“Light,” photo editor Mike Davis said, “is about more than just the six hours a day that National Geographic photographers work in.”
He was joking when he said that, but his insights were really valuable and helpful at an event hosted Sunday April 10 by RedBox Pictures and Northwest Photojournalism. It was a great day.
I rode down from Bellingham the morning of with Andy Bronson, staff photographer at The Bellingham Herald, and two fellow photographers from Western, Colin and Lillian. We faced almost zero traffic and made it down in a questionably fast hour and ten minutes. We had burgers at Red Mill Burgers, me for the first time, then explored Olympic Sculpture Park while waiting for the event to begin.
On to the main event. Mike delivered a really great presentation on photo editing, both behind the camera and back in the digital darkroom. His insights come from years at National Geographic, The White House Photo Office and The Oregonian newspaper. He touched on what I figure are about seven key points.
First he laid down the five qualities that are the foundation of almost every strong photograph.
-Light (good, bad, how it falls on an object)
-Moment (the elements all come together to say something meaningful, wait for it, shoot to get to it)
-Color (when it works, doesn’t, contrasts are good, take a color class at school)
-Composition (a centered image has less to work with, try using a different AF point)
-Distance (“Is this presentation any different for you now?” Mike asked, standing a foot from my friend Rhys’ face. “It’s the same way in a photo.”)
And next, he said that strong photographs are built around adjectives and adverbs. Not verbs. It’s a strange concept written out as a sentence, sure. However it became clearer once we saw photos, even a frame before or after, where a quality, a mood or an essential feeling were highlighted — rather than showing things just as they happened.
In other words, what are you trying to convey?
It was important to be able to discuss these concepts so that we could critically explain our work, and why it works — not just, oh, I like that one.
If we didn’t get it then, in short time we got more practice of how a “Mike Davis edit” really works. He went through the complete photo takes of assignments from two really nice and talented Seattle photojournalists, Erika Schultz and Mike Kane. Erika is a photographer with The Seattle Times and Mike is a freelance editorial and commercial photographer.
Davis passionately highlighted what was working their frames and what wasn’t. “A good picture is built around the tiniest element in the frame that holds it together,” he said. “Great pictures are made up of lots of tiny elements.”
He cautioned centering images in the frame — unless there was energy and motion in the rest of the parts of the frame, so that the eye has reason to wander and linger. He said if he only has five minutes to photograph someone he spends the first four getting to know them and the last with the camera clicking. He doesn’t mind tilted horizons if they are done for composition or, again, the quality you are trying to convey about a given scene. He suggested photographers look for triangular connections between visual elements in a picture and to capture people’s gazes. On cropping, he offered, “you could just make a better picture.”
So with some of these ideas in mind, Mike went through each of the takes. Erika’s from a shoot at a youth roller derby league and Mike’s from an assignment for The Wall Street Journal documenting commercial geoduck fishing assignment in the Pacific Northwest.
Let me just say that seeing 190 photos by Erika Schultz and 290 by Mike Kane was a joy. I sincerely mean that. Looking through another photographer’s raw take is a learning process all its own. We got a glimpse at how they view the world and what grabs them and moves them to make a picture. Then in PhotoMechanic, Mike uses the side-by-side image preview pane to pick one image, then cycle through the rest of the best of the 2nd pass of selects to find frames that work off each other. Mike ended up with an edit of about 10 images from each after heavy scrutiny.
For the two photographers that had their work discussed image by image, I’m sure it was helpful if not always entirely comfortable. Their pain was my gain, and I feel that those in the room really walked away with a greater understanding of how to convey intent and a quality in their work.
On one shoot I might want to highlight the surrealism of the situation. In another it might be the contrast between two competing elements. Ultimately though, my eye will always come back to one thing — that quality that grabs my eye first. The light.
Thanks for reading, looking, following me on this experience.