Make your intentions plain

So there you are, out at sunset for once, with the light just right, and so you want take a photograph. Why, specifically, are you taking this photograph? What is it about the scene before you that has motivated you to take action? Can you express your intentions? Say it out loud. Explain it to someone else.

It’s not easy!

But the more specific you can force yourself to be, the more likely you are to be able to achieve your objective of creating a great photograph.

There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept

Ansel Adams

Before you can create an image that holds your viewers’ attention, it helps to be certain you know what the image is about. If you aren’t sure just what your intentions for the picture are, how are you going to make decisions about framing, composing, exposing, colour balancing etc etc.

When you see something you think might make a good photograph, don’t just click away. Ask yourself “Exactly what is it about this scene that has made me want to photograph it?”

It isn’t enough to say to yourself “This is a pretty scene; I want to take a photograph of it”.   The photograph may be well exposed and sharp, and the colours may be fantastic.  However you run the risk that the picture says nothing to your viewers other than “I’m pretty, look at me”.  Worse, it could actually say nothing.

Ask yourself “What exactly is it about this scene that makes it pretty?”

How about this picture?

It would have been really easy to point the camera at the sunset and click away. I would have captured all the colours, and that still water after all. But I was aiming for a little bit more than that. The building by the tidal river was a feature I wanted to have stand out. What was it doing there so close the water? Making it stand out from the background would be crucial. Shooting into the sunset I knew I ran the risk of losing the detail in the walls.

Then as I looked further back into the scene I noticed a slight mist starting to gather in the folds of the hills in the background. I realised that it was important to capture the depth of the view.

Finally I realised that the “interest” in the scene would occupy only a thin strip through the middle of the finished image. Keeping the trees on the horizon very sharp would also be important.

All that plus the colours. Overall I wanted to capture the feeling of the quiet as the incoming tide stopped rushing, just before it turned to ebb away.

This isn’t yet a technical exercise. Each one of these intentions for the picture would lead eventually to decisions involving camera settings and post processing actions.  At this point, before I pressed the shutter release, I was not thinking about the practical implications of my intent. At least, not yet

So although the image appears quite peaceful and quiet, you wouldn’t have guessed from the amount of thinking I was doing. But the more specific you can be about what you see in front of you, the more likely you are to translate a scene into a meaningful image.

This article is one of three exploring in more detail the three steps I described in this post about pictures with impact. The three steps are:

Express your intentions
Focus your composition
Remove distractions

You may recall these steps can be taken at any time during photograph creation. From way back before you even think of a particular picture all the way through to hanging some pictures on the wall at a local cafe. For this article we’ll concentrate on what happens when  you might have found a scene you wish to photograph.

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