Raising My Standards Means Actually Applying What I Know

My favorite image - of 2,700!

My favorite image – of 2,700!

So here’s the thing: As much as I enjoy being a lazy, disorganized, impatient photographer, I may have to compromise my principles to make uncompromising photographs. That is to say, I may have to become less lazy, more organized, and patient. Maybe. When I started reviewing thousands of images to build a portfolio, I realized that most of my work does not live up to the criteria I would use to judge another’s photos. I must demand excellence from myself in composition, lighting, and moment.  And under these standards, two out of three AIN’T GOOD. Instead of building a portfolio, I built a much bigger reject bin.

And this is great news, because now editing is EASY! If an image doesn’t meet all three criteria, out it goes, and I don’t spend hours in post trying to make bad pictures look good. This does not apply to event documentation, where I sometimes have to share mediocre pictures that are good records. But otherwise, it’s hammer time, and that means that forty-plus years in, I need to get a little more serious about learning photography.

And I have a lot of lessons from this weekend, when I shot 2,700 frames at a dance concert. In future posts, I’m going to write about my travails related to dynamic range, pixel density, focus performance, and a host of gear-related challenges and solutions, but today I want to talk about the simplest way to improve our photos – simple but not always easy. And you’ve heard it a thousand times before: Get closer.

Here is one of my favorite dance images, which I made at a Santa Barbara City College (SBCC) rehearsal in 2010:

What makes this image different from most of my dance images? Actually, it's not "what," it's "where."

What makes this image different from most of my dance images? Actually, it’s not “what,” it’s “where.”

And here is a “good enough” document from this weekend that doesn’t meet my criteria as a photograph:

My old nemesis, compression.

My old nemesis: Compression.

Long focal lengths and distance to subject produce a compression effect. A 200mm lens, used from the very back of the theater, compresses foreground and background, making the image look less three-dimensional.  That can be a great effect for a lot of subjects, but with multiple dancers on stage, I’d prefer a sense of depth. For the SBCC image, where you can clearly feel the distance between the dancers, I was seated in the front row – at stage level – using a 17-55 f/2.8 lens. Note that we’re not talking about depth of field here, because the dancers in the background appear pretty sharp, but you still get a sense of depth.

There is no question in my mind that I make better dance photos when I am closer to the stage, but it simply isn’t possible most of the time, since audiences don’t like someone standing in front of them, clicking incessently. Knowing this, I look for opportunities like the image at the top of this post, where compression does not appear to distort the image, but probably helps it.

Next time, I’ll explore how I somehow managed to increase both my keeper rate and my frustration during this weekend’s dance concerts. It was all worth it.

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Filed under Camera Gear, Composition, Dance and Theater, Lighting, Professional vs. Amateur

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