The stereotypical image of the artist is one that spends a large portion of his or her life not producing anything. Then, when the inspiration strikes, the artist goes to work, spontaneously producing works of art. Perhaps the artist finally had the exact right sequence of thoughts. Whatever the case may be, the work is something that just came to them, spur of the moment.
With photographers, that mental image of the inspired artist is sometimes even stronger because it is assumed that all a photographer must do is keep pushing that shutter button until something magical happens. Perhaps in a fit of inspiration, the photographer figures out just how to create the perfect piece of art and with a few quick snaps, the job is done.
However, that isn’t how art works. Any art, not just photography, but painting, writing and so forth. More often than not, the greatest works are those that took the most time. They are the works that the artist spent days, weeks or even years producing.
In photography, a lot of that time is time spent waiting. Thinking, digesting, letting ideas coalesce and evolve. What’s more, there are several points throughout the photographic process where you should find the time to wait, to let the image percolate in your mind, to give yourself the time to forget about it just enough that you can look at an image more critically. Let me show you the three stages of the photographic process where I find myself simply waiting and thinking.
1. Think Before You Snap
So, you’ve had an idea for a photograph that you’d like to make, or at least you think you have an idea. Now is the time to stop yourself, before you rush out to create the photograph. Ask yourself questions. Is this really the best idea? Is there another angle that you can approach this from? Have you thought of all the best ways to utilize your gear, your knowledge and all the other tools at your disposal?
Wait, think things over, let the idea cook, so to speak. Give yourself the needed time to go over various concepts, to distil and solidify the final image in your mind before you embark on the photo trip. This prevents you from wasting time in the field, from forgetting a lens or a piece of gear that you could use to really enhance the image. Who knows, you may even decide that the idea is not worthwhile after all — or better yet, you may decide two or three days after you developed the idea that you know of a few things that can take the image you intend to make from good to amazing.
2. Take the Photo, then Wait Some More
Once you’ve actually taken the image, now is a great time to wait for a little while longer. Go ahead and load the image on your computer. Do some basic processing like exposure correction or color correction. Then, let the image sit for a few days or a week before you delve into serious post-processing.
Why? Because this process allows you to do two things. First, you’ll have a little bit of time to forget about the image, which means that you can sit down and look at it with a fresh perspective later on. This is important because as artists, we tend to get attached to our ideas. It is hard to be appropriately critical of an image when it is fresh and we are still in love with everything about the concept. So, let it sit, then come back to reevaluate.
The second reason to wait before post-processing is that this gives you some time to come up with additional ideas for things you can do in post. Perhaps you originally decided that you were going to create an HDR image, but after a few days of the idea percolating, you decide that the image might really be better off as black and white. Who knows, you may even realize that you could have taken the photo slightly differently, so you end up heading back out to your subject material and starting over. Whatever the case may be, allow yourself the time to have these thoughts.
3. Print the Photo and Live with It
The last step of this process comes with the completion of the photograph. Once the post-processing is done, once all of the ideation is over with, when everything is complete, print the image, then display it somewhere prominently where you can observe it daily over the next few weeks. It doesn’t necessarily have to hang on a wall but put it somewhere where you will see the image day in and day out.
I even make the image my desktop background on my computer for a while. This saves printing costs and I still get to see it and think about it each day when I use my computer.
The important part of this is to get to know the image more intimately. Understand its strengths and weaknesses. Think about all of the things you could have done differently, things that might improve the image. Make mental notes of what can be done to make it better. If you have any of these kinds of ideas, act on them. Take a new photo or go back to Photoshop and process the image differently. Give it a different crop or whatever you think it needs, just so long as you have taken the time to look at the print or finished digital image and truly learn what it is that you need to do to refine the concept.
And, be aware that sometimes, you will find nothing to change. Sometimes, no ideas come to mind about how you can improve upon what you have done. That is fine — the important part is that you’ve taken the time to be introspective about the image and perhaps you can take whatever lessons you’ve learned and apply them to other photographs in the future.
Photography is largely a waiting game — waiting for the idea, waiting in the thick of the action until you get the shot, waiting until you are ready to call the image complete. Don’t rely on spontaneity to make things click into place. Instead, be prepared to wait, and be prepared to think long and hard while you wait.