A couple of years ago I received some fascinating feedback on my book, Landscape Within, from a reader whose flat mate, after a quick flick through my book, apparently made the statement, "Guaranteed, I could take any of these pictures." Let’s call this person The Critic, as opposed to something ruder!
I know many photographers are far more accomplished than I am but must admit I was somewhat taken aback by this statement. The Critic’s statement reflects a depressing and prevailing attitude in society that photography requires little skill on the part of the photographer in order to accomplish good results.
To a large extent this springs from the widely held belief that equipment is more important in the making of a photograph than the vision of the photographer. Photography seems to be unique in engendering this attitude – I would wager that no one said to Titian, “You must have had really good sable brushes to paint that!” – but to make a good photograph it seems that all you need is a good camera. The camera manufacturers have been telling us that photography is easy since its invention (and, bless them, they have made it considerably easier to overcome some of the technical issues) so I guess it's not too surprising that this view is so prevalent. My objection to The Critic’s statement is not the bald assertion that image making is possible for all - it’s impossible to disagree with that at a basic level - rather it’s the implication that it’s easy to make “good” images.
Setting aside for a moment exactly what constitutes a “good” photograph let’s look at some of the assumptions behind the statement, remembering as we do that assumptions make asses of us all.
Seeing the finished image and saying it would be easy to make betrays The Critic’s basic ignorance of the process. Here are just a few of the variables that any accomplished photographer has to consider when making a landscape photograph and some questions to pose to The Critic;
- The contrast range of the image and what compensating filtration will be needed to render the tones successfully - does The Critic understand how to use a lightmeter in order to read the luminosity range of the scene? Does he understand that neither film nor digital imaging can render the same contrast range as the human eye can see? Or, does he just assume incorrectly that the camera can solve all this for him?
- The light level - does he understand the principle of reciprocity failure for film?
- The colour of the light - does he understand that light varies in colour and would he know how to control that variation to produce the results that he wants /sees in the book?
- The quality of the light - does he understand under what circumstances it would be better to shoot an image in soft light or hard light? Does he understand how the quality of the light affects our reading of the image?
- The direction of the light and the best time to shoot - does he know how to assess when the light will strike a potential subject from the desired direction?
- The choice of film stock / RAW / jpeg – does he understand how these choices affect the finished image?
- The weather conditions – would the image be better with or without clouds, is it too windy or too wet?
Now, it’s true that some of these problems can be solved by correctly employing the technical features built in to modern DSLRs or film cameras but many can only be solved by the photographer using their expert judgement accrued over many years of experience. I haven’t even mentioned yet the particular technical issues involved in using a view camera, let alone the potential difficulties in accessing the location or the number of visits that might be needed before the conditions are right.
These technical and logistical issues are, in any case, only a part of the problem - and the simplest part to solve at that! I know from my experiences leading photography workshops that the biggest challenge for most photographers is to actually see the potential for an image in the first place. Choosing what to take is the hardest part of photography;
- Is the subject worthy of representation, am I just wasting pixels or silver halide grains?
- What lens should I use? Do I want to compress the perspective or exaggerate it?
- What angle should I use?
- What should I place in the frame and what should I leave out? Does that element detract from the composition or does it enhance the image?
Perhaps the most important question to address, therefore, is has The Critic ever made any images like the ones he says he could make when seeing mine? Saying that you could have done something after the fact without any evidence to support it is very easy to do - we can all say that we could have scored a goal like Beckham (well, perhaps not too much of a stretch on recent performance...) but simply asserting it doesn't make it true! The plain fact is that when something is executed well it often appears to be easy to achieve - it might appear effortless but I can assure The Critic that it isn’t!
Taking a "snap" is not the same thing as making a photograph. But the camera manufacturers, for obvious commercial reasons, decline to make this distinction and in the process foster the impression that photography, without qualification, is easy. Given this prevailing attitude and the lack of emphasis on visual education in the UK can The Critic even be expected to tell the difference between a “good photograph” and a “snap”?
If he truly could make all of those images then he should, without question, be a professional photographer - in fact I'd be surprised if I didn't already know him. Maybe my correspondent is living with Joe Cornish!
The preceding was originally published in Outdoor Photography. I've updated and amended it and make no apology for presenting it again – it's still relevant!