Competing with someone I know I can beat: myself.
In 2010, right around this time of year, I took my Jeep and camera out into the desert east of Wickenburg for a bit of what I call photojeeping. Along the way, I made many stops and shot many images of the wildflowers that were in such abundance that day. On that day, I also shot what I still consider to be my best photo.
Let me take a moment to describe what I consider a great photo. Simply put, it needs to meet certain criteria:
- First Impression = Wow! You know how that goes. You look at a photo or piece of artwork or even something that’s not normally considered “art” and your first response is a mental or even audible “Wow!” What you’re seeing captures your attention and holds it. It makes you really look at it. Examples of wow photos can be found daily on The Big Picture and other news sites that feature extraordinary photography. What makes you say “wow” is likely to be different from what makes me say “wow,” but I’m pretty sure there’s some overlap. I’m pretty picky, though, so I’m not likely to say “wow” about a photo as quickly as some other folks. In fact, I’ve been in groups looking at photos that seemed to impress just about everyone but me. The point: it takes a lot to impress me.
- Composition. This is one of the things that separates real photographers from people who take snapshots. A real photographer — someone who is actually thinking about the photo before he pushes the shutter button — will study the scene before him and determine how to best frame the elements within it. Composing with the Rule of Thirds in mind seldom leads to a bad photo, but there’s so much more to consider than that. Does a composition have depth through the inclusion of foreground and background subjects? Are elements arranged in an aesthetically pleasing way? Too many people don’t realize that a photo’s composition can be dramatically altered by standing two feet to the right, moving ten feet closer to a subject, or shooting from a kneeling position instead of standing up. And then there’s the choice of lens and focal length — it’s so much more complex than just magnification. Is the composition of the subject matter as good as it could be?
Light. I can’t overstate how vitally important light is for good photography. Consider a subject like the Grand Canyon. Thousands of people visit every day and most of them are clicking away with their cameras. But how many of them are actually making good photos? I’ve been at the Grand Canyon countless times at all times of the day and night. (Have you ever seen the Grand Canyon by the light of a full moon in the winter time, with a blanket of fresh snow on the rim? Try it sometime.) I can assure you that there’s nothing less interesting than a full-frame shot of the canyon taken from the Rim outside Bright Angel Lodge at midday on a perfectly clear day. It looks completely unimpressive and downright flat. Yet that’s what so many people shoot. If you’re serious about photography and making a good picture, you’ll come back when the light is better — low in the sky or maybe filtered between clouds. You’ll let the deep shadows created by nature add depth to the image. You’ll let the golden color of the light add a warm glow to your scene and bring out the natural red color of the canyon walls.
Mechanics. I’m talking here about basics like focus and exposure. A photo could meet all the other criteria, but if its out of focus or improperly exposed, it fails as a good photo. Let’s face it: if you’re serious about photography, you need to master focus and exposure settings on your camera first, before you spend a lot of time, effort, and perhaps money trying to capture great images.
These are just four of many criteria that can be used to judge the quality of a photographic image. They’re the four top criteria I use when I judge mine.
I realized a while back that I’m in a never-ending photo competition, one where I’m always trying to beat myself. I make what I consider a good (or even great) photo and I then try to make one that’s better.
Sometimes it seems easy. For example, when I shot my Desert Still Life (shown at the top of this post), I was unhappy with the focus. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t the best it could be. So I figured I’d just go back and try again. Although only two days had passed, the scene was dramatically different; I’d have to wait at least a year to try again. Timing, in this case, was everything. I got lucky for my good shot.
(Permit me to take a moment to critique this photo a bit more. Focus isn’t the only problem. The other problem is the sky: it’s too damn blue. This is a problem we have in Arizona — most days there simply aren’t any clouds in the sky. A few clouds — heck, even a contrail — would have made this photo a lot better. But there’s nothing I could do about that. Sure, if I waited for a partly cloudy day, I could have gotten a better desert scene. But would those cactus flower have been in such spectacular full bloom?)
So now I just try to beat that shot and others I also think are good with new and interesting subjects. It’s tough. Sometimes I’ll be at a place where I think I can pull it off and I wind up walking away with an SD card with a handful of disappointing images. But I don’t give up. And I keep experimenting — mostly to learn what works and what doesn’t.
And I think that’s the only way to improve at anything: to keep trying to be your best. To look at past achievements and work hard to take things to the next level. To learn from experience and experimentation.
Sure, along the way there will be plenty of frustrations. But will there ever be so many that I give up? I don’t think so.