Last year I did a lecture about how to get commercial assignments by photographing and promoting personal photography projects at the Event Space at B&H Photo in NYC. It was a wonderful lecture discussing how to come up with tests shoots that are artistic, enjoyable to shoot, and could be marketable to potential clients. Most of the images I was showing that day were from a portrait project I had shot a couple years earlier which ended up getting me some great advertising jobs. The portraits I was showing were very much about personality and were by no means a great technical feat being that they were shot in the studio on a black background.
About ten minutes into the talk someone raised their hand and asked me what f-stop one of the portraits had been shot at. I wasn't quite sure why that person had asked that question, and to be honest, I didn't know the answer. I continued on showing other portraits and discussing the subject at hand when another hand went up and asked what kind of lights I had used to shoot the portraits and if I had a lighting diagram. I was really taken aback this time, wondering why the attendants of this talk about personal projects getting you commercial work were only concerned with technical things like f-stop, lighting type, and lighting diagrams. At that moment I realized one incredible, universal, and powerful truth. So many photographers are way too distracted by the technical aspects of making photographs to ever make great images. That is, of course, unless they can get passed those technical hurdles and see the big picture. To these photographers making a technically perfect image was the goal, and an image that is technically perfect must be a good image right?
I'm not saying that f-stops, lights, cameras, lenses and other technical things aren't important to making good images. I’d be the first one to tell you that some images can only be made by incredibly technical photographers. The point I'm trying to make is that photographers need to practice the technical things often enough so that they don't get in the way of making great images. It's like training for a marathon. You can't possibly expect to go out and win the Boston Marathon without first doing years of training, running some shorter races, and maybe even loosing races along the way. The exact same thing applies with photography. You can't expect to take amazingly beautiful, moving, and meaningful images without first shooting lots of bad photos. There is nothing wrong with shooting some bad photos as long as you eventually realize they're bad and you learn from them. I have shot plenty of bad photos in my day.
Pictures need to be about much more than the technical if they are to truly have a great impact. Do you think when Dorthea Lange was photographing Migrant Mother she was worried about what shutter speed she was shooting at? When Richard Avedon was shooting Dovima and the Elephants, do you think he was worried about what f-stop he was at? When Steve McCurry was photographing the Afghan Girl, do you think he was worried that maybe he should be using his on-camera flash for fill? I think it's very unlikely.
In order to concentrate on what is really important you need to figure out all the technical stuff before your photo shoot even begins. There is a reason why Annie Leibowitz has 5 assistants on set when she's shooting a big celebrity portrait, and It's not to make sure she always has a fresh cup of coffee. As the photographer you need to be concentrating on making the subject do what you need him to do, and that alone is enough to be worried about. If you are also worrying about your lighting, shutter speed, shadow detail, light direction, and if it looks like the client is happy, then it becomes much more difficult to make a good image. So the question is, how are you going to run a marathon when you're too busy figuring out how to tie your shoelaces at the starting line?
I shoot with a Phase One IQ180 digital back, high end Profoto lights, and the fastest SSD RAID array toting Macintosh computers so trust me when I say that there is nothing wrong with using technology to help you make great images. The point that I am trying to make is that whichever tools you do choose, they shouldn’t get in the way of you making great images. Making great images is about so much more than the F-Stop!
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