Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Learning from a "Contact Sheet" or today a grid of thumbnails

Talking of bad photographers, I have often heard it said that one of their characteristics is that they look at their contacts in order to discover which is the best picture, whereas a good photographer examines each frame on a contact sheet and asks: why is this one not a good picture?
[Jay, Bill; Hurn, David (1997-10-01). On Being a Photographer]

I am reading the book On Being a Photographer. You can get the Kindle version through Amazon for $5.95.

The book is in its third edition and I cannot recommend this enough for the young photographer and the seasoned photographer.

Here is  a link for you to get the book.

The Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar had Jay Maisel down to speak one year. He had recently switched to digital and loving it. I remember we were talking and he pulls out of his breast pocket a memory card case and said this is all he needs as compared to all the cases of film he used to have to take on jobs.

Then he went on to talk about him shooting the day before around his place in New York City. He pulled up his camera and gave it to me to look through what was the raw take.

David Hurn's experience and mine has been that bad photographers don't want you to see their raw take, whereas the seasoned pro welcomes it.

Jay Maiesl demonstrated it to me by just giving me his camera and let me look through the images.

36 - exposure 35mm film contact sheet of mine from 1987

In the book Hurn talks about the "Contact Sheet." Well for the most part these are things of the past when we all shot film. Most editorial photographers would shoot 36 exposure roll of film and then after processing the film made a contact sheet.

The "Contact Sheet" was our first time to see the images. Now you can look on the back of your camera and see individual images, but ingesting your images into a browser like PhotoMechanic or Lightroom lets you see the entire take as a whole and this is where you learn more than any other place in photography.

There are a few things seasoned pros all have in common, no matter what we shoot.

Most will shoot a frame or two as notes to ourselves. It is quite common to see scoreboard during a sporting event so I know when something happened in the game. The play by play notes that have at the game that I can access after the event will help me match the frame up to the time clock. Makes it easier to write a better caption.

It is also common for me just to shoot a frame here or there that are just personal notes for myself.

While shooting a subject things will change to where you will see the photographer explore the subject. While the audience will only see maybe one photo of a scene as the final selection, the photographer didn't just walk up see it and click.

This is what most bad photographers and beginners assume or do themselves. They fail to explore the subject.

If it is a static subject like the Lincoln Memorial the photographer will walk around it looking for an angle that evokes the emotion they feel. They may come back later and shoot it at night like I did here many years ago.

As we look at all the images we took before making corrections, the seasoned pros take will look consistent in exposure, sharp and good color. Then the pro will just go from frame to frame pondering what they could have done to improve the photo.

Should I have stepped to the left or right more? Should I have been closer or further back? What would it have looked like with a different lens?

When the subjects are moving I am looking for a moment when everything is coming together to a peak moment. Enlarge the first photo at the top of the grid of photos. Then look from frame to frame. Which photo is better than another photo and why? Now if you were there and knew what I was trying to capture because of the conversation that is taking place this would help guide you to pick the photo that best communicates.

What happens is I realize that if I had just done something ever so small the photo would have been better. This is what most seasoned pros will tell you. They are looking for the perfect photo and realize that there is so much that they cannot control that they only get close.

If the subject is static there is less room for not getting it perfect, but when the subject is moving and you are capturing life as it happens, you just get close and rarely obtain the perfect image.

By studying the contact sheet or what we call thumbnails in a grid we are able to see things develop. Over time we are able to know the next time we encounter something similar how to better anticipate rather than react.

The more you study the entire take and evaluate your work, the more you realize how important planning is going to help you next time do a better job.

Another thing most seasoned pros do is after reviewing their work they put it away for a couple days when possible.
This serves to distance me from the emotion of the picture-taking moment so that I am better able to see the image dispassionately. Too often when we look at our own pictures we remember the excitement of the event, which becomes mixed up with our cool judgment of the results. Then again, if an image was particularly difficult to shoot, we justify it: something so hard to achieve must be worthwhile. For these reasons, I like to show the contacts to a photographer I respect. This person is unaware of my feelings, can cut through the memories and fantasies, and will only see what is actually there, in the image itself.
--David Hurn
Hopefully you are starting to see that the professional photographer isn't shooting all the time. They are doing a lot of planning and evaluating of their work so the next time they are shooting the odds are more in their favor.

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