A friend told me this famous quote few years ago. The original quote is from Ansel Adams – one of the greatest landscape photographers. I think this is a very important quote, especially in the age of digital photography where it’s easier than ever to take a photograph.
Well, what is a significant photograph? Everyone is going to have a different set of standards/requirements that makes a photo a significant. For some it may be technical like the perfect composition, brilliant twilight colours, the golden side light.. For others it may be the memory of a place or an event. So a photo which may be special for someone may be lacklustre for others. What I am trying to say is, unless you are a commercial photographer, don’t worry what the others will think of your photographs. You are not taking photographs to satisfy them – you are taking photographs to satisfy yourself, capture those special moments that may mean something for you. (and if you are a commercial photographer who posts a new image daily with no apparent depth or quality, then don’t get offended if I don’t like it).
But let’s be honest, we like taking photographs. Why else would we be out at crack of dawn in the cold, or sheltering behind a rock waiting for that rain cloud to pass? But we don’t always come back with a significant photograph. It may be a nice photo, but not perfect, not special enough…
On a side note, this is also what makes it difficult to judge photographs that you see on social media. People tend to describe the conditions the photograph was taken in, but they don’t tend to describe what makes it special, so it’s hard to judge what that photograph means to them. So you may not consider a photograph any good, but it may mean the world to them.
I am going to side track a little but this seems to be a good place to talk about it. I think this is where photography as an art vs photography as a commercial business comes in. From my limited experience in print sales, people tend to buy photographs of places that have a special meaning to them – a memorable holiday, childhood town, local woods they go for a walk, etc… Every time I had a print sale, people ended up buying the photographs that I wouldn’t have considered special – the ones I printed purely they were photographs of local scenes. So if you are doing photography as a business, then yes I don’t blame you if you take 100s of photographs every month with postcard/magazine quality. That’s your business and you need to cater for the potential clients – quantity comes over quality. But if you are doing photography as an art (and by art I mean capturing something meaningful, beautiful) it’s the opposite: Quality over quantity. And this is not limited to photography. This is true for any subject; painting, sculpture, craft-making, writing, etc… I may be wrong, but I don’t think famous artists of the past did many of their famous artworks for money.
Can you be both? – provide high quality photographs that are commercially successful? Yes, why not? I like to think Ansel Adams, and other well known photographers of the past were artists first and it was the quality of their work (I admit, also the smaller number of photographers helped) that brought them financial success. This is true with many modern photographers as well. I have seen so many photographers who started doing photography lovingly, producing high quality images and still make a living out of it, but now their works look commercial, mass-produced. I suppose decline of stock image sales may have something to do with it, but that’s a whole topic for another time… What I am trying to say is if you are a hobbyist photographer, I would have thought quality comes over quantity, but for many people satisfaction of others (on social media) blinded them to this.
Rant over. Going back to the original question, what is a significant photograph? As I said, this is a personal thing and for me, it’s the ones that I love enough to hang on the wall. And how do I decide which ones are good enough to be significant? Well, it tends to be the ones that bring out an emotion – whether it is a memory of something unrelated, or the emotion I had while capturing that photograph (amazing sunset after a storm, or finding an incredible view after climbing a mountain, etc). It also tends to be the ones that I worked hard to come up with a good composition. Don’t get me wrong, I like standing on high ground, putting on a long lens and capturing the vistas, but those photographs don’t tend to be special for me (unless they bring out an emotion as I said earlier).
I have gone through my photographs from this year, and I took 51 photos – well 51 photos that I am happy enough with to keep. This number excludes photoshoots and personal projects which I am not sharing yet. Out of the 51, I had 9 images that I can consider significant:
Kimmeridge at Dusk. I have been meaning to visit Kimmeridge for the past 4 years. I finally made my way down early this year. Sunset was a no-go due to wrong tide and lack of clouds. So I stayed after the sunset and waited for the tide to rise to the right level and the stars to show up. Perfect balance of the light, tide and stars, and good composition with the leading cracks in the rock (not so easy to compose in the dark with the rising tide and slippery rocks).
Woolacombe – I have been obsessed with the jagged rock formations of North Devon lately. I crawled up and down the rocks to align everything in this image and then balance the tripod afterwards. It’s hard to appreciate the depth (3D pop of the front rock) of the image and the details of the rocks on a small image unfortunately. I bet it’d look great as a large print.
Woolacombe Again – Did I say I was obsessed with the jagged rocks of North Devon Coast? I wanted to capture these rocks on an overcast day as B&W to give it an alien planet look. Again, plenty of walking up and down the rocks to balance the composition and not to make the dark rocks overwhelm (may be a tad too black on the right side of the frame).
Karpasia – Funny enough this was a last minute plan once I discovered it was too windy to camp. Oh boy I am happy I went with Plan B 🙂 I knew this spot well so I knew I can have the arch of Milky Way rising over the islands this time of the year. I wanted to create that “at the end of world” feeling with the two islands and the light house.
Above the Clouds – I took this during a workshop in Cyprus. It has been somewhat cloudy during the day so I decided to take us to the Buffavento Castle for the sunset with the hopes of being above the clouds. It didn’t look very optimistic on the climb up there, but on the last 100m or so I realised that the castle would be over the clouds – a mad dash to the top to capture the dance of the clouds before the light faded.
Sands of Time – I have numerous photos from this spot, yet I still managed to come up with a favourite. It’s the combination of the clear milky way, undisturbed sand dunes, and the soft moon light on the sand dunes…
Fangorn – Well, I have wanted to capture the Wistman’s Woods in foggy conditions for so long. I had numerous trips here over the years with failure. For some reason it’s hard to get fog flow down into this valley where the woods are located. I had 3 images from this morning that I love. For all 3, I had go back and forth between the trees to come up with the cleanest compositions. Anyone who has been in there knows it is a difficult place to work; big boulders on a slope, crowded trees… So to come back with 3 images I am chuffed.
Quantocks – Another foggy woodland image. I walked this path 2-3 years ago first time, and I took few images of this section of woods back then. It was a boring overcast day so that photo didn’t end up anywhere. It was great to have the right conditions to re-visit this scene.
Milky Way – And last but not least, my milky way panorama from Cyprus. I had a blog post about this image earlier, so I don’t need to go into detail how much effort was put into it. It’s big, it has got tons of details (which are hard to appreciate here) that I can get lost staring at. I have been meaning to print it for a while now… Maybe a late Christmas present for myself.
So those are my significant photographs from 2015. Ansel Adams said 12 significant photos in a year is a good crop. I haven’t got 12, but 12 is not a target to aim for. It’s a guide, an indication to tell us that significant photos are rare.
I have been doing photography since 2010. I have gone through all my images from each year to count how many images I consider significant and I had 7 in 2010, 10 in 2011, 13 in 2012 and 2013, and 12 in 2014. 2012 and 2013 were very busy years for me with lots of weekend trips as well as numerous trips to Norway and Iceland which helped boost my numbers up (if you go to an amazing location, you are more likely (but not guaranteed) to come back with better images), whereas this year I haven’t had any trips other than the usual Cyprus pilgrimage. I also haven’t been out much locally as the things I want to shoot are becoming further away in the field, making it difficult for day trips.
So I invite you to do this simple exercise as well. Go through all your images, and count how many of them do you consider significant – good enough to hang on your wall and look at every day, or whatever you may consider as a “significant photograph”. I bet it will be a small percentage of the total images…