My favorite photographs are those that capture details that I never would have noticed with my naked eye. Early on in my career, I focused on macro photography for exactly that reason. I loved looking at my images and seeing the hairs, dimples, reflections, and other tiny details in my subjects that I never fully appreciated before. However, as I continued to photograph new subjects, I started to realize there are many ways a camera can extend our ability to perceive the world.
For example, a fast shutter speed can freeze motion. A long shutter speed can show novel patterns. Careful lighting can reveal the texture or structure of an object that is otherwise obscured. What I love about these kinds of photographs is that they remind us of how much there is left to discover about our surroundings when we stop to pay attention. Those images teach us to see the world in a new way.
For this assignment, your job is to use your camera to reveal details about your subject that you wouldn’t have noticed with your naked eye. You can think about details in terms of scale, motion, or lighting. An example of scale would be a macro image of an insect. An example of motion would be a long exposure of star trails. An example of lighting would be a backlit image of a leaf that shows the veins. However, these are all very familiar examples that have been photographed many times before. Use your camera as a tool to explore the world around you and figure out how to show your subject in a new way.
Submission deadline will be April 17, 2017 at 12PM EST.
Learn from your Mistakes
When I go on assignment for National Geographic, I try to be as prepared as possible. I research my subjects thoroughly and make a plan for the photos I want to capture. But I learned early on that there’s only so much you can anticipate in the field. In fact, if the shoot goes exactly as planned, the photos usually end up being a little boring.
In that case, my “Plan A” gets chucked out the window and I have to scramble to figure out how to make interesting photographs. My “Plan B” is to analyze each frame and think about what worked and what didn’t. As it turns out, my mistakes teach me the most. An overexposed image may accentuate details in the shadows that I would have missed otherwise. An underexposed image may reveal forms and silhouettes that would normally be obscured. A long shutter-speed may show me pattern of motion that would have been invisible with a sharper frame. These accidents often reveal the best opportunities.
Then, I think about whether I want this newly discovered detail in the final image. If I do, I have to figure out how to adjust my setup to accommodate it. Maybe I need to change my light source? Perhaps I should shoot from a different angle? Do I need to react more quickly next time? These days, my photographic process involves a lot of deliberate “mistakes.” I’ll give the camera a little shake during a long exposure. Or if I’m using a flash, sometimes I’ll turn the power way up just to see what happens. I’m trying to figure out if there is something hidden in the scene that my camera can reveal with a little creative tinkering.
Keep all this in mind as you continue your awesome submissions! If you want to grow as a photographer, the best advice I can give is to carefully study your mistakes.
The Value of a Photograph
At this point in the assignment, the majority of submitted images have been macro images. While I love macro photography, I have spent so much of my life looking at macro images and thinking about macro images that, these days, it takes a lot more to grab my attention. I would love to see more examples of folks experimenting with lighting and motion to show new details in their subjects.
While I think it’s fine to submit abstract images to this assignment, my interest in photography comes from wanting to explore the real world around me. That means an abstract picture has a much higher bar to achieve the same level of impact, because it doesn’t have the added value of teaching me about a subject. Let’s take light painting as an example. You could use a light to draw an abstract pattern in the dark. This image can only be judged by its aesthetic elements because it simply does not have a narrative dimension to it. On the other hand, if you took a long exposure of someone with a headlamp walking along a trail at night, that streak of the light actually tells you the path that person took. It could reveal subtle details in that person’s gait, or it could show what shape the trail was. There is more to that photo than just the aesthetic features alone.
To me, the value of a photograph is a combination of the concept and the execution. By “concept,” I mean all the elements that went into making the image. Did you wait all day for the perfect light? Did you figure out a unique angle? Did you discover a new detail by mistake? The stories behind the photographs contribute to their impact. It’s why a photo of a tiger in the wild is so much more powerful than a tiger in the zoo. But you can only know the story when it is described properly in the caption, so make sure your captions are descriptive.
The second half of this equation is the execution. That includes the sharpness, the composition, and the exposure. A blurry, overexposed image with a distracting background can take away a lot. But, personally, I give more weight to a heroic effort, a brilliant concept, or a creative approach. Those are more interesting aspects of photography to me than whether an image is totally in focus or perfectly exposed.
Keep working at it and show me something new. I want to be surprised!