Your camera can show me what you saw. I need you to control your camera and tell me what you saw.
Think about it… we could mount a camera on a tripod and have it shoot a frame every minute or so and it will show us what is in front of it. What it sees is what we get.
What's my point?
The camera has no emotions. No opinion. It is not surprised. It has no sense of humor, nor is it saddened. It's a machine that performs a function. It does what it is told… supposedly.
What the camera requires is a human… a photographer. Someone to supply the emotion, the opinion, the surprise, the sense of humor, the sadness. It needs you.
So when I ask you to tell me what you saw, I'm being literal. I want to know what YOU saw. I want you to connect me to the scene. I want your point of view. Otherwise, send a postcard that says "Wish you were here."
When you come upon a scene or photo opportunity you should be having a personal reaction to it. Your next thought should be to think about your emotional response… what is "moving" you about this scene or subject. Now begin to deconstruct the components that are making impressions on you. Start composing in your head… and just like structuring a sentence, then constructing a paragraph, organize how you want to tell me what you see.
Let's use sunsets as an example. Everyone shoots them. Often, they're not very good… both technically and visually.
Here are elements I look for when trying to shoot a great sunset.
Asses the sky and the foreground. Which is more interesting. Which is bringing more drama to the scene? Now adjust your horizon accordingly.
Find a landmark or feature that will locate your photo. I don't mean you need the Brooklyn Bridge or the Pyramids… but give me something that tells me you're at the beach, on the ocean, in the city or woods.
Use people or trees to silhouette against the sun. Try to capture birds in flight.
Lower your perspective. Get down low… especially if you're shooting with a wide angle.
The thing is, the sun going down isn't going to photograph with the emotion you are feeling while you're standing there. Here on the Gulf, every evening tons of tourists rush to the beach to shoot the setting sun. Usually with a built in flash. Hence, there are tons of crappy photos out there showing the sun setting on the horizon. And oh by the way… horizons are infinite. Now I know these folks are having a great time…. and I know they'll tell all of their Facebook friends how amazing the sunset was and "the photo really doesn't do it justice…" That's because they let the camera show us what it saw.
In five years of living in Southwest Florida I can only think of one photo of mine that I really like that contains nothing but the sun going down on the horizon over the Gulf. One.
My favorites typically include the pier, boats, birds, surfers, waves washing onto the sand…. and usually always emphasize how the setting sunlight is playing off my surroundings. In fact, the majority of great sunset photos come after the sun has set.
After the sun has set we get twilight. As you know, the earth is round. So, while the sun drops below the horizon, the sky above us did not. What will happen is the sun will now reflect onto the sky (and hopefully clouds) above us. This is when you get the crazy reds and orange against some remaining blue.
You can also cheat your sunset shots a little by playing with your exposure. You can rush the clock a bit by underexposing your shots. Experiment. Take meter readings from other parts of your scene. I will often meter the side of the pillars of the Naples Pier or take a reading of the horizon with the sun out of frame.
Lastly, don't forget to look behind you. Sunsets throw amazing light… it's called the Magic Hour (remember?) … in the gallery, notice the shot of the bridge in my neighborhood and the sunset shot taken on the Atlantic. Both are looking east with great color coming off the sunset.
OK… so this entry didn't start off to be about sunsets, but it is a shot that often fails and shouldn't. So it is a good example of how you shouldn't relay on what you see. It may be "wow" while you're standing there… but your viewer needs you to package up that "wow" and put it into the photo so they can enjoy it too.
Use your photographic skills to tell me the whole story.