photography and photographs understood

Making Progress

writer: russell j.t. dyer; posted: May 2013; revised: Oct 2017; readers past month: 566

Eight years ago I took my first trip to Europe—I moved to Italy six months later. In preparation for that first trip, though, I bought my first digital camera, a simple point-and-shoot, compact camera. I had been taking photographs on-and-off since I was a child. But that event and camera got me into photography seriously for the first time. A year or so later I bought a Canon 400D. A year later I replaced it with a Canon 40D, and then with a Canon 5D Mark II. It was quite a rapid growth in equipment. Getting better equipment, though, doesn’t necessarily make one a better photographer.

All along the way, I have often felt that I was not very good at taking photographs and making little or no improvements in photography. I have to remind myself often that I am getting better. It’s just that I am always dissatisfied. But that is what keeps me striving to do better, that feeling of needing to try harder and to study more.

A few days ago a friend of mine needed a photograph of the colosseum in Rome. She asked me if I had a good shot that she could use for something she was writing. So I looked through photographs that I’ve taken during the few visits I’ve made to Rome. I’ve passed through Rome many times, but have only gone sightseeing a few times with others who were visiting me in Italy. I went for the first time in May 2007 with a colleague, then again in June 2008 with my daughter and a friend, and again in May 2012 with another friend. In looking through the photos I took of the colosseum, I noticed that I have improved over the years, more than I realized. It was useful looking at photos taken of the same subject like this as a comparison. The only thing that has changed is my equipment and my skills as a photographer.

Below are photos from the three trips I mentioned, with a brief critique of each.

camera: canon 400d; lens: canon EF-S 18 - 55mm f/3.5-5.6
aperture: f/10 ; shutter: 1/200 sec; iso: 100; focal length: 25 mm
date: may 20, 2007 11:01 a.m.; location: rome, italy

I took this photograph in May of 2007 with a Canon 400D camera. This photo has good colors and is exposed properly. However, it’s a little boring. The caption for it could be, “Yep, there’s the colosseum.” The proximity to the more modern building helps the composition a little, but in some ways it takes away from the ancient structure. There are people in the shot, but they’re so far away that you cannot see them well. They add little interest to the story, other than help the viewer to get a sense of the size of the colosseum. The shadow in the foreground at the left corner is distracting. The other minor elements in the foreground (e.g., the railing, the grillwork, the vendor carts) make the scene a little messy. Basically, there’s nothing appealing about this shot.

camera: canon 40d; lens: canon EF-S 17 - 85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM
aperture: f/7.1 ; shutter: 1/8000 sec; iso: 1600; focal length: 17 mm
date: june 20, 2008 9:36 a.m.; location: rome, italy

I took this photograph in June of 2008 with a Canon 40D camera. It’s a better camera, but the photo is not better. This photo is exposed properly—the colors were better in the previous one, though. Look at the combination of exposure settings, though, to achieve this proper exposure. It was a clear day in late Spring and I had the ISO set at 1600. I must have been in a dark church prior to this shot, set the ISO manually to 1600, but forgot to change it when I left to 100 for bright daylight. As a result of setting that, the camera set automatically the shutter speed to 1/8000 of a second. I was taking primarily a photograph of a building, something that has hardly moved in two thousand years, not a race horse in full gallop. Besides, the lens has image stabilization. Clearly, I was not thinking about what I was doing when I took this photograph.

Besides mocking my technical skills related to the camera equipment, I can say that this photo is not very interesting. Unlike the previous photo, I am closer to the people in front of the colosseum. But they’re still too far away to be of interest to the viewer and most of them are cut off at the waist. This is very unappealing. Actually, being closer like this, it’s difficult to see the base of the structure. The other photo was more appealing with regards to this. There are at least trees to the side of the colosseum in this one. That’s a nicer effect than the modern buildings in the previous shot.

I mentioned at the start of this post that I have been improving. You can’t see it, though, between these two photos. In fact, in some ways it may seem that I was getting worse. Based on how I set the ISO, it would seem that my skills were haphazard. Incidentally, I didn’t intentionally select photos that aren’t very good for these first two. Instead, I selected the best photo hat I had taken of the colosseum during each of these trips, ones in which I tried to photograph the whole structure from a distance.

camera: zeiss ikon; lens: zeiss 35mm f/2 biogon zm; film: kodak portra 160vc
aperture: f/5.6; shutter: 1/250 sec; iso: 160; focal length: 35 mm
date: may 2, 2012; location: rome, italy

This shot was taken five years later. What a difference that much time has made for my abilities. Look at how much better is this photo. It’s not a clear day, but very overcast. And yet the image still came out well. The woman in the foreground is my friend, Katia who was visiting me in Italy for two weeks. Having her in the shot makes it much more interesting, even without knowing her.

I took this photo from close to the same spot, facing the same direction as I did when I took the first photo. There’s still small people at the base, but with the woman in the picture, they only help to establish the size of the colosseum and aren’t a distraction. Neither is the railing, the grillwork, or the vendor truck a distraction because of her. She’s not looking at my camera, but hers. However, that makes it more interesting. Her hair and other colors complement well the color of the colosseum. I’ve included more grass in this shot: the woman’s blue pants, blue camera and scarf, and the green grass all go well with the color of the colosseum and the clouds. There are no blue skies as in the other shots, but the gray clouds goes well with the ancient fragments of the colosseum. The woman’s look of modernity against the ancient structure, helps to soften the contrast of the proximity of the modern buildings to the colosseum. With her back to the great edifice and her focusing her attention on her digital camera, it gives her a more powerful feel. And it makes the colosseum seem to be saying, “Take your time: I’m here for you and everyone, as I have been for two thousand years.”

Looking at the first two photographs of this post, and especially looking at the settings of the second one, you can see that I was bouncing around for a few years, not understanding how to use my cameras and lenses, and not knowing how to compose a shot. I was often just guessing at settings and composition, taking a photo, looking at the results on the camera, and then taking the shot again and again, hoping one would look good. This third photo was taken with a film camera, with a manual lens. There was no immediate feedback, no LCD screen on the back of the camera. The only automatic aspect was the shutter speed. Everything else I determined myself. There’s also the use of a model. I had people with me during the other two trips. However, I didn’t ask them to sit in the foreground when I took those pictures. Instead, I was concentrating on the colosseum and not thinking about the image I was creating. When I took this third photo, I knew better what I was doing and was able to see the final image in my mind before I pressed the shutter button. I may not yet be a great photographer, but my understanding of photography and how to use photography equipment has finally come together. I have learned to think like a photographer.