Working A Subject – Photographically Speaking

One of the things I most notice, since the advent of digital imaging, is the number of photographs people take. Once you have your camera, lenses, and memory cards there is no additional cost to taking pictures so I can see how it seems to make sense to keep on clicking. In the good old days of film (I’m only joking, I love digital photography) there was a cost to each shutter click. Every exposure cost money to process in order to see the results. 100 slightly different images of the same thing were not a good investment for most people with a camera.

Nowadays it seems that it’s perfectly ok to not only shoot 100 slightly different images of the same subject, but it is also ok to share every single one of them with your facebook pals.

Unfortunately, it isn’t strictly true that there is no additional cost to shooting 100 slightly different images – there is. The cost is the time it takes to look at them all, upload them all, and if you are even a little bit serious about your work, then to check every one just to find the best 10. The best ten then need tweaking in Lightroom or Photoshop or whatever you use.

I can understand the machine gun approach to rapidly moving subjects, such as you encounter at sporting events, but for anything relatively stationary it is totally unnecessary and just lets the world know that you have no idea what you are doing.

Working a subject is different, and I’ll show you why.

For my example I’ll share with you a subject that I took 27 shots of. This is a single subject – a small group of gazania blooms – that I found in a garden I was photographing. Now you may think that 27 shots comes very close to that machine-gunning of a subject that I was being critical about earlier. But for this series I had automatic exposure bracketing set on my camera so each image I set up produced three different exposures. So there were really only 9 separate images. This starts to look a little less like machine-gunning and a bit more like thoughtful photography, don’t you think.

So what exactly is working the subject as opposed to just being trigger happy?

Over the many years I’ve been taking pictures I have found that the first picture I take of a subject is rarely the one I like best, and the last one usually is. My approach to a relatively static subject is to wander around it; notice how the light is falling on it; and observe how the background changes as I change my position. Then I consider how changing the height of the camera can affect things –like placing the subject against the sky instead of a cluttered background. I find something I like, take a picture, move then take another. When I check the result on the view screen, that framed version of my subject lets me know how I want to improve that image, and tells me what isn’t quite right. So I move again, change aperture if I want more or less depth of field, or maybe change shutter speed if I’m taking pictures of something blowing in the wind or moving – like water.

So I take another, check it and repeat the process.

While I do this I become more and more engaged with my subject. It’s almost as if a relationship begins to develop, and as I get to know my subject better I get closer to what I want.

Let me guide you through my process and show you the images for the example I mentioned earlier.

What I am photographing is a small group of flowers about 8 inches tall that were only accessible from a path to one side of the flower bed, so there was a quite limited number of shooting options. All images were taken with a Canon 100mm Macro lens. They have only had minor adjustments made in Lightroom and you are seeing the uncropped images.

This was my first image. Looking straight down, my intention with daisy type flowers like this would be a square crop. But notice the most obvious thing I didn’t like. The foliage of this plant is covered with silver hairs that catch the light, so that leaf, lower right, is just a big distracting highlight. The petals were pointing upwards and not lying flat so the depth of field is insufficient. Apart from those technical issues it’s just a bit, well, boring.

My second attempt is an improvement. I found two blooms together and thought that the asymmetry they produced was a little more interesting than the single flower. The petals growing through each other offered a little intimacy, and the general mess of silver-edged foliage in the background, while still a little distracting, is better than the first image.

At this point I changed my viewpoint from looking down to looking across.

I still wanted to see into the centre of the flowers so my viewpoint was still higher than them. This is getting closer to what I want but that leaf tip lower right and the closed flower are irritating. Also I placed the subject too low in the frame. But I like the group of three, and I like that viewpoint.

Here is the shot I ended up liking best.

I moved the subject a little higher in the frame and adjusted the exposure so that the backlighting was more obvious. Had this been my garden I would have removed the dead head in the background and tied the unopened bud out of the way and maybe done a little gardening around the subject to improve things a little.

I’m not suggesting that this is the perfect result, but I wanted to demonstrate how thoughtfulness produces much fewer exposures than machine-gunning and gives you a much better end result.

I’ve used flowers as an example but any subject would have done, however, if flower photography interests you then check out my beginner’s guide to flower photography.

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