think little and choose poorly before pressing the shutter. Whereas the Make Category has a vision and makes better choices regarding framing and what to include or exclude before pressing the shutter. There is, of course, also a certain level of technical prowess included in the process, but it is becoming increasingly less relevant as camera technologies continue to evolve and improve.
So, what are some things you can do to make better images? First and foremost, think about the scene in front of you and what you would like people to take away – what is your vision for the image? Second, focus on the elements that make your vision stronger, include those, and remove the aspects that weaken your idea.
For example, text in an image, unless the image is about the text, is more distracting than most realize, as viewers will subconsciously read the text over and over. So pay attention next time you look at an image that contains text – I bet you will find yourself lingering.
Likewise, highly recognizable objects, like children, animals, symbols, and bright primary colours, for example, can be very distracting and should be excluded if they are not part of your vision.
Next, think about how you can make your image different if you are photographing something which we see by the millions every day – like a sunset, for example. Try something else, turn around and look at the reflection from the sunset instead of shooting straight into the sun, which rarely works out well anyway.
Can you allude to the sunset through reflections or colours in the sky rather than just photographing a glowing orange ball of fire? Simplify and innovate. Tell us about the sunset without showing us the sunset. Or better yet, use the incredible light from the sunset to do something else like the image I have included here.
Don’t show me what the place looks like – show me what it feels like. David DuChemin
Try and recreate the feeling you had when you made the photograph. For example, if you are in awe of the colours – think of ways to make them appear and be awesome. If you enjoy the moment's serenity, create that feeling in your audience with your image rather than an indiscriminate record of time and place.
There is much more to say about this topic, and I am sure I will return to it repeatedly. In the meantime, and if you are not already doing this, try and change your vocabulary from Taking a Picture to Making a Picture – I think you will find that it engages your creative side differently, helping you create more exciting work.