The subject is set, the lighting not half bad, and the elements necessary for the image in your head is coming together before the lens. Whether you are a pro or not is irrelevant in this situation as it affects anyone with a camera. From family reunion group shots to professional family portraits, there is one important factor a photographer has to consider when looking through that lens. And, unfortunately, if you are not aware of it, that factor will not present its handy work until it is much too late!
That factor is: The human brain.
Whether you like it or not, the brain has a way of filtering out undesirable background noise from sound and sight. The closest official term I can find to match what I am talking about is “Sensory Gating”. Which means the brain filters out redundant or unnecessary information in relation to the senses. It’s the reason you can focus on one conversation in a large crowd or ignore that persistent, buzzing florescent light at work. Quite a bit more information on how the brain works in this capacity can be found here.
The problem is: While this feature of the mind keeps us from being overwhelmed by the world around us, it can also create a stage for disaster for photographers. It is a lesson I learned in college, a lesson I remember every time the camera is in my hand, and it is a lesson I plan to pass to you in this blog!
The other day I came across a photo which inspired me to write this blog. In this shot (displayed at the right), two light bulbs have been filled with patriotic glitter and are blown apart before a highspeed camera. It is a wonderful shot and it is just one of many great shots by artist Jon Smith (check his page here) (check his Flickr page direct here).
I say this photo reminded me of a lesson I learned in college because of Smith’s use of a relatively simple setup using two glass vessels. Here’s why:
It was in my first semester photography class. During these months, we used to have collective themes for the week. For instance, one week the class would have to photograph something to do with “time”. The next, we might have to do a shoot focused on “fruit”. Well, one week, we were tasked with a “liquids” theme.
Now, like most students, I automatically used water in a few shots. However, I was also keen on being a smartass from time to time and decided to draw upon my knowledge to create a unique shot relating to liquid as well. For this, I decided to focus on glass. I had learned not long before that glass was, in fact, a very slow moving liquid. So, in my infinite wisdom of prudent technicalities, I decided to pose a couple of empty mason jars. I simply placed them on a wooden, cube-shaped end table in my residential college’s fourth floor lobby before an aged, white, cinder block wall and snapped the picture.
Now, you have to understand, I thought I was being brilliant. I developed the film, enlarged the picture and dry mounted it for all to see. I was beaming with pride over the fact I had such a “smart” picture to present with our “liquids” assignment. Then came the teacher’s review.
My professor, Michael Johnson, was not a man who minced words. If your work sucked, he told you about it, without holding back, and in front of everyone. Now, for this, I didn’t necessarily get a verbal “It sucks”, but he really didn’t have to. Once I removed my smartass goggles, I could see for myself: It sucked!
As he pointed out, amongst his and the class’ various pokes, prods, and jests, the background was just plain white bricks, and the table beneath it was simply wood veneer. In the middle was, well, two empty mason jars. That was it.
I had been so focused on the fact I was being “wise” in my “liquids” assignment, that I simply tuned out the fact that the picture itself was terrible and boring. Too bad I don’t have easy access to it from here or I would post it for all to see.
That day I learned a valuable lesson: A photographer must be aware of every detail in the photo before the shot is taken. One must be sure their brain is not filtering out the undesirable facts of the photo. It is easy to get so wrapped up in the subject that one does not notice the little things. This can range anywhere from someone’s face being blocked in a group shot to an ugly utility pole and wires streaming across the background. In these examples, all the brain saw was a general group of faces and a backdrop of green trees, respectively. The undesirable elements were filtered out.
Michael told of another good example of this where a former student was taking self portraits in the studio. Her shots depended on her being able to isolate herself on a black background and, unfortunately, the black backdrop was broken. She looked around the room and found some old black plastic instead. Seemed the day was saved and her vision was allowed to move forward.
However, during development and printing of her pictures, she was taken back by all these little specks of white around her giving the visual impression she was floating in space. As it turns out, in her haste to replace the broken black backdrop, her brain had turned off the fact that shiny, crinkly, black plastic also reflects points of light. She only saw the black and not the hundreds of little light dots adorning it. However, the camera saw everything and she had to deal with that when it was much too late to go back and reshoot it.
The bottom line: Make sure you are ignoring your sensory filter and see everything in a shot before you release the shutter. Otherwise, you are going to face unnecessary (and sometimes irreparable) editing issues down the road.
Now, I say Mr. Smith’s photo reminded me of my mason jars in that they are two glass light bulbs shot straight on. However, where I was lacking in supporting elements, he clearly is not. The backdrop is black and isolating and the fram is nicely framed and filled in a way that makes the image pop (no pun intended).