Problem Solving Approaches to Photography

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There are times when all photographers end up with faulty photographs. Once in a while it can be blamed on the equipment, or processing, although certainly not as much now as when film was used. However, in my opinion, even today most of those faulty photographs are because of poor techniques.

A friend stopped by my shop last week to tell me about his trip to Mexico. He complained that his daughter’s cheap little point and shoot camera got better pictures than he had with his son’s expensive DSLR. I don’t think he was happy when I told him the problem was most likely with his technique. I was certain that little point and shoot’s tiny sensor or it’s lens didn’t match the quality of a DSLR.

I listened to a local photographer grumble about how local photo labs are failing to make her prints the way she thinks they should be. I expect she totally relies on her camera’s programs and is one of those of the belief that if the camera they have been using doesn’t give good pictures then they should buy a newer or different manufacturer’s offering to make it so. In her opinion, that latest camera is advertised as producing wonderful images and when she doesn’t get the correct colour balance or sharpness it can’t be the camera or her fault, it must be the labs.

Years ago I was asked by the Abbotsford Photo Arts Club to give a lecture about problem solving in photography during their annual session. That was long before any of us even thought of the amazing control computers in our cameras or on our desktops now give us. However, at that time I felt, and still do, that the responsibility for a good photograph belongs to the photographer and not the film companies, camera manufacturers, or some poor, overworked lab technician. The point of that lecture, so long ago, was that photographers should look at each photograph as a problem to be solved, and go through the process of correcting faults before releasing the shutter.

Photographers used to say that it was all in the negative; that a properly exposed and developed negative gave the best possibilities of a fine quality print. I still agree with that principle only now it isn’t an image about to be developed on film.

By the time I arrive on the scene to photograph my subject of choice I have already made several decisions and I try to do as the famous photographer, Ansel Adams would do and “previsualize” the image or in my words, “problem solve for the final photograph”.

Like Adams, photographers should be thinking about how the final photograph will be used and how to accomplish that. If one thinks of a final photograph as a series of problems to be solved there will be a smooth transition from initial idea to final print. For example one could begin by thinking about the subject and its environment. What is the background and how will that affect the subject? What is in the foreground that will interfere with that subject?   If one considers depth of field a decision must be made how much is wanted to be “in focus”. Continuing on, in a landscape photograph, photographers will probably want everything from the foreground to far off distance to be crystal clear; whereas, for a portrait the photographer may want the background to be “out of focus”. Another consideration is what is the lighting like and will its direction be flattering?

The sun and its direction is always very important when photographing people. I prefer to have it coming from behind my subject and as readers know, I like to use off-camera flash. Although, if for whatever reason that isn’t possible, I problem solve my way into a photograph that works.

Photographers don’t need to see problems as a deterrent or bad thing. When I suggest to photographers to take a problem solving approach to photography I am really just saying that every element in any creative photographic composition is important, and from start to finish if a photographer uses a system of photographic problem solving there will be less faulty and more successful images.

With digital technology one can easily determine what went wrong or is going wrong and take the time to problem solve before downloading to the computer or relying on technicians at the local photo lab and hoping they are equipped with PhotoShop wizardry.

I appreciate your comments. Thanks, John

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