Life of a Photograph

by talkbackty on Jan 19, 2012

Photography is an interesting hobby. Taken to its logical extremes, it causes the artist to see truly spectacular things and almost always be alone while doing it. Photography is about showing an audience how you see the world, and unless you have met someone who sees the world exactly how you do- you will be alone while doing it. I've even seen wedding photographers, surrounded by people laughing, crying and getting married, be completely isolated. Lost in their own world of light, angles and apertures.

I want to take you on a journey of how an idea becomes a photograph. Understand that I'm not a professional. Nobody pays me for anything. On the best days I consider myself to be mediocre. It's important to understand that because what started as a fun, short little blog about photos became much more while I was writing it. Understand that everything I'm about to tell you is coming from an amateur, and a minimally talented one at that. The amount of knowledge, experience and talent an individual must possess to be consider truly great, is exponentially higher than the ramblings you're about to read.


Every photograph starts with an idea. Even simple photos where you grab your friend, hold the camera out and smile starts with an idea. You wanted to document the moment. Maybe to show your friends, or put in an album, or upload to whatever social media site you are using today-but, almost assuredly, will not be using in ten years.

My idea was the same. I wanted to document a moment. I write for and wanted a photograph of the San Francisco skyline at night to submit. That was the extent of my idea. Literally millions of people take a photograph of city skylines. So, my idea wasn't exactly original. That's okay, there's a reason so many people have the same idea: City skylines look nice.

After an idea is conceived it's important to have the equipment to transfer your idea into something more tangible. I will use an example from National Geographic.
Property of National Geographic.
That is a California Redwood tree. It is 1,500 years old and 300 feet tall. It is enormous. But look again...notice how the whole tree is seen. This wasn't some guy who walked by and thought, "That's a big tree, let me take a picture of it." No, this photograph took months of planning. It involves a cleverly designed pulley system that allowed multiple cameras to run up and down, snapping photos, all while the artist was watching on a laptop on the ground. Then those photos were digitally combined into a complete portrait of a three hundred foot redwood, the only portrait of it's kind. It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to get this photograph. 

Luckily, not every idea needs that much equipment to be fully realized. Mine certainly didn't (remember, nobody pays me for this...). In fact, with technological advancements almost everyone is a photographer now. Every phone comes with a camera inside. 

This isn't a blog about camera equipment, merely a comment that the realization of an idea is sometimes impeded by wrong or lack of equipment. I brought my camera and the only two lenses I own, and frankly the only two lenses most of us ever need. 
Nikon D90 with 18-200mm f5.6

Nikon 35mm f1.8
The only piece of equipment, other than my camera, I was planning on to realize this idea of mine was a basic tripod for when the light got low. Like the mediocre amateur I am, I forgot it.

The Shoot

This is the only thing most people ever do. Something looks cool, you take out your phone, snap a picture and upload it to facebook. Boom, done. Simple. Never let anyone tell you that there is anything wrong with that process. It is simply, and amazingly, perfect. Furthermore, it is exactly what everyone does. It's normal. That's exactly what this shot is. I pulled up, got out of my car, and snapped. I know, be impressed. 
I never expected to show anyone this shot. Almost by default, I delete the first twenty photographs I take of a given subject. Especially because this wasn't my idea. It is not what I envisioned. Sure there's the city and bridges and it's not bad. But it wasn't my idea. 

Over the next two hours I will take 156 pictures. The entire time I won't move more than twenty feet from where I parked my car. In fact, for a few exposures I was standing on top of my car. (Car-a valuable piece of equipment for a photographer).

Of course, part of being good at photography is knowing that maybe your idea isn't going to happen. I realized this when I got out of my car and noticed I didn't have a tripod. Ever vigilant (after I remarked under by breath how stupid I was) I pursued on, knowing almost uniformly that what I wanted to happen was now nearly impossible.
After about a half hour of watching the sun go down the sky finally got more interesting. Rarely is the sun a good thing in photos. It is too bright and will come out white more often than not. What you want to wait for, from a photographers perspective, is after sunset. For about an hour after the sun goes down photographers can really shine. (Clever wordplay ftw)

Since becoming interested in photography I've also become something of a secret expert on clouds. See, clouds are interesting. There are many different types, and if you know what you're looking for, they can do amazing things with light. 

Notice the photo above. The horizon is actually covered in a thick layer of clouds. They completely block out the sun, almost as if there is a small mountain range out at sea. But then there are the wispy clouds up higher, known in the science world as cirrus clouds. There are also some altostratus clouds in this shot, but now I'm just showing off.

Wispy clouds reflect light. If this photo was taken on a cloudless day all you would see is a slight variation of color along the horizon (normal, sunset type colors) and then solid blue. There would certainly not be any pinks as high as there is now. And to this shot, the pink/orange clouds are vitally important because of how blue the sky is behind them. Blues like orange. If you want a fun experiment google: blue/orange movie posters.
This exposure was made less than twenty minutes after the first but, obviously, it looks quite different. There are, literally, hundreds of decisions someone can make before any exposure. Composition (how everything fits in the frame), aperture (how wide your lens opens), shutter speed (how fast your lens opens and closes), focus, brightness, darkness, and on and on the list goes. Generally, the more a person progresses as a photographer the more decisions they can make. 

I took this exposure specifically to see the pink clouds at the top. In a perfect, I-didn't-forget-my-tripod world I would have used a technique called HDR to combine several exposures into one photograph. Basically I would have taken the top third of this photo, the middle third of the photo above and the bottom third of another photo that showed the city in more detail. The idea looks really cool in my head, but I don't have anything to show you. Because I'm stupid.

I have something to say here but let's just look at the pretty colors.
"God must be a painter. Why else would we have so many colors?" -A Beautiful Mind
Eventually, the time comes for my idea to be fully realized. The city is alive and the sky looks amazing. However, long exposures are impossible without a tripod. The human hand shakes too much and the whole thing would come out blurry.

But here's part of what I love about photography. It's a game for problem solvers. Problem: I have an idea in my head that I want to show other people. Solution: Take a picture. Secondary problem: I lack the necessary equipment to take a picture and show people what is going on in my head. Solution: Place your camera on a boulder and use a timed delay to take long exposures. 

See, look how fun that was! ...Fun for me, we all have our thing. Moving on.
This was exposure number 142 out of 156. It is the closest thing to what I wanted. The environment forced my hand, my forgetfulness limited where I could place my camera and my own abilities dictated how it would all look. At the end of the day, this exposure was never "the one" but I did like it quite a bit. 


As with any discipline, there are several schools of thought when it comes to photography. A major point of contention with many people is the ability of technology to drastically alter photographs. Some people wouldn't call it photography anymore if I took an exposure and turned it into something like this.
In my mind, it's all art and it seems silly to put down someone else's work because it's not your cup of tea. Plus I think that picture looks awesome.

When it comes to editing my own photographs, I generally use the philosophy of "show what I saw." The eye is an amazing thing, and doubly amazing is our brain's ability to process the eye's stimuli. I never do anything too crazy in the post-production world. What I aim to do is remove the imperfections created by the camera or my own mistakes. I would never disavow editing because of the incredibly vast amount of work it takes to get a single exposure exactly how your eye sees it.

My eyes see in color. Vivid color. Most of the photos above are unedited, straight from the camera. (The only edited one is where I said let's just look at the pretty colors). 

If you look closely however, most are a little off. They are crooked. The horizon doesn't look exactly how it should. Either because of how I held the camera or the earth I was standing on, all my photos had a slight crooked-ness to them. So I adjust things like that because my brain never saw the skyline at an angle, and neither should you.

Here's the unedited photo from above.
Here is my final edit, and the photograph that will appear in Gridlock Magazine next month.
It's cropped, straightened and "warmed," a technique that brings out the orange of the city lights. I like it quite a bit.

Closing Thoughts

I honestly thought this would take twenty minutes. Just a fun blog about the process of taking a photograph. I just passed the hour and a half mark. Thanks for staying with me all the way to the end.

Hope you enjoyed.