Making Photos Not Taking Them

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The photographer Ansel Adams talked about making photos rather than taking them.

Here’s the quote:

You don’t take a photograph, you make it

My Uncle George was a keen photographer. When I was a young fella, I’d show him my photographs.

One day he said: “Why did you take the photo from there?"

I stammered and stumbled for an answer. But I didn’t have one.

He followed up with: “What would have happened if you moved over to your left or right? Or crouched down?"

At first, I couldn’t figure out what he meant. But since it was possible for me to go back and find out, I did.

I took the photos at our local country park. So I went back and took them again. Except this time, I moved around to change the angle of view.

I also crouched down, changed my camera settings here and there and messed with depth of field.

When my prints came back from the lab (this was the early 1980’s) I saw the difference.

I showed Uncle George and he smiled and said: “Now you are learning to make photos…"

I never got chance to ask him if he was quoting from Ansel Adams. I suspect he was.

It taught me a lesson I’ve never forgotten, though.

When I see something I’m going to photograph, I never shoot and check later. I always stop and think: what am I seeing?

It’s interesting what happens when I do that. Sometimes, it means I put my camera down.

Other times, it has me walking around, zooming in and out. I’ll mess with the exposure triangle. And I’ll think about how I’ll process the photo.

The photo above is an example. I’d walked several miles of the canal bank before I made the photo.

Why? Well, because the first time I lifted my camera, it was a nice scene. But that was it. I wanted something more.

I liked the above moment. Here’s why:

  • I liked the leading lines of the canal banks
  • The barge appearing added something
  • The line of clouds added another element
  • I crouched a little too, to include some depth using the vegetation

So, hanging on for a while and working a little harder for the photo, I made the one I wanted.

In post processing, adding tonal variation made sense. And it helped create the mood I felt at the time.

It’s moments like that when you realise what Ansel meant. And I remember what Uncle George taught me.

You don’t take photos you do the work to make them.

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