“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. We ask questions such as:
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 by getting down low?
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 a recent post 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 times of reflection.
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.”
Put yourself into your images
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 love waterfalls and have really enjoyed trying to get the 'milky' water image.
I love to see reflections in the calm evening water. They always draw my eye and urge me to make an image
I love to capture the beauty of a new season
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.
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 love to return to this place. It is a place of calm and peace, and at times it offers perfect conditions for photography. Unfortunately it is not near where I live so I have to grab the opportunities when I can, but when I arrive here at evening light I just have to capture the beauty
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.
How do we do this?
We do it by finding out what it is we love, what gives us joy, what sparks our emotions, what makes our heart skip a beat!
When we capture the people, places and things that we love, that we feel passion for, then that passion will bring soul to our photographs.
“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
Do your photographs have soul?
Have a look through your photo collection and see if any of them draw your eye.
These are the images to which you have a special connection, the images that contain part of yourself, the images that have soul.
Make more of them.
Thank you for reading, and If you found this post useful, please feel free to share it.