Making Photographs

I ended my first post with an Ansel Adams quote, and shall begin this one with another:

     You don’t take a photograph, you make it.
    –Ansel Adams

What did he mean by this? Ansel was known to approach photography with a very scientific mindset; remember that back then you couldn’t review the histogram on the back of the camera, so you had to get a correct exposure right then and there. When he set up his camera, he knew what exposure he would need to make the scene look the way he wanted it. He knew what filter to use on the lens, and he most certainly knew what aperture he wanted to set the lens at in order to achieve his desired depth of field. The remaining, non-mechanical issue was that of composition; again, Ansel would study his subject, sometimes for years (often a mountain that he knew well from having visited it many times during his life) and he would choose the best location from where to take the photograph. This location could be different depending on the time of day and/or year. In conjunction with the location of his camera, he would decide what focal length lens to use and choose the point of focus. A higher value focal length affords a higher magnification, with a 50mm lens providing zero magnification (also, remember that as magnification increases, the field of view decreases). Does this sound like a lot? Well it’s not over yet! Ansel would note down the settings he used for each particular photo and leave notes to remind himself how he wanted to develop the photo in the darkroom later on, as it could be weeks or months before he was able to do this. And yes, he would make different exposures depending on how he planned to develop the negative.

Ansel Adams – Moon and Half Dome Ansel Adams – Moon and Half Dome

This isn’t something you can learn in a day, or a few weeks, and it took him years to hone his craft. But once he had done so it all came naturally to him. Today, we have it easy, our cameras set the exposure for us automatically and even focus the image. If you have a digital camera, it will record all the settings you used in its EXIF data, so there is no need to carry notebooks. However, despite all these technical advances, the number of great photographs produced has not increased significantly.

“Despite advances in camera technology, the number of great photographs has not increased significantly.”

This leads me to believe that taking a good photograph has little to do with the mechanical aspects of the process, and everything to do with the artistic aspects. Camera makers can automate just about every aspect of photography, but in the end, it is up to the photographer to point the camera at a worthwhile subject and compose an aesthetically pleasing shot. Hence the opening quote of this post. When I see something I like, that tickles my fancy, I don’t put the camera to my eye and start moving it around and working the zoom ring until I find something that looks good. Oh no. I take my sweet time to observe the subject, walk around it and study it from different angles if it’s possible. I try to find the essence of what I will photograph. Once I’ve decided how I want to shoot it (location, angle, composition, depth of field and amount of light), I will find the appropriate focal length to use, and aperture (to set the depth of field); only then will I take the shot. When I look at the preview on the back of camera I immediately know if I made a photograph or not.

Don’t despair if at first you don’t succeed, and feel free to take shots at different angles or settings that you might think are silly. Initially, you will not be familiar with your camera equipment and may not know how particular settings will affect the photographs, so it is actually important to take quite a few photos more than you think you should. Use your camera and lenses often enough, and you will eventually get to know them well. At this point you will be in a position to play up their strengths and hide their weaknesses; you probably won’t even have to think about it. Keep practicing what you learn and you’ll soon find yourself making photographs, not just taking them.


13 Responses to “Making Photographs”

  1. Mis, who else could write better than you like this.

    This post really points out the right direction. Practice makes perfection. And there is never perfection if the word “never” never exists.

    A very important first post where I believe this article will be motto for photography for the rest of my life.

  2. I just came across your blog. I look forward to reading your comments in the future. You are in my favorites that I check daily.

  3. Roentarre, those are bold statements; I hope I can live up to your expectations!

    Rich, thanks for stopping by. You’ve got some great photos on your site, especially the B&Ws; a shame there are only 3 of them. You need to post more for us monochrome lovers.


  4. I think James already said everything I wanted to say. Wonderfully written and most importantly – very inspiring, thank you!


  5. Hey Mis – just stopping by, and read your first post. I am considering one of the lines you wrote, that “However, despite all these technical advances, the number of great photographs produced has not increased significantly.” And, while I agree that with digital photography, and the ease of taking pictures, it has separated the grand majority of fly-by-night hobby photographers from the likes of the Ansel Adams variety. I think that it also opens up a new scene – that it becomes almost impossible to become an Ansel Adams in our high-tech world.

    I’ve seen some great photographs – I’m always reminded of a picture Id seen on – of a crane doing a yoga pose – The artist escapes me – but the shot is burnt into my memory.

    That’s what our society has done though – people can show off their work very easily on line – we don’t have to go to a special gallery or pay money – and we develop a feel for some photographers who practice the art very well. But, the names rarely get linked to the artists, when there are a infinite amount of pictures to sift through, and many good ones capture the fancy.

    I feel like I may be rambling into some sort of modern philosophical rampage – I hope I haven’t digressed to far from the main theme – of slowing down, to make each picture an esthetic effort rather than a snapshot.

    • Rose,

      Good to see you here!

      You’ve strayed a little from the main theme, but you bring up a very interesting point. I’ll be thinking about it and might put my (your) thoughts into words. What you speak of is certainly something I’ve noticed in myself, but hadn’t actually been conscious of it until you explained it. Thanks!


  6. Miserere,

    I saw a large exhibition of Ansel Adams’s photos, and their negatives, at the George Eastman House a couple of years ago. What struck me was that his exposures really weren’t very good; but he excelled at extracting a beautiful print from a negative that most people would have trashed.

  7. Wow, great start Mis! I will be looking forward to following, and learning from your journey!

  8. You got me thinking, and that’s positive. Good job. I love thi idea of making photographs and thinking it through first: what do I want to end up with before I start is the great question for everyone with a camera — regardless of the camera they own. It’s a question which forces me at least to think more creatively. What mood or response do we want to evoke in our viewer? What to do want to highlight? etc. I have to admit I have just been looking for the most interesting shot. It’s also been said the so called geniuses take 10,000 hours of practice to get really good. I’d say it takes this long to make it look easy! 🙂

    Well done.

  9. Hi,
    I am just a beginner, one of those “fly-by-night hobby photographers”.
    I just discovered your lessons and I hope I shall learn a lot.
    Thanks for sharing.

  10. I loved everything I read so far.
    You’ve expressed your thoughts with deep knowledge mixed with a true free artist mind.
    I’m looking forward to read more and learn more.

    Thank you very much.

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