It is sometimes difficult for me to look back on the photographs that I created at the start of my career. The shots are all technically strong, but something is missing. This missing element can be defined as vision. In this article, I will detail my journey in understanding the need to integrate this crucial element into my art.
Early in my photography career, I got used to being assigned the subjects and scenes I photographed. My clients were record labels and music magazines and they knew what shots they wanted when they hired me. Although they rarely gave me a written shot list, I understood the specific shots they wanted. If I was photographing a new artist signing their contract that day, the label wanted a photo of him signing the contract, a photo of him looking up during the signing, and a commercial photo of the artist standing alongside key personalities to label. Although the label didn’t ask for a solo photo of the artist, I usually took that photo too because I knew I could sell that image through a stock photo agency. This was my approach to working for clients for many years and it never occurred to me that the way I photographed this type of event was lacking in any way.
One of my favorite gigs that I was tasked with shooting regularly was a feature film where I followed a hip-hop artist for an entire day and documented the things they were doing. I would find myself shooting in a variety of locations such as a jewelry store, restaurant, radio station, recording studio, and even the artist’s home. Since the locations were visually interesting and the performers were always stylish, the photos were always strong. I saw my role as a photographer as being the person who would document what was happening without interfering with what was happening. Today, I realize that I often haven’t conveyed my vision enough in my photo reports.
About ten years ago, I met the photographer David duChemin. He thinks equipment is good but vision is better. He is the author of several books that encourage photographers to think about why they take a particular photograph. He asks us to examine what we are saying about ourselves and the world around us when we make images. Think of your vision as how you see the world. As a photographer, your vision must be expressed in your photography.
Before being exposed to David’s writings, my main concern was capturing images that an editor or client would be happy with. Over the years, I began to realize that my job as a photographer is not just to document scenes, but rather to make a statement about that scene. By selecting a specific lens, using a non-standard shutter speed, or experimenting with different ways to compose a scene, we can provide subtle commentary on that scene. Imagine that you have been asked to photograph a concert in a small club that is 90% empty. You can use a wide angle lens to show the performer on stage and you can include a view of the empty seats in the room. This shot would give the impression that the artist is not very popular. Or, you can use a long lens to only show the artist and you could make the artist look like a superstar. I had always been aware of the compositional options available to me, but before studying David’s teachings, I hadn’t thought about how important it was for me to think about the message I wanted to communicate with. my pictures.
Today, rather than trying to simply document a scene, I seek to provide insight into that scene. If I’m offering nothing more than documenting something, then there’s no need to hire me over another photographer. In an age when it’s easier than ever to operate a camera, your customers need to understand that you offer more than the ability to operate that camera.
One of the first photographers I met who figured out how to communicate her vision was not a professional photographer. Her name was June Ambrose and she was a fashion designer who dressed artists and models in music videos. I was hired to take BTS images on these videos. I watched her take photos with her phone and was fascinated by what she chose to photograph. June’s focus was on fashion. She photographed full-length portraits to showcase the fashionable attire the artist wore. She photographed details like belt buckles, watches and rings. She was paying attention to things I hadn’t noticed or cared about.
The images she produced were very different from the ones I produced. Unlike me, she was not tasked with creating a volume of photographs that would document the entire process of making the video. Instead, she had the freedom to photograph anything that interested her. Her photography conveyed the message that the fashion elements in this video are on point.
Over time, music videos became the place where I started to explore my vision. Because I was often on set for 10 hours or more, there was a lot of dead time. I was able to ask myself, “What do I find interesting here on set?” During downtime, I would talk with the girls in the video and the extras and capture portraits of them. On more than one occasion, I would bring a ring light and conduct a mini photoshoot without even asking the production company for permission. Over time, I found a magazine that would buy these photographs. It was maybe the first time I was paid for my vision and not just my technical ability to operate a camera.
I understand why David says equipment is better than vision, but equipment has been a big part of my development as a photographer. When I was the in-house photographer for BET’s 106 & Park TV show, I used two Nikon D3 cameras to capture the shots required by BET. My mental shot list for each episode included at least 20 different types of images I needed to capture. Because I was shooting 5 shows a week, I could find a rhythm and reliably produce the shots I needed to capture each day. I started using the Leica M9 to capture scenes that interested me. These shots can be anything from an audience member applauding to a quiet moment of a performer talking with a friend.
Where BET needed a clean photograph of the artist taken against a white wall, I wanted to capture a more interesting image of the artist doing something behind the scenes. Every day I rendered the Leica images along with the Nikon images, but BET rarely used the Leica images as prominently as the Nikon images. However, when I show an image portfolio from 106 & Park, it consists of around 80% Leica images. Leica images are the ones that best express my vision.
Although it was a journey for me to understand the importance of vision in my photography, you may already be expressing yourself fully. If you don’t have clients requesting specific shots and your photography is self-contained, you may already have mastered the concept of vision. But, if you’re a professional photographer who shoots a clearly defined genre, like senior portraiture or portraits, you may have the opportunity to communicate something more with your photography than you currently do. It may not bring you any extra income in the short term, but it could help you create a new body of work. Using a different camera for these personal photos might benefit you. When I shoot portraits, my camera is mounted on a tripod. If I were to use another handheld camera to capture images from a different shooting location, I might produce different photographs than what my client expects. It is unclear where these images may lead. Allow yourself to explore. Allow yourself to wander. Start by asking yourself, “What do I find most interesting about the scene in front of me?” or, “What do I think of this scene in front of me?” Then use your camera to help your audience understand these questions.