Do you photograph with intent?

With the high frame rate of today’s cameras, it’s my opinion that we are becoming less deliberate with our photography. We are relying more on technology to capture good images, rather than thinking first. Photographing with intent is a much more calculated approach than “running and gunning.” It requires thought and patience. However, I feel the results are much more satisfying both artistically and for the soul.

In this post, I want to talk about two recent images that I captured. And how I made them by photographing with intent.

Without A Word

On a recent photowalk, I stumbled upon the Polygon Gallery. Without a Word is their current exhibit. The exhibition includes “some of modern photography’s most iconic and memorable portraits, with a specific focus on people caught in unguarded moments of contemplation and preoccupation.” Some of the artists featured included photographers Mary Ellen Mark, Fred Herzog, and Berenice Abbott, all artists I have admired for some time. 

Unfortunately, the gallery was closed; however, it inspired me to shoot. After peering in the windows at a few of the exhibit’s images, I decided to try and create a photograph that captured the essence of the exhibit’s title, “Without a Word.” I wanted to incorporate some of the hanging artwork in my picture. There were also strong reflections in the windows of people passing by and the harbour. So, I decided to make the reflection of a passerby the main subject while layering the harbour and gallery artwork in the background and foreground.

I tried to create a shot that incorporated six of the images hanging on the wall, including the photograph by Mary Ellen Mark called Amanda and her cousin Amy (second column from left, bottom image). This photograph of hers has always been a favourite of mine. I made a couple of pictures. However, I could not find a composition that satisfied me. It was too busy, and I did not like all the light space in the lower right of the frame.

After spending some time wandering around and playing with other possible compositions, I decided on a frame that would take in two pieces of art and the exhibit’s information panel. From this vantage point, I could also include one of the stair rails, which created a leading line to my subject. The railing also served to anchor the interpretive panel and helped fill the bottom right corner of the photograph.

At this point in the creative vision, I needed patience. I had a composition; now, I needed a subject. Not just any subject, but one that complemented the frame and the story I was trying to tell.

There were all types of people coming and going, but none seemed quite right. I waited for about 20 minutes with no luck. So instead of settling, I decided to see what else I could photograph in the vicinity, and then come back in an hour or so.

My plan worked. When I returned, I found that a young lady had positioned herself just perfectly on the stairs below the gallery. She had her lunch and a book. Yes, a real paper book! I carefully framed up the image and took two photographs. In the first shot, I waited for others to walk into the frame, making sure they did not clip the photos on the wall. However, I felt again that this image was too busy. My main subject became lost amongst all the other people. I found my eye wandered around the frame, not knowing where to settle.

My final image was of the reader by herself. I waited until my main subject held her book up so that you could see it. I also paid careful attention to the borders of my frame and made sure to maintain my horizontals and verticals as best I could.

The entire process was extremely satisfying. And, it meant that I only had a handful of shots to cull through, and not several dozen!

Waiting for the Evening Train

For the above photograph, I had an idea and the time to bring that idea to fruition. I had lots of opportunities to contemplate the composition, wait for subjects, and execute the final frame. It was midday, so the light was not changing quickly. And the artwork in the gallery wasn’t going anywhere soon! Time was not something I had the luxury of in this second example though!

As I entered the train station after my photowalk, I noticed a woman bathed in the low, evening light enjoying a coffee. Wow! The light was incredible! And she looked very elegant in her long coat. I quickly lifted my camera to my eye, and without much thought, grabbed an image. 

My image had been purely reactionary. What if the woman walked away? What if the light changed before I could get into position? I could miss the shot! In my haste, I had paid no attention to detail. And I certainly hadn’t reflected on the framing or story I wanted to tell. Yes, it was a safe shot. And maybe I could have salvaged it in post-production with some cropping and fancy Photoshop magic. But it would never be an exceptional image.

Think! You have time; she is still drinking her coffee. What would make this a more powerful image? And what story did I want to tell? I took a minute to stand back and digest the scene. The story was about a tranquil moment amongst the hustle of the evening rush. I needed to put the focus on my subject, and remove as much of the cluttered bright backdrop as I could. But I also needed to maintain the commotion of the evening commuters.

To start with, I moved in closer and shot from a lower angle. The image certainly did not benefit any from the glowing Starbucks sign above her head or the bright signs for the trains.

I needed the woman to be my main subject. I did not want anyone else competing with her in the spotlight! So I waited until there was no one else walking through the beam of window light. As a side note, I had already decreased my exposure compensation by a couple of stops. I needed to make sure that my subject was not overexposed. Had I not done this, my camera’s metre would have increased the exposure of the entire scene to brighten up the shadows in the station.

What could I do to draw the eye away from the horizontal ceiling lighting just passed the turnstiles? I waited until a man walked through my frame. He added mystery and blocked some of the competing background. I also felt that he contributed to the story of people rushing home.

Finally, I cropped the image slightly in post. The crop removed the brighter spot on the basket in the Starbucks store, which was still visible on the right-hand side of the frame.

This care to attention did not take too much extra time. I ended up taking about six additional frames. The hardest part was timing the shot through the crowds. It took a few exposures to get the right mystery man to walk through the scene. And it was hard to time that with no one else walking through the ray of light. But once I had my composition, it was just a matter of time before the other elements aligned. 

A Few Tricks for Shooting with Intent

Here are a few tips to start making your photography more intentional. Watch the edges of your frame, and try to keep your camera level. Look at all the elements in your composition. Are they all contributing to the story? Do some need to be rearranged or do any need to be removed? Maybe changing your position or perspective would help with this. Pretend you are shooting film, and that each frame is expensive to develop before firing off 11 frames per second!

These are just a few things to think about before you release your shutter that will help you create more thoughtful photographs.

Conclusion

To sum things up, instead of putting your camera into rapid-fire, enjoy the process and slow down. Breathe. Take in your surroundings, ground yourself and practice photography with intent. This is important regardless of what genre of photography you enjoy creating.

Yes, some shots may get away. However, it will take you much less time to cull through the ones you have captured. And of those shots, you will have much stronger photographs, requiring far fewer edits. And the more you shoot this way, the more familiar it will become for you.

Here are a few more recent photographs where I have tried to put into practice what I have said here. I hope you enjoy them and as always,

Cheers until next time!


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