Improving our photography. Part two - putting soul into our photographs.

Great photography is about depth of feeling, not depth of field.” – Peter Adams

I feel as though I am straying into unfamiliar territory as I consider aspects of photography such as vision and soul. Until now I have been concerned with improving the technical elements of the craft but, having recently read articles on some of the ‘deeper’ components involved in improving our photography, I realise that there is much more to becoming a good photographer than simply learning how to use a camera. It would be too easy to believe that if we buy an expensive camera, fit it with top of the range lenses and learn how to use it well, we’ll always take good photographs. Good camera equipment and good knowledge are obviously important, but they are not everything and in fact I recently viewed some excellent images captured with just an entry level camera and a kit lens! So, what is it that makes a good photograph? Or maybe a more accurate question would be, what makes a good photographer?

Every photographer has to make a lot of choices on a photo shoot. How will I frame the shot? Will I include this or exclude that? Will I take a close up shot or move away a little? Will I take the shot from eye level or will I take it looking up or looking down? What shutter speed/aperture will I use? How will I compose the image? Then there are considerations such as getting the right light and the right moment. All of these decisions, and many more, will affect the final shot, but even at that we have no guarantee of a good shot. So what makes the difference between the image that people will look at and move on and the image at which they might stop and look and admire?

In my last blog I wrote about the importance of having a vision for our photography. Vision, or intent, is undoubtedly important to the success of our images but this is an aspect of our craft that remains largely in the mind of the photographer. We can have a brilliant vision of what we would like to do yet bring it no further than just a vision. To be of value to our photography work, our vision has to take expression in the images we make. Just how do we translate our vision into reality? I believe this is done through the passion we have for the images we shoot; it comes about when we really care about our subjects. Top fashion photographer Tim Walker once said, “Only photograph what you love”, and to my mind there is real truth in this saying. It's the same for anything we do. If we do it with passion we are likely to get better results than if we have a lacklustre approach to what we do. I believe that if we start with a vision, then bring to our photography practice a passion for the images we create, our work will come alive, it will have ‘soul’.

Photographer and writer David du Chemin repeatedly talks of good photographs having ‘soul’. We may ask, how can objects have soul? My reading of this term is that photographs which are worth a second glance have something of the photographer in them, the photographer has invested some of his or her own passion and vision into the shot and has therefore imbued the work with ‘soul’.

Hozier is a musical artist for whom I have great admiration. He speaks through his music with a very authentic voice and to me his music has ‘soul’. Soul is not something that is easy to define, but Hozier’s own words go some way to explaining what it is:

All songs, all pieces of art, reflect the world that they were made in and the values of those artists and the hopes and aspirations of the people who listen to that music and who made that music.

We often hear people say that music has soul, that certain types of music touch them, elicit an emotional reaction, evoke memories and even drive action. In a similar way it is true to say that some types of photography have soul. Down through the ages photographs have aroused strong emotions in people – good photojournalism comes to mind – and some images have spurred people into action for one reason or another. Even at a more personal level, a beautiful portrait or a family image can bring a tear to the eye. Photographs are chosen as wall hangings because of the feelings they evoke in their audience, and very often landscapes, wildlife and nature photography, even abstract images, are used for reflective times. To my mind, the main thing that all these photographs have in common is that they depict ‘beauty’ in the broadest sense of the term, whether that beauty is courage borne out of difficult circumstances in a war torn country or an amazing sunset, whether it is beauty in the midst of squalor or a simple image of a child at play. My belief is that it is that inherent beauty in an image that speaks to us.

Just as every good musician wants to create music that speaks to the audience, so too, everyone who takes photography seriously wants to produce images that speak to others in some way. At the risk of repeating myself, I believe that in order to attain this there is something even more important than the aperture or shutter speed we use, or the type of lens we choose. We must have a vison for our photography, know what we want to achieve in terms of our images, and pursue that with a passion that will shine through in our work, even if the photographs themselves are not pin sharp. To repeat an often quoted saying of famous photographer, Ansel Adams, “There is nothing worse than a brilliant image of a fuzzy concept.”

I take lots of photographs but I only show those that ‘appeal’ to me in some way. They have something of myself, of my own world vision, invested in them. To my mind, that something is beauty in an image and I try to seek beauty wherever I can find it, even in the most unlikely places. I used to write poetry, not very good poetry and not for anyone’s eyes only my own, but it was my way of putting words on my thoughts and experiences at the time, a means of self-expression. Today I see photography as a way of expressing myself, of translating my experience of the world into something visual, something tangible.

I love waterfalls and have really enjoyed trying to get the 'milky' water image.

The eye of the beholder…

In many ways appreciation of photography, like appreciation of art or literature, is a very subjective pursuit. I may see something in a photograph that will not appeal to another person, just as in art or literature. Yet, objectively, there is still what is considered ‘good art’ or ‘good literature’, mainly because of the talent of the writer or artist which is invested in their art form. No-one will deny the talent of Charles Dickens as a writer, whether or not they enjoy his writing. In the same way there is ‘good photography’; images that are chosen carefully and framed a certain way, that use light to full advantage and where the photographer’s passion and skill are evident. Good photographers produce good photography and one of the best ways of becoming better at photography, as well as taking more pictures, is to study good photography, see how good photographers work, see where the passion is evident in the images they produce. While not everyone can aspire to becoming a great photographer, the good news is that we can all improve at our craft as long as we have a passion for what we do, are willing to work on getting the basic techniques right and try to inject a little ‘soul’ into our work.

I don’t know if my images have soul or not, maybe that really is in the eye of the beholder! However, I am heartened by this description of soul from photographer Alain Briot.

“Soul is brought about by the care and the craftsmanship used to create the work…This soul is the personality of the artist. It is the demonstration of personal choices and the decision to implement a personal idea rather than other people’s ideas.”

I certainly do try to have a passion for the shots I take and feel something for the images I keep and share. I find that when I put time, energy and feeling into creating a photograph the result is more pleasing to me than when I just take a snapshot on my phone camera. I try to take photographs that only I can take, that show my perspective of the world. I like to post the images that I enjoyed taking and that I care about. They may not appeal to everyone, but if they appeal to me there might be at least one other person out there who will be touched in some way by the images I take, and that is a good starting point to having ‘soul’ in my photographs!

I sometimes like to work in themes – I will spend time finding different examples that illustrate the particular theme. This requires some thought and decision making as well as the making of the actual photographs. The first three photographs below are on the theme ‘paths’, while the theme of the second three photographs is ‘reflections’.

At times I like to explore a topic from different angles and perspectives, e.g flowers. Again, there is some investment of thought, planning, interaction with the subject in creating the best possible image for myself. When I am making photographs – composing the scene, working different angles – I can forget that time exists and all my focus is on the image at hand.

Macro/close up, ‘bits and pieces’.

I like to spend time exploring interesting places, especially what might normally go unseen. I like to find beauty in the mundane and to appreciate nature in all its forms, even decaying plants or not so perfect flowers. I enjoy capturing images of small things, hidden things, parts of things, and showing off their beauty.

Photography is essentially about finding beauty in the world, sometimes even among the pain of human life, as is found in the work of good documentary photographers. Sometimes when I walk in nature with my camera, in the local park or in the mountains, I walk more slowly than usual and observe what’s around me so that when an opportunity to make a photograph calls me, I’m there to capture the moment.

I love taking these photographs, especially as nature has so much to offer!

Portraiture is not an area that I have worked in to any extent, but this special little lady loves to be my model and I love experimenting with taking pictures that will be worth printing and framing. Lots of work to do in this area, I think!

“A great photograph is a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense and is, thereby, a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety.” Ansel Adams