There's an old saying that I like to believe: Everything happens for a reason.
I could go through the history of my life and there would be many times that I could use individual examples of points when, at the time, I asked myself, "Why did that happen?" There are also a lot of other examples that happened, that seemed rather normal. But when I look back at both, I say "Ahhhh, that happened to prepare me for this." Or that's what I like to believe. It makes the bad memories a little easier to digest.
But for the longest time, I didn't apply it to my photography. But I have seen the light. (No pun intended.)
Even today, there are a lot of instances when I forget. "What is the reason for this photo? Why did I take it?"
Reason. It is the first and possibly the most important brick in your path. In fact, as I have learned over the years, it should be within every brick in your path. The reasons will change over time, just as everything changes. In fact, the reasons may change not only from day to day but even from hour to hour or even minute to minute.
I started out before digital cameras and my reasons were the same from day to day: to capture the places I had visited. With a limited budget for rolls of film and developing, I really had to pick and choose what I took photos of, at this point in my path, time of day had no influence on what I took photos of, but I had to choose wisely. This scan of a film print of my trip to Florence, Italy in 1996 is the photo I credit to starting my photography path, is a perfect example of my first reason: to document the places I visited.
Over time, the purchase of my first digital camera helped change my reasons. With not having to pay for film and developing I was able to start taking photos because I thought something looked nice and/or colourful. But that lead to something else. I will call it "the vacuum". This was a time along my path when I was taking pictures just for the sake of taking pictures. I would take the photo, and in many cases multiple photos for no other apparent reason other than to just use the camera. Sure many of the photos were nice, but if you had asked me at the time why I took those photos. I probably wouldn't be able to give an answer. Looking back at those photos I still wouldn't be able to give an answer, and I even ask myself, "Why did I take a photo of that?"
Even today, I still catch myself asking why I did something. The good thing is now, when I have to ask myself that question, I pull myself back and concentrate on the reason. It reminds me of a time I was filming an episode for a TV programme. We just got to the top of Namsan, a mountain in the downtown area of Seoul, South Korea at night. The remains of the old city wall are still very well preserved, and there were square holes in the wall that the soldiers could shoot from to protect the city. I crouched down and took a photo of the city through one of these holes. The director asked me why I took that shot. My answer was "I thought it might look cool." That's when he turned off the camera and it was brought to my attention that, that couldn't be a reason. So I came up with a story: With South Korea being a world leader in televisions, I thought that the wall represented a TV and the hole was the screen and all the lights of Seoul below were the pixels of the screen. Well, that didn't go over very well either. Do you know what? The actual photos that I took were nothing close to the way I had hoped, and they were just plain bad. This experience is what finally made me realize once and for all that there has to be a reason for the photo and to the photo. I took those photos thinking that they would look cool and they didn't, because I had no real reason for taking those photos.
Having a reason will lead you down the path of composition, f-stop, and shutter speed.
There must be a reason. This is true for all photos, and it does not matter the situation. Are you taking the photo with the phone that you just hurriedly pulled out of your pocket so you can post it on Facebook or Twitter? I feel that if you would like to have a better photo you have to have a bigger reason than "Just to post it." I would guess that the resulting photo is either going to be blurry or unflattering. Now if that's the look you were going for, then, great. But chances are you weren't.
You have to make a quick decision, 1. Do I enjoy the moment in its entirety? or 2. Do I want to share this experience with my friends and followers?
If you chose #2 and pulled out your camera, make it count. Share the experience. The experience that made you want to share it to begin with. Don't just press the button or shutter at the first possible moment your finger touches it. Relax, wait, try and get that moment that made you say to yourself, "Wow, I wish ________ was here to see and experience this," so that ________ will be able to see it and experience it. Chances are that if it is one of those experiences that you wished others were there to share with, it will either happen again or continue.
If it is one of those very short experiences, (trust me when I say I've had my fair share) I smile while nodding or shaking my head in disbelief or awe of what I witnessed and I am thankful that I was able to see it and experience it. One such situation that happened to me a while ago, I was set up waiting for the sun to rise on the coast and I noticed something fly behind me, bigger than a seagull, but I wasn't sure of what it was. I didn't see anything, but as I turned back around there was a large Eurasian Eagle Owl flying about 2-3 metres in front of me and my camera. My knees got weak and I froze as its two bright orangey-yellow eyes stared at me as it flew by. It wasn't until 3 minutes later that I remembered I had the camera in front of me with the shutter release in my hands. Had I tried getting those shots of it as it flew by, I will almost guarantee that those haunting eyes would never have had the lasting effect that they had.
If you hastily press the shutter and the photo doesn't turn out they way you hoped or remembered it, in my experience, one of 2 things might happen, and both will sour your memory of it. The first thing is spending too much time in post-processing trying to "save" the photo. It becomes an obsession, and after hours and hours of work, it may still not turn out the way you want or remember it. It will only turn the memory into a bad experience because you spent too much time on the post processing that it went past fun, it became "work".
The second thing that might happen is that the photo is so unflattering that it warps the memory that you had of the experience. You go back and look at the photo a few months or years later and think to yourself, "That's not exactly how I remember it." But because you have a photo of it that doesn't lie, you could start to think, "Well, maybe it wasn't that great after all." And since it has been proven that our memories of events aren't as sharp when we are photographing them, it will fade into the background of your mind. Which really would be a horrible thing, because the reality was that it was a spectacular experience.
As I mentioned earlier, your reasons can and will change over time and even from time to time. You could be shooting a rainbow to show off its colours and size for your friend in Europe to see, and then shooting a tornado that suddenly appeared to send to the local news paper or TV station. Situations can change that quickly.
The next time you have your camera in your hand, ask yourself first, "Why am I taking this photo?" You might surprise yourself with your answer, and by asking this question it will allow for your first step towards more meaningful photos, and it might make choices on shutter speed or depth of field easier.
In this second photo, the reason for the shot was to capture the two boys playing together both as a memory for the two boys, but also as a history shot of when I was their age playing with my brother on the beach. I wanted to show that no matter how much the world is changing, some things pass down from generation to generation, surrounded by the strength and stability of family and friends. I wanted to show the movement of the water, the symbol of life as it flows and to give a sense of how quickly the boys were moving and playing to show how quickly people act throughout their lives, but surrounded by the stable rocks of the mother and father (the 2 larger rocks) and the true friends (the smaller rocks) as they stand true and strong throughout their lives to serve as protection from the outside elements, the rough water on the other side of the rocks as well as a holding the stormy skies at bay. Because of these reasons, it allowed me to choose a slower shutter speed and get a lower point of view so that the the parental rocks appeared larger. For me, the reasons have changed over time. As I've said before, each brick is different, and sometimes I go back to the first reason of wanting to document the places I've been.
Now, about controlling the reason...
Oh, wait... what's that? What do you mean I can control the reason? Well, now. That changes everything... But we'll save that for another time.