Image Foundation Building
Fine-tuning Image Capture in the Field
November 16, 2006

When making prints we photographers fuss over every detail. In an iterative process we analyze the image and fine tune adjustments repeatedly until the result is what we want. After I get to this point I try to live with the image for a week or so, viewing it as much as possible. During this period I often find some subtle changes I'd like to make. All of this is a necessary part of creating a fine print. Many overlook the fact that the foundation of our work, the images captured in the field, require similar care and attention to detail. It is sometimes possible to use an iterative approach of analysis and recapture to fine tune the files you bring home.
Like most photographers I do all I can to capture an image in the best way possible the first time I release the shutter. I also spend a good amount of time after the sun is down simply analyzing what I have done. What happens then is sometimes the same thing that happens during the print optimization process. With time and a large display I can analyze composition and discover things I would never notice in the field. If I think a photograph has good potential but has issues that are best corrected during capture, I photograph the subject again if possible. Because of this I cannot remember the last time we stuck to a travel itinerary. This "bird in the hand" approach is more photographically productive for me than moving on to unknown possibilities. My goal is to obtain the best capture I can before I go, since it is the foundation for all that follows. If this causes me to miss exploring something else, so be it. I'll leave that for a subsequent visit.
Iterations over a shorter period of time can also improve the foundation of an image. Make sure to use the camera's LCD to verify exposure and composition of your captures, but don't trust it completely. It is possible to have slight overexposures even when the histogram looks fine and there are no flashing pixels on the display, so bracket by 1/3 stop from your determined exposure for safety. I have found it is best to work with a subject until you know you have the image you want, or until you can no longer get it. When photographing wildlife, if you leave before the show is over you can never know what you missed. We often photograph animals until they either leave the area or until the light gets bad. If you stay and do not get the photographs you wanted, remember that animals often return to the same area at the same time the next day. It may well be better to forsake tomorrow's plans, and perhaps those for the next couple of days if the opportunity warrants, to come back for additional photographs.
When exploring new areas to photograph landscapes, your chance of unknowingly coming upon a great scene, at the right time of day, in the right weather, is quite small. If you find a great scene in bad light, look at the surroundings to determine what time of day would be best. Come back at the right time as soon as possible. I often forsake additional exploration to duplicate hikes the same day or the next to get the right lighting. If the scene needs certain weather or sky conditions, keep it in mind. If the right conditions present themselves while you are in the area, drop your plans and go back for an excellent chance of getting a great image. It is unlikely you’ll do better elsewhere. That said, while making a tiring hike for the second time in the same day, one also needs to be open to serendipitous luck. Go after the shot you know, and be open to other possibilities. Concentrating on each high-potential image until it's "done right" lets us get some good images when visiting new areas for the first time. The approach can limit our explorations, but we never fail to get an idea of what we would like to do on our next visit. It's an incremental approach that seems to work.
What I have said here is basically common sense, but I thought it was worth mentioning. People often think that more is better. Visiting more places on a trip may result in more photographs, but maximizing the potential of your best captures before moving on can result in more good photographs. Returning with a couple of excellent images is usually better than returning with many that are mediocre. Photographers often stick to prearranged itineraries rather than go through the hassle of changing reservations, or missing something planned for the next day. I fully understand why, but it's a habit worth breaking. Being flexible with your time makes room for creativity and improvement. We always start our trips with an itinerary to use as a guideline. Departure and return dates may be fixed, but everything between is fair game if a good photographic opportunity arises or the capture of a given scene needs to be repeated for some reason. If nothing special comes up we stick to the plan. Altering reservations to accommodate things that come up along the way is not so difficult and has never forced us to sleep in the car. Even when we cannot find a room in advance, we often find a vacancy in little motels that aren't listed anywhere. Sometimes they are less convenient or comfortable than our first choices, but it all works out in the end.
Happy shooting, and re-shooting!
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Copyright 2006 Dean M. Chriss
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