Most of what you see from photographers are the successes, and as an art form, photography really doesn’t receive the respect it deserves. Indeed, you could replace the word ‘photography’ in that sentence with any other art. For me, photography earns a special place on the wall of disrespect simply because everyone has a camera in their pockets and they all know how to use it. Conversely, not everyone can pull out a notepad and start drawing. No one carries paints and canvas, or clay, or guitar on their person at all times and certainly wouldn’t consider themselves painters, potters or musicians if these were common items toted by all. Even among artists photographers are often seen as black sheep. There have been shows I’ve been rejected from where I have been told very clearly by multiple people that photography is not judged kindly.
It really is a very narrow minded perception that many people hold of photography and I’d like to use this post as an opportunity to dissect the years of work that goes into making one solid photograph.
Take this shot as an example of the time and effort that goes into one landscape photo. I planned to catch the Milky Way rising over the New River Gorge Bridge, unfortunately things did not go my way; the dark came but so did the clouds when it was time to shoot. In other words, this was a failure.
As straight forward as it looks, the idea for this shot didn’t just materialize in my head over night. It’s been sitting back there slowly forming over a long period of time. With the exception of the weather, there is very little luck involved. I needed to have a good bit of prior knowledge to get here. I have to know that the Milky Way will only be in this position at certain times of the year when the core of the galaxy is high in the sky mid-to-late-summer. That particular positioning not only creates a more pleasing composition, but it also makes it possible to shoot in a somewhat light polluted area. Because I’ve photographed the Milky Way in countless different situations over the years, I know that it will be just high enough above the dome of light pollution to catch the detail in the gas clouds surrounding the stars and not be washed out by the lights from the neighboring town of Fayetteville.
I also have to know the area pretty well because I don’t have the ability to create the image from my mind, I have to actually be there. The spot where I set up is not part of any established trail system, in fact few visitors to this park will ever see this view unless you’re a rafter or rock climber following the same mysteriously placed cairns off the beaten path that I did. I would not have learned of this place if I hadn’t stumbled on it myself in all my wanderings in the area over the last couple years.
Then there are the more obvious things that are acquired over the years, such as the knowledge it takes to manually operate a camera, with all the ins and outs of shooting at different times of the day or night and learning what gear is appropriate for each situation. As with any learned skill, experience through many failures and experimentation over a long period of time is the only way to develop the kind of intuition needed to make it all come together in the end.
Next comes learning more about art itself and composition; how can I frame things for a more pleasing picture, how do colors and lines and light interact in a scene? Surprisingly, I don’t love looking at photography, but I force myself from time to time to look at others work in order to get ideas for myself and learn what works. Additionally, I welcome feedback from others. I’m always looking for critiques on my work from other photographers who I respect and from other artists who work in different fields. I try to shoot with other photographers whose work I like and learn something from each of them. More importantly, I’ve had to learn to be my own harshest critic. Photography is a unique medium in that you can potentially produce a lot of work in a very short amount of time. Culling is a hard skill to learn because you are often throwing away an entire day’s worth of effort. The picture shown in the beginning of this post represents one of several dozen that I took that evening, testing a variety of things, and they will all be deleted in spite of the fact that I drove 2 hours, walked 3 miles and sat on the river’s edge for over 3 hours because I can and will do better.
There are some less obvious things that go into a good picture, like photo editing. I’ve been learning for over 3 years and I’m still learning new things. There are so many different ways you can process a photo to really make it stand out. This is a subject that has enough depth that I can make 1+ hour long tutorials each month and cover something a little different every time, as some of my Patrons subscribing to my video tutorials on Patreon can attest! Unfortunately, this is an area that gets denigrated by other photographers over the belief that it is no longer considered photography once you edit beyond some basic exposure adjustments. I can respect the “purist” photographer but I often view the lack of mutual respect as a sign of unwillingness to take the time to expand and learn another aspect of the art; understandable as it can be a daunting task.
Finally, there is a ton of patience required. As I mentioned, I sat at this spot for a long time, from 7:30pm until 10:30 to be more precise, for a couple of reasons. One, I didn’t want to break my neck walking down a steep unfamiliar, rocky hill in the dark. Two, this could have been a unique view to catch a sunset as well, and much like my anticipated Milky Way shot, this plan too went down in unspectacular fashion. Lastly, the extra daylight gives me more time to scout the location to see where I can set up for the best composition and where I can move if needed later that night.
All told, over 3 years went into the making of this photo, one that did not make the cull. Maybe it will be another year before the final result comes into fruition, by then I might change the angle or do something completely different to make it even better. For certain, I will return another night to try this again and hope for more favorable skies. Until it dawned on me to get on here and write something, I was actually pretty set on never speaking about the trip since it did not yield any results, in which case, my intended audience would have only seen the final result.
Maybe that’s part of the problem with the lack of respect for photography. There’s not enough discussion about the process so it remains mysterious to most folks. I must admit, as a fairly modest person, I get somewhat annoyed when I read the trials and tribulations found in other photographer’s work involving some iteration of “I almost fell off a cliff and died to get this shot.” I want the viewer to escape through my photos and be inspired by the places depicted in them, not to hear me complain about the behind the scenes. Getting the shots are all part of the fun and thrill of it for me and it’s why I enjoy photography.
It’s likely they are just making sure the difficulty behind a good photograph is known; to gain more respect for the achievement made in getting the shot. I am probably wrong for getting annoyed and it is a bit hypocritical of me because I’m guilty of it too. I try to avoid going down this road and often catch myself in disgust as I sometimes regale potential buyers with my own trials and tribulations story behind an image as I try to encapsulate the amount of effort described above within a single short story relatable to all. It is effective – I can see the change wash over their face as they begin to appreciate the discipline a little more.
Maybe I should just accept those kinds of stories as part of the process, or at least seek to insert more of a balance between modesty and self-aggrandizing in my communications. To be completely fair, I find there are many more who immediately recognize the art and effort put forth than not. Too bad these are not the people deciding the fate of photographers in art shows!