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