The Road to Making Better Photographs #2: The Importance of NOW
Content and Images Contributed by: Richard Newman
Last week I talked about the importance of having an ongoing personal photography project in order to keep your creative juices flowing, and how to get started on one. This week I’d like to expand on this topic and offer some more tips and insights.
I believe that one of the biggest reasons photographers don’t move forward in their creative work is the plain-and-simple fact that they just don’t take the time to look at their work after they’ve created it. They don’t study it more closely in hindsight and learn from their successes and failures. When film was the only way to capture images, I was teaching a lot of landscape workshops. I had one student who would return over and over, but his work never seemed to progress. This was a real puzzle to me, as I want all of my students to progress, grow, and learn what it takes to make better images. After his second workshop I asked him what his process was when the workshop was over and he got back home. He told me that sometimes it would take him three or four months to process his film, and I knew immediately why he was stuck in a rut.
When you are confronted with a scene that stimulates or challenges you, you take a picture, though at the time you don’t always know why. Every time I review my work I have some of those “what was I thinking” moments, but after studying them for a while, I usually remember exactly what I was thinking. Photography can be pretty abstract, especially when your images don’t always match what you think you wanted, and something that initially looks like a mistake can, over time, be seen as a very good image, and quite possibly one that is very important to your growth as a photographer. Trust me, it happens all the time!
When you don’t take the time to study what you’ve done, you might miss something. And studying isn’t just looking at your images right after you’ve taken them on the back of your camera and moving on. What I suggest, and challenge you to do is to create a new folder for your “practice” images on your desktop. At the end of each week, when you have a few minutes, go through that folder and look at the pictures you’ve taken. Then, start a second folder in which you place what you think are your best images. The purpose of this is two-fold. First, it forces you to take a closer look at your work; not simply the individual images, but your progress over a period of time. Think of it as sort of like creating a contact sheet of a week’s worth of images.
Secondly, and most importantly in our digital world, this process will help you to become a better editor of your work. When you look at a group of images, it becomes apparent very quickly which ones stand out as the good ones, and which ones are either redundant or just plain stinkers. Another thing that you will begin to see through this disciplined editing process is whether or not there is any consistency to your best images. Do they share a sense of style that reflects your personal ideas and vision? If so, then that will definitely help you moving forward as you begin to apply what you’ve learned, and improve your odds – and your level of satisfaction.
Before digital photography, one of the ways I kept my eyes and photo brain active was by using my Polaroid SX-70 camera. The film had a wonderful palette, presented some real interesting challenges and, like digital, provided instant gratification (or not). At the time, I was flying almost every week and was going through Chicago’s O’Hare airport a lot. The United Airlines terminal, designed by renowned architect, Helmut Jahn, features an 800-foot tunnel that connects concourses B and C, which has moving walkways that transport you through an unusual (transcendental?), and constantly changing floor-to-ceiling light show of undulating multicolored neon lights and chiming music. I started carrying my SX-70 camera and three boxes of film (30 exposures) on every trip. I’d block out a few extra minutes each time and go back and forth on the moving walkway shooting pictures as I tried to stay out of my fellow-travelers way (walk left-stand right).
One of the challenges in producing this project was working with a camera that is in perpetual “P” (program) mode, and gave me no way to consistently control or change exposures. But once I figured out the ISO of the SX-70 film (600), I could better understand and predict the exposure and what the final print would look like.
This was a pre-9/11 project, so I know now that I got away with doing some pretty crazy moves that might not fly now with security officials, like jumping up and spinning around on the moving floor during exposures. Included in this post are some of those images. When I look back on these images today, they remind me of either laser stage lighting or strands of DNA. Who knows what they’ll remind me of in another 20 years.
I hope you enjoy them and that they spread a creative spark to your own personal photo project. I’d love to see what you come up with.
Share Your Passion!
Let us know how you keep that creative spark alive by submitting your personal photo project to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please include 300-500 words about how your project provided inspiration and what gear you used. Images should be jpeg files at least 200 dpi (750×500 pixels). If chosen, we will share your work as part of our Personal Photo Project Series.