Snares and Delusions:

By ralph

Did you ever spend an evening going through hundreds of your earlier slides only to find yourself wondering why you ever wasted the film on some of them? I've done it lots of times. After a while I even noticed that there were patterns in the piles of retro-discards, errors that keep popping up over and over again so insistently that I decided to make a list of them.

Before getting into the recitation of bloopers lets give a thought about why we shoot disappointing images. It all goes back to that lump of gray matter tucked away under that furry blanket up top (in most cases). It plays tricks on us. The big problem comes from emotional attachment to the scenes in front of your camera. It may have been difficult to get to, it may have been the "chance of a lifetime", it may have depended on exotic smells, sounds or moods, none of which the camera can record. You could have been tricked by the way the brain perceives things, wide angle one moment and tele the next. So here goes.

Too small in frame. The often-emotional reason for this struck me recently when touring a wildlife refuge with a group of environmentalists. Many had cameras but none had lenses over 100mm. Someone with binoculars spotted a bald eagle high overhead ----really just a dot with wings. Sure enough, a dozen cameras pointed skyward at this exciting sight and started snapping away. I bet they'll wonder what the near blank slabs of sky are all about when the get to see their photos. Moving or unusual subjects tend to draw ones attention to the center and reduce awareness of the empty space in the frame. I think of this as "shotgun viewing" as opposed to the whole-frame viewing we photographers learn to use.

Scenic Overlook Syndrome. Similar to the above problem. Have you ever pulled off the highway at a "scenic overlook" and wound up shooting a picture, despite nagging doubts about it? So many scenic spots enthusiastically urged on us by the local folks turn out to be too far and insufficiently high to do the subject justice. You get a one by ten inch strip of subject sandwiched between dull slabs of sky and foreground. Maybe a panoramic frame might save the shot or you could apply the old "less is more" rule and zoom in on a more interesting part of the frame ---or maybe you'd be better off taking a pass.

Monumentalism. Sometimes the historic significance, or geographic or literary importance of a subject makes you think it's a better picture than it really is. Likewise, when you invest a lot of time and effort into getting a shot you feel that the image represents quite an achievement. But is it a good picture? You may have trekked for miles and crossed a gorge on a shaky bridge in order to get a shot of the oldest house in Mugwump County, but if it just looks like a shapeless shack - that's really all you've got.

Lack of depth. Often a subject looks good because your own two-eyed perception of depth keeps its planes well seperated, but a lack of tonal differences or strong side-to-back lighting causes your final "one eyed " photo to go flat. A good habit is to view your intended image with one eye. That brings your own perception and that of the camera into closer accord.

Bad backgrounds & foregrounds. Probably the commonest problem of all is a distracting background. The usual excuse for it is, "I couldn't get the picture without having the background come along", but the photo has to stand on its own without the apology. More awareness of the problem might profitably lead you to shift your point of view or use shallower depth of field. If a larger aperture isn't enough to do the job combine it with a longer focal length. Foregrounds can be problems too, especially burned out white blobs in flash shots. Still, one persons "distracting foreground" might be someone else's "nice foreground framing". Judges disagree a lot on this one.

There is a special case of bad
fo
reground that I call motion synthesis. In a typical case I'm driving near a scenic lake with a line of trees between the road and lake. There is no clear spot to view the lake but flickering glimpses between trees (as I'm moving along) give me a good idea of what a grand vista it is. Finally the trees thin out a bit and I stop and get the shot. When I get the slide, all I see is a bunch of trees with a few blue-white spots in between. My mental image of a grand lake scene, formed by the adding up of many glimpses, overwhelmed the dull reality that I actually was looking at. Probably, an one-eyed look would have shown me how weak the picture really was.

Subject in shadow. Another common way to lose the essence of a picture is to have the main subject slip into the shadows. The tonal range of film is so much shorter than that of our eyes that we often fail to realize that "slightly shaded" translates to "deeply shaded" in the photo. It's always a good rule to make sure that subject is highlighted and when evaluating light, figure that the lower half of whatever tones you see will go black.

Composition. It's a big topic but rather than writing a book here let me pose one example. You're in a quaint, foreign market place surrounded by colorful produce, native costumes and ethnic faces but don't just switch to the 21mm lens, to "get it all in". If you try that you'll be disappointed by an image filled with clutter in which you can barely find the "good stuff". Better just hold your fire until the faces, clothes and exotic fruit all gracefully come together in one spot.

Missing the idea. Sometimes this can be really subtle. You were taken with that swirly, textured tree trunk but shot a handheld image in low light. The result was unsharp and unsatisfying. The idea of the picture really was the tactile quality of the tree when rendered with ferocious sharpness, a la Edward Weston. Granted, you might not have an 8x10 camera, you could still get close enough by putting your 35er on a tripod and using the slowest possible film.

Sometimes the miss is more obvious like taking a shot of a model beautifully lit by window light, and blowing away the effect with on-camera flash. Just ask yourself what the idea of the picture is before you shoot and be careful to maximize that idea.

In fact you can even try to enhance the idea of the picture. Once, in the fall, I found myself taking a shot of a typical white church in New England. There were colorful leaves on the ground and in surrounding trees but I couldn't maneuver any trees into the foreground. By lying on the ground and shooting with a 16mm lens (fisheye) I was able to bring some sharply focused leaves into the foreground less than 10 inches away. This foreground sample of the mass of background hues emphasizes the idea of autumn color. Likewise including a foreground sample of what the garden is about enhances pictures of a garden with slabs of middle distance color.

The title trap. I'm amazed at how often the photographer realizes exactly what the idea of the picture is, and puts that in the title and yet the idea is unrealized in the picture. It's as if the title were an attempt to wallpaper over the shortcomings of the image, but unfortunately all it does is emphasize the weakness of the picture. Someone might call a slide "hard at work" but only show a craftsman's back and arms with no facial clues of great effort, and not show the work fully. That obviously won't fly. Or a static shot of a waterwheel (with very little water) at a mill, called "churning water". Well right away the title tells you what the picture is lacking - what a downer. So remember to convey the idea in the image itself and not to depend on the title to do it.

Dull subject. Let's face it, sometimes you spend all day looking and can't find a picture. You get a case of can't-find-a-picture-fatigue and all of a sudden the next rock or stump looks real exciting. Hey go ahead and shoot it
and g
et it out of your system but don't be surprised, a year later, if you can't figure out why you shot it. Funny thing though - it probably looked good for a month or two. That's the old gray matter kicking in complicating your better judgment with the emotions of the moment.