It’s standard practice for a post about the core ideas or values of photography to talk about things like “lighting” and “composition” and “focal lengths.” That’s how people are expected to learn photography.

But, you know what? After years of photography, I’ve found that those posts mean almost nothing in the field. If you focus on “balancing the exposure” all day, you’ll have technically nice photos – without an impact. And that’s not where you want to be, because people with better technology will always be able to take technically better photographs.

No, photography is an art. Today’s post talks about how to capture the experience, not how to use a camera.

The Three Faces of Pittsburgh - World View Clock

The Three Core Values of the Photographic Art

  1. Purposeful
  2. Relatable
  3. Beautiful

Purposeful

The first thing we must ask ourselves as photographers is “What is the purpose of this photo?” – with the prevalence of smartphones and social media, the vast majority of photos we now see are taken simply because someone had a camera and was enjoying themselves. As serious photographers, the easiest way to differentiate ourselves and answer the question “How are we different than anyone with a smartphone?” is to have a purpose. Since I’ve started seeking purpose in my pictures, I’ve gone from taking 1,000 photos in a single trip to taking only 100 – and yet, I end up with more high quality photos. Just because it is easy to take and delete photos does not give us a free pass to snap away blindly!

Instead, before taking each photo, pause for just 5 seconds. Ask yourself why that photo caught your eye – why was it interesting? The way the light reflects off the building? The way the power lines form a geometric pattern? Then, think about how you can emphasize that specific characteristic. You might slow your shutter speed to catch a little bit of the light moving, or change your angle to make the geometric pattern more interesting.

Don’t get caught up in the technical details, get caught up in the experience.

Relatable

Each photograph is like a story. Only, our jobs are so much harder than that of a novelist or filmmaker, because we must convey everything necessary to understand and appreciate the story in a single frame. We must provide the perspective, along with the action, so that the viewer is able to comprehend and share the experience. If we take a close-up picture of a beetle, it is a beetle. But, if we take a close-up of a beetle crawling on a foot, or with someone’s face huge behind it, we give the viewer the same sense of scale, of awe at the miniature, that we had when we took the picture. If we are photographing skiers launch themselves off a jump, we might snap a picture of them filling the frame with blue sky filling the background – but we’ll also want to capture the jump, the immense altitude to which they have so precariously ascended.

The story that you choose to tell is up to you – but do not forget to tell a story!

Beautiful

Many of us were inspired to become photographers after witnessing beautiful photographs – yet, in our pursuit of beauty, we miss it entirely. In many ways, beauty is like happiness – it can only be pursued indirectly, as the consequence of a purposeful story.

But there is one path to beauty that can, and should, be pursued with relentlessness: uniqueness. How are we different than anyone with a smartphone? Because we are willing to travel off the beaten path, to wait until everyone else has gone home, to capture the scenes that nobody else has experienced. It is the difference between capturing the Eiffel Tower in the middle of the day, and capturing it at the climax of a rare fireworks show.

Goal of these Core Ideas

This is not a “3 Easy Tips to Become a Pro Photographer.” You cannot simply rote-memorize “Purposeful, Relatable, Beautiful” and expect to be the next Ansel Adams. What you can do is use this vocabulary to examine beautiful, inspiring photography (on sites such as 500px.com) and ask yourself what about the photographs makes them impactful – and then use those insights to make your photography better.

So often I see photographers asking “What ISO did you shoot that picture at?” when, in reality, they should be asking “How did you come up with that idea?” or “Where do you see taking that technique next?”

 

Photography Core Values at Work: A Case Study

For those who want to get the most out of their new-found understanding, here is a case study I’ve prepared from one of my photographs (you can see more by checking me out on 500px)

Pittsburgh Dawn - The World View Clock

 

Purposeful

This photo had a very clear purpose behind it – it was for the World View Clock project, which seeks to use photographs to express time. This taken in the morning, and is now used as one of the morning pictures for the app. I picked this angle because I wanted it to be about the passage of time – so, very far back, with lots of sky so that you can see the clouds moving. I also picked this angle because it was at an angle to the sun’s trajectory, maximizing the appearance of shadows at they moved across the landscape.

Relatable

What is the story here? A city awakening. Of course, this isn’t the only way to tell that story – photos of individuals waking, coffee shops bustling… Picking how you tell it is where you, the artist, get to put your unique mark.

Beautiful

Taking a unique landscape photograph is quite challenging. The story and mission of the World View Clock are what make this extraordinary – but, even without that, this is still a good photo. Why? Because the weather is beautiful the timing just right – and, I got up at 4am to take the picture, so that I could be in place for the sunrise. Being above a major city at dawn is not something we see on a regular basis.

That being said, not every unique photographic endeavor requires you to wake up absurdly early. The uniqueness comes from capitalizing on your unique talents and interests. I happen to love traveling, but you might enjoy skiing, or swimming, or martial arts. Find what is unique about these activities – the incredible snowy landscapes, the incredible motion dynamics of water, the intense focus of combat – and crank it up to 11!

 

Huge thank you to our guest blogger, Todd Medema!

Todd Medema is an entrepreneur and technologist by day, inventor and photographer by night. Follow his adventures on Twitter and Facebook!

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