Pictures that count
by R S Cole
Tons of paper, and barrels of printers’ ink have been devoted to the great subject of how to make pictures and the choice of proper subjects for the camera, but few photographers or writers of photographic lore have devoted more than a passing thought to the equally important subject of what not to take. The average amateur, when he starts out in search of material for “snap-shots,” gives never a thought to the things he should not take, with the result that when he comes to examine his “pictures,” he finds that they consist principally of wasted film and spoiled paper, with little, if anything, that is of value for his friends or his album.
Just a little thought and care would have eliminated much if not all of the trouble, but it was the old story, the photographer did not know what not to take. The great fault of the beginner is that he or she makes too many exposures, giving little or no thought to composition and study of effect, instead of expending a little time and energy in searching for real pictures. On the vacation or hunting trip the enthusiastic amateur keeps his shutter clicking at every thing within range of his lens, regardless of the real value of the subjects, careless alike of forground and background, and seeing only the object which has for the moment attracted his attention. The net result of this sort of photography is wasted material and disappointment. In almost every instance, the picture would have been good but for just one glaring fault, and it is only too evident when it is too late, and the print reveals the trouble, that a little forethought and study of the subject would surely have eliminated the trouble.
For instance, many an otherwise excellent picture is spoiled by the presence of obstructive rocks, weeds, or low hanging branches of trees in the foreground. A small twig, three feet from the lens, but between it and the chosen subject of the camera, appears too small to be of importance to the average careless amateur, but when the plate or film is developed, and the distorted image of that same twig is shown to be the most pronounced feature of the “picture,” the photographer realizes his mistake, and wishes too late that he had been more careful in the beginning. Another frequent cause of trouble is the making of pictures against a background of trees or bushes, the branches of which allow the light to filter through, the result being that the entire background of the picture is covered with spots of highlight which were overlooked by the hasty or careless photographer, but which too often utterly spoil the resulting print.
One of the faults most commonly found in the work of the amateur who is too careless, or what is worse, too lazy to make a preliminary study of the subject chosen for a picture, is the posing of a sitter for an outdoor portrait or a group, under a tree, the brancnes of which allow the light to come through in patches. The result is that the faces are distorted with patches of glaring highlight, interspersed with spots of dense shadow, making recognition of the sitter or members of the group practically impossible, and rendering the prints utterly worthless.
Many devotees of the camera seemingly fail to learn, until they have ruined many dollars’ worth of plates or film and paper, that good pictures cannot be made in glaring sunlight. Undaunted by repeated failure to “get results” they continue to expose plates or films on objects lighted by the direct rays of Old Sol, with the result that their prints are simply “soot and whitewash,” the highlights utterly impenetrable, and the shadows burned to a black that almost goes through the paper as well as the emulsion.
In a word, Mr Amateur, study your subject before instead of after you have snapped your shutter, give a little attention to foreground and background as well as to the subject of your lens, and avoid, as far as possible, extreme contrast. Spend a little time in searching for real pictures, instead of snapping your shutter at everything in sight on the chance of getting something good, and when you come to examine your prints after they are finished, you will find more cause for satisfaction and less for disappointment.
Picture at top: Photographer in a crowd, c1910 – photo by Arthur P Bedou, from Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture