Will My Pictures Look Like That?

The short answer to that question is: probably not. Several years ago my good friend, George Williams, and I spent a three day weekend taking photographs along the peninsula that separates Lake Huron from the Georgian Bay in Ontario. At the end of the trip we compared results. With a few exceptions, it was hard to tell we had been on the same trip. Even though we had both photographed the same things, our perspectives and interests were vastly different. I suppose that’s one aspect that separates the art of photography from just taking snapshots.

There are three components to photography that will almost guarantee that one person’s pictures will not look like another’s. The first is equipment. Even with my own equipment, pictures I took with my Canon SLR differ from those I took with my medium format Mamiya or from those taken with film versus those taken digitally. Add to that the different lenses that come into play. Traditionally I use an 18 to 70 mm zoom and a 100 to 300 mm zoom, both with the capability of macro photography (extreme close ups). One of the subjects George and I photographed on our Georgina Bay trip was an old barn at the top of a hill. The barn was off in the distance with a large field of grass and an old split rail fence in the foreground. George’s pictures were mostly taken with a telephoto lens, making the barn the focus of attention. Mine were taken with a wide angle lens, making the split rail fence and the grassy field the focus of attention.

That brings me to the second component: the photographer. None of us sees objects in the same way. When we take photographs we bring into the process our life experiences, both  technical and artistic, our interests and our unique perspectives. For example, in the barn photos mentioned above, I was more interested in the wide expanse of field and the old fence. By putting the barn in the distance, my goal was to underscore its insignificance. To George, the barn’s weathered boards and isolation on the hilltop were more important.

The last component is what you might call “post-production.” Whether in the dark room or on a computer, the final touches on a photograph include cropping; adjusting things like color, contrast, lightness, darkness, or cleaning up imperfections. In the darkroom, this may also include blocking something out, or superimposing another image. On the computer, it’s cutting and pasting, layering, texturing, etc. Some “purists” may feel that this is “faking” pictures. I think that depends on what your end product is supposed to be. If your goal is to record history, then I agree: making more than basic adjustments to a picture is distorting the event. On the other hand, if your goal is to produce something artistic, then it’s adding artistic embellishments to your work. I would venture a guess, though, that even Ansel Adams dodged and burned and modified the contrast on his photographs.

I imagine it would be possible to duplicate all the steps, perspectives, and finishing touches on one of your photos so that it would look like these, but, then it wouldn’t be your photograph. It would  just be a copy of one of mine. On each trip I’ve taken, my wife has also shot her own photographs. Every once in a while we shoot the same thing in almost the same way. Only one copy gets kept.  The other is tossed. What’s really interesting, though, is to re-experience the trip through each other’s eyes.

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