Over the past few months I've been attending an author's lecture series as part of my professional development as a licensed educator. The course has been fascinating in that much of the advice the authors give for developing their craft overlaps with my own musings and experiences on developing as a photographer. This overlap is often a source of inspiration. This month's featured author shared some great words of advice for aspiring writers (and teachers of aspiring writers). His advice: read as many good books as you can get your hands on. Sounds obvious, right? But, what the author made clear was merely reading a bookshelf full of good books is only a first step. The true value in reading these benchmarks of literature lies in learning to see from the author's perspective, analyzing the technical and creative choices they made during the creative process. A well-written book is meticulous and deliberate. There is reason behind every sentence, every period, and behind how every chapter begins and ends. As photographers we don't have the luxury to exert such extreme control over our art, we are forever constrained by working with a concrete world, yet the advice to dive deep into the creative decision making process of admired photographers is absolutely golden. Studying mentor images can be a valuable exercise regardless of experience level.
Before you hop online and wade into the photographic weeds, there are some ways to approach this process which may lead to better outcomes. First, It's important to choose photographers, not photographs. Stay away from 500px or Flickr, or Facebook, or Google+, or any other photo sharing website which overwhelms with an eclectic bombardment of images and personality. Instead make a short list of old masters, well respected modern photographers, and lesser known photographers whose work repeatedly speaks to you. Visit their websites and get comfortable.
View a series of their images, not just a single photograph. Spend time contemplating an entire gallery's worth of images as you try to uncover the mindset of the photographer. Linger over each image for a minute or two as you ask questions and formulate answers. Consider the season the image was made. What was the weather? What conditions or mood was the photographer after? How did the photographer use the frame? Why were compositional elements arranged the way they are? Why were they included in the first place? Why was this particular camera level chosen? How would lowering it or raising have changed the image? How about left or right? How were lines, shapes, size relations, and tonal values used in composing the scene? How does this arrangement move the eye around the frame? What is the quality of light and how does it benefit the shot? What if the image was taken a little later or earlier, what effect would that have? How was focal length selected? Why did the photographer choose a longer focal length? To isolate? To compress? To create an intimate or abstract image? How was a wide angle lens used to create a more dynamic, near/ far composition? Are there any similarities or differences in approach between images? If the photographer shared camera settings you can go deeper into the technical side of things, considering how a particular combination of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO was used to the photographer's advantage. How did the combination effect the feeling of motion, or lack of motion? Were sacrifices made, and if so, why? Another exercise is to picture yourself out in the field preparing to capture this scene. Visualize physically getting your tripod out, mounting your camera, carefully choosing the perspective, and then making the exposure. Finally, visit your own images and ask a similar line of questions. This may make you want to drag a few images into the trash bin, but it'll pay dividends down the road!
Give it a try. You'll most likely discover that photographs, much like well written books, have a creative history to share. Information unearthed by studying them can lead to a deeper understanding of why and how successful images work. There's one additional benefit to spending time with mentor image-- it plays a role in developing shooter's intuition, a powerful force to harness while shooting in the field. That's definitely a topic for another day...