03 September 2010

Context vs. Details - photography musings

Something I've been pondering lately is the balance in photography between capturing details of a given event, like intricate embroidery on a wedding gown, and seeing more context, like that gown hanging next to a group of bridesmaids primping at the mirror. Each type of photograph has its own strengths. But something I'm learning is that you need to have both, if you want to truly tell a story and help others visualize, or remember, the event.

When I first started on my photography journey, my photos were almost all details. This is because my emphasis was on bringing out the unnoticed and forgotten details of the world. If I could make someone amazed at the texture of a little leaf from their own garden, for example, I'd done my job. My perspective was tiny and focused: to diminish the context so little worlds of beauty could really shine.

Look at the difference between these photos. The first two were taken close up, with a few macro filters. The second is a normal perspective of a very generic flower box....the same place where the first two were taken! The first two are breathtaking (I think) and full of imagination; the second is a boring, lame snapshot. (I only took it to illustrate the differences in perspective.) In this and so many similar circumstances, the context is what I wanted to get rid of. The only way to see the beauty, the only way to make my art, was to un-see everything else.Which, strangely, takes a lot of imagination.
Nice flower box, but this photo is nothing I'd want on my wall!

Now, my lens is pointed at people, emotions, love, and reactions. Initially, when I started in this new area of photography, I didn't even realize my habits of getting close-in, showing details over stories. The tipping point was our vacation this summer, where we visited a wide variety of beautiful and breathtaking places (see photos here!). Of course I had my camera, and eagerly used it!  I hadn't done landscape/nature photography in so long, and it was SO refreshing. I used the rather wide 17mm end of my lens quite often, as was necessary to show the wide and high vistas we encountered. It felt different, and new and refreshing to see the world that way. Somewhere in Yellowstone National Park, I realized that my photography needed to include plenty of 'zoomed-out' moments as well as the small details. In this photograph, the people provide scale and context. While this probably won't ever make it onto anyone's wall, it wouldn't be nearly as interesting without the people.

So yes, while I'll still do plenty of details shots -- I think people still need to notice small beautiful things -- part of the art of portraits, especially weddings, is finding and revealing a story through the images.  And the context is a large part of what gives the story its meaning.

There are so many things to learn. It's encouraging to have these small epiphanies and discoveries.

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