November 28, 2014 » 11:19 am

The Power of Constraints and Practice

I love the Golden Gate Bridge. I’m lucky enough to be able to see it from where I live. I never get sick of gazing at it, visiting it, or taking pictures of it. For me, it never gets old.

Still, I know that the hundreds of stock photos I’ve taken of this iconic bridge aren’t very interesting. While I somehow can’t resist taking these shots anyhow, my goal is to grow as a photographer and as a storyteller, to capture unique, emotional moments. I want to take pictures that are meaningful to me, but that are layered, not just literal. I also want to take these pictures largely spontaneously, although I’m not opposed to a little bit of direction here and there.

I’ve been taking lots of pictures with my zoom lens these past few months. It’s a great lens — fast and sharp — and I’ve wanted the flexibility for the situations I knew I’d be in. But I also realize I haven’t had as much fun taking pictures the past few months as I usually do. There are lots of reasons for this, but I felt like the zoom lens was playing a role.

So this past week, I started carrying only one lens with my camera — my 50mm equivalent, which is my favorite by far. It’s a tighter lens, which can make it challenging for landscapes and tight spaces, where you have limited room to maneuver. You have to let go of what it can’t do, or you’ll just get frustrated. When I manage to do this, I find it liberating. I’m forced to eliminate options, to choose and focus. It opens up all sorts of creative possibilities through the power of constraint. I don’t know the exact role carrying only one lens played this past week, but somehow, photography started feeling fun again.

Yesterday afternoon, I went for an afternoon walk on the bridge with my Mom and younger sister. I noticed them holding hands as they walked, and I asked them to pause when we got to the bridge so that I could snap the photo above.

I didn’t want to mess too much with the moment. I wanted to take the picture quickly, and move on. But I couldn’t help making two changes to the scene. First, I noticed that my sister was wearing a bracelet that our 10-year old nephew had made her recently. It was on the wrist that she was using to hold my Mom’s hand, so I pulled up her sleeve so that it was fully visible, giving the photo yet another layer of meaning.

Second, their hands were partially enshrouded in shadow. I couldn’t eliminate it by repositioning myself, so I moved their arms slightly. This is something I never would have done two years ago, not because I was shy about directing people, but because I wouldn’t have even noticed the shadow.

Much of my growth as a photographer over the past two years has simply been a result of paying more attention to light. In the past, I was so focused on the subject, I’d often ignore light and other compositional elements, such as the background. However, simply knowing that I should pay more attention to light wasn’t what ultimately helped me do so.

My growth has been a result both of intentionality and of practice. Taking pictures like these…

… has helped me develop a sensitivity toward light, so that it’s become more instinctual rather than something I have to consciously pay attention to. This, in turn, helps me recognize situations like the one above with my Mom and sister, resulting in better pictures.

I don’t know if the payoff is noticeable to others who look at my photos. But I notice it in the photos I’m seeing and taking. Here’s one I took of my nephews and brother-in-law after church in Cincinnati:

I saw my older nephew, Elliott, offering food to his little brother, Benjamin, and thought it was a cute moment, so moved to capture it. At the same time, I noticed how beautiful the light looked along the wall, so I positioned myself to try to get that too. A split second later, I noticed my brother-in-law in the distance, and included him in the photo.

It’s not a perfect photo. I was shooting in aperture priority mode, and I forgot that I was at f/8 ISO200, so the shutter speed was slow, and it came out a bit fuzzy. By choosing to compose the photo this way, I also missed out on capturing Benjamin’s face and the details of the boys interacting. It’s all good. I like the photo, and I see the progress I’m making as a photographer in it.

I’m also loving what I’m learning about perceived imperfections and how they sometimes result in stronger pictures. I took this photo of my friend, Oz, and his dog in front of the Painted Ladies while on a walk a few months ago:

I was paying attention to light — it was the middle of the day, but the clouds had come in, dispersing the bright light beautifully — but I missed the shadow on Oz’s face as a result of his hat. I still miss details like this, despite the progress I’ve been making, and when I catch it, I’m always annoyed. I could have asked him to take off his cap, and the picture would have been technically stronger as a result.

But upon further reflection, I’m glad that I didn’t. I like that he was wearing a Pixar hat, and I like that both he and his dog are wearing hats of sorts.

I’ve barely started to understand photography, but I am loving the journey. I love having an archive of memorable moments, especially with people I care about, and I absolutely love the learning process.

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