Lesson from the Scene: Giving the Subconscious Time to React by Stanley Leary

by Stanley Leary



Back in the day, film photographers who shot for publications like Life Magazine and National Geographic Magazine used primarily 36 frames of 35mm film. The labs would develop the film and make contact sheets of the negatives or mount the transparencies (slides). When I saw a professional photographer’s contact sheets and slides on a light table for the first time, I was blown away by how consistent the exposures were. As I looked at the contact sheets I discovered that almost every roll was of one subject, and there was very little movement from frame to frame of that subject. Then, I became aware of the checks on certain photos.

Rating from 0-5

When editing their work, many photographers used a rating system of 0—5. A “0” or no rating meant not to use the photo for anything. A rating from 0 to 5 rated the shots from “OK” to “WOW.”

Beach SceneIf you were really observant, you would notice that the photo ratings typically would slowly improve through the roll and then quickly tapper off after the best-rated photo of a subject. The progression can almost be graphed on paper starting out at the bottom of the graph, then suddenly beginning to climb upward as the photographer explores a subject. The graph peaks out and levels off for a very short time and then plunges back to the bottom of the graph with the exploration of a new subject.

It is said that Cartier-Bresson’s contact sheets would almost all have “OK” photos and then one photo would just jump right off the page and be far superior to those around it.

I was lucky enough to work with film and go through this process, which helped refine my eye. A good photographer (editor) can look at your photos and not only help you rate your photos, but also tell you an amazing amount about yourself just from looking at the full coverage you have done on an assignment.

Unfortunately, Digital Photography Makes It Easier to Delete

Today’s digital cameras are far superior to our film cameras. If you just shoot and ingest your card into your computer, you can bring up all your images in a browser like Adobe PhotoShop’s Bridge, Lightroom or PhotoMechanic and have a very similar experience.

Fishing TrawlerUnfortunately, it is so easy to delete images that most folks show only their best pictures. We lose the critique by someone who can see everything we shot and understand where we went wrong or what we could have done to improve the shoot. When a skilled photographer (editor) looks through all your photos of a shoot, including what you thought sucked, and points out a hidden jewel in your work, you discover how powerful your gut can be in many situations.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink is about the power of thinking without thinking. Throughout the book he gives examples about how everyone’s gut reaction often is much more accurate than when we take time to think about something. He tells how an expert can thin-slice a moment and explain why a gut reaction is correct. He gives examples showing how most of us are unable to explain our gut reactions.

I would say Gladwell could easily be talking about photography. Most everyone is moved by a powerful photograph — thus a gut reaction is similar for most folks. The general population may not know why that photograph is powerful while photography experts can analyze that photo and explain how all the elements work together to create the impact.

Slowly my mentor, Don Rutledge, helped me develop an understanding of body language and how to read it. Today my work better captures moments than when I first started because I am attuned to not just composition, lighting and which lens to use, but also anticipating human interaction before it happens so I can click the moment as it happens.


Tips for better photography

Make more than one photo of subject. Shoot A LOT of pictures. We used to say that film was the cheapest part of photo coverage.  With digital there is NO reason not to make lots and lots of exposures. Taking lots of photos is NOT depending on the law-of-averages to get a good shot. Not at all. It is giving the subconscious time to react with the subject. Good photos come from an emotional connection with what is being photographed and that connection comes from the subconscious and takes exploration.

Explore the subject. The odds are that your first view is not the best angle. Move around it. Find a really cool composition you like and then shoot a lot of photos. Try to capture as many different aspects of it that you can. Watch what the light does to your subject as you move around.

 If the subject is alive, watch for expression. Learn to notice body language. Study body language. Read books on the subject.

 Show the ENTIRE take from a photo shoot to an expert photo editor/photographer. Don’t cut any shots out before you do this.  Listen to the feedback, and then think about it (you don’t have to agree with all of it). If possible, go back and shoot it again.

A good editor/mentor/coach knows you must advance in stages. When you edit your own work and your resident expert agrees with you, congratulate yourself for your progress. However, now is the time to get another expert to critique your work.

The great photographers do not look at their work and say, “I’ve got it!” They may say, “I came close.” Usually they wish they’d made a few more shots. The really good photographers always see something that could be polished just a bit.