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Making a Photograph

People often ask, “How did you make this photograph?” There is no short answer, no secret recipe; I genuinely wish I could say, I did A, B then C and voila, photograph! To provide a truly helpful answer, I need to know where to begin, how far back should I go? Should I explain what I did after I attached the camera to the tripod? Or, should I begin with how and why I decided to visit the location where I made the photograph? The latter makes more sense; fast-forwarding to the moment I opened the camera’s shutter does not truly answer the question.

First step, select the location. I use online maps such as Google or Bing (before the web I used paper maps). I look for a variety of elements; I do not select parks or curated locations designed by city-planners for public use. I prefer locations that do not have many homes or private land. Lakes or the shoreline offer wonderful opportunities, as do forests. I avoid areas that are restricted; housing developments are often private and I obey the rules, I do not trespass. When I find an area of interest on the map, I switch to Satellite view and check out buildings, the type of road (paved or dirt), boundary markers, safety concerns and more. Google is terrific; on the bottom of the map there is an option to display photos of the area.

Second step, select when to go and do research. I use natural lighting and I must be aware of where the sun will be, what areas might be in shadow and the nature of the light, whether it will be a reddish sunset or a bright sunrise with intermittent clouds. I am not discouraged by rain or inclement weather; some of my best work has been created in light from overcast skies or during dramatic weather. If it is the shore, I track the tide. I also research the region, find out what is nearby or where will I stay if it is far from home.

Third step, visit the location and walk around. I do not touch my camera until I know what I want to create. I consider a multitude of ideas and options; I process them mentally until something sparks my interest. Sometimes nothing comes to mind and I must return at another time; if there is no spark, it may be futile to force creativity (this is not an absolute). Often, I decide to revisit the location when the light is different i.e. dawn or sunset. Different lighting can trigger new ideas. However, when an idea or vision comes to mind, I get to the next step.

Step four, translate the vision in my mind to film or digital. This involves deciding many things; where to set up my tripod, which lens, filter, perspective, slow or fast shutter speed, depth of field and more. Is the mental image wide or narrow? How much of the landscape does it include? Will I need a wide-angle lens or do I want to isolate a tiny aspect? At this step, my creativity switches to autopilot mode; I stare through the viewfinder, compare it, or the LCD, to my original mental image. Are they far apart? Any new ideas come to mind? My creative process is like other artforms such as writing or painting; ask a painter why he made a specific brush stroke and he will tell you it came naturally. Once I enter the creative zone, I am unaware of the time or anything else other than making the artwork.

In addition to the equipment, proper clothing is important. Some photographs require getting into the water while others occur in wet, cold or hot conditions. I have made my share of mistakes that have nearly left me stranded. On the rare occasion I have come close to injuring myself because I was not prepared. While making the photograph is my primary goal, returning safely is a crucial element in the endeavor. Safety first.

Sometimes my mental image requires an impossible perspective i.e. a vantage point I cannot reach. If I must hike, I select the bag or backpack that is appropriate for what I must carry. I often limit myself to two or three lenses (I have only one zoom lens and I primarily use it in wet, windy or sandy conditions). I have different tripods for different conditions (i.e. I have a tripod with sealed legs that works well in water).

Many of my photographs were made with filters in front of the lens. The most common are graduated neutral density filters (ND Grads) which darken only one portion of the frame. I also use filters to darken an entire frame to slow the shutter speed. I stack filters too. Some photographs cannot be made without filters because the difference between light and dark is too great in a single frame. In the alternative, multiple exposures can be blended in the computer later on; personally, I do not like to make corrections post-op which can be made in the landscape. Every post-op adjustment degrades an image.

Occasionally, nature cannot be tamed and I am forced to accept that certain elements may not adhere to my original vision. Most of the time my original thought serves as the spark that ignites other ideas. I often remain well past sunset and see different colors in the sky. There are countless decisions in the process; each one leads me down an avenue where more choices exist.

Fifth step, before packing gear away, make sure there are no silly mistakes with focus, lighting and I always verify the camera is level (no photographs with the sea draining off to one side!). Countless times I have returned home, waited for the film to be developed (or looked through the digital images) and discovered a mistake that ruined the photograph. Numerous times I returned to a location to redo a photograph only to discover the conditions were different than the original moment or the landscape mood was not the same. It is far easier to check the viewfinder or LCD multiple times than to return, especially if an arduous hike was required. As mentioned previously, while making a photograph, I pay attention to issues that may need to be fixed in the computer and I resolve them in the landscape. The mistakes I have made in the past have taught me what to look for or not to do. Mistakes are important; welcome them!

Final step, print the photographs. Check out how they look on paper. There is a difference between computer screen and paper, the former emits light, the latter reflects light. Matching a print to a screen image can require software adjustments; it is a talent in its own right!

I may have described the physical steps of making a photograph, however, the artistic steps are far more elusive. During the process of creativity, I make countless decisions rapidly because they feel right. Nonetheless, for me, fine art photography begins with these steps.


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