On Creating Meaningful Photographs

As a photography blogger, I oftentimes get more caught up with the latest gear that was used to create a photo rather than the substance of the photograph itself. But when the focus shifts to meaningful subject matter and creativity, all pixel count, ISO performance, and frame rate melt into the background. Meaningful photographs can be created with almost any gear. In order to succeed here, the emphasis should be on photographer intent and how well the photographer conveys that intent.

At 4 days old, Jake Jr does a lot of sleeping
At 4 days old, Jake Jr does a lot of sleeping

Recently I welcomed the arrival of my nephew Jake with a quick photo session when he was four days old. Due in part to the latest technology of my gear, I was able to capture high quality photographs without much disruption to little Jake or his parents. I was able to use natural light, a quiet shutter, and a fast frame rate to capture those fleeting expressions of a newborn.

Nancy cradles Jake Jr's hand in her own.
Nancy cradles Jake Jr’s hand in her own.

When I first started photographing regularly, I thought of myself as an explorer, both of the technology I was using and of the world around me. Seeing through a variety of lenses provides many different perspectives of the world, and being able to record those perspectives provides avenues of endless creativity and communication. I first had to master my tools before I could really concentrate on the art. As I improve (I like to always think of myself as improving!) I find myself thinking more about the meaning behind the pictures I am creating, and what I am trying to communicate to the viewer.

At 4 days old, Jake Jr's feet are slightly bigger than an adult thumb
At 4 days old, Jake Jr’s feet are slightly bigger than an adult thumb

Don’t get me wrong, when taking these photos of baby Jake I was using many techniques I’ve learned over the years. But much more important than how I achieved the photos are the photos themselves. These photos will serve both as a keepsake for family members, and as a lasting record of Jake as he appeared as a newborn. I’m sure there will be tens of thousands of photos taken of Jake in his lifetime. Most will become a visual record of his life, but it is those most meaningful photos that will have lasting impact to those who love him.

Jake Jr sleep soundly while resting his hand in his mother's
Jake Jr sleep soundly while resting his hand in his mother’s

The next time you are out shooting, whether you are capturing a beautiful sunset, a wild creature, or a portrait of a loved one, think about the message you are trying to convey in your image. If your answer is “I am creating a beautiful scenic”, that is a great answer. But over time, you might find a deeper message creeping into your work. I know I keep striving to find my meaning and connect with the viewers of my photographs.

Western Sandpiper In Breeding Plumage

A western sandpiper is reflected in a shallow sheen of water along a beach
A western sandpiper is reflected in a shallow sheen of water along a beach

A little while ago I headed out to the edge of the bay to check out some of the shorebirds making their way down south for the winter. I found quite a mixture of species, and because of the busyness of the birds, I was able to creep quite close to them without notice. Suddenly I found myself face to face with one of the tiniest of the peeps – the western sandpiper. While very common, I had never been so close, and had never seen breeding plumage quite so vibrant.

Many western sandpipers huddle together for protection along a crowded beach
Many western sandpipers huddle together for protection along a crowded beach

I snapped away, going for shots of many sandpipers crowded together, and also trying to single them out and find compositions with as few distractions as possible. For the shot above, I knew I couldn’t hold focus for all the birds front to back with my long lens, so I picked one bird for critical focus, and then used the rule of thirds to position him well in the frame. I liked the result – a sandpiper’s head in sharp focus, surrounded by a pattern of feathers and colors.

A western sandpiper snoozes with one eye open during a falling tide
A western sandpiper snoozes with one eye open during a falling tide

Singling out individual birds was more difficult. Each time one would wander away from the rest, other shore birds would quickly move in front of and behind the bird. In addition, these little guys move quite fast while eating, so much of the action was captured in a run-and-gun style, hoping for the best. It was definitely one of those moments that made me appreciate digital – had I tried that with film I would have soon been broke (not to mention reloading film in the middle of the action)!

Even though this is a very common species, I was happy with the lighting and the close proximity. Sometimes the most common birds get left out of all the fun!

Snowy Plover and friends

A snowy plover just coming into breeding plumage rests in the sand
A snowy plover just coming into breeding plumage rests in the sand. Canon 800mm f/5.6L IS lens with the EOS-7D. ISO 400. Evaluative metering +2/3: 1/1250 sec. at f/8

When I was in Moss Landing recently, I knew it would be a good opportunity to photograph snowy plovers in the sand, because they nest along the beach at the mouth of the harbor. Snowy plovers nest right in the open sand, which is why their nesting grounds are frequently protected along the California coast. It was still a little too early to see established nest sites, but they should be scoping some out.

After some searching, I found a few of them sitting down in the sand. They were just starting to come into breeding plumage. Not wanting to disturb them, I spend a good ten minutes creeping slowly closer, until I could create frame-filling shots like the one above. My tripod legs were fully splayed out in order to get the lens closer to the ground. I was pretty happy with my position and the fact that I had gotten as close as I needed to without disrupting the birds.

After making some shots, I looked up and saw a surfer emerge from the water a little ways up the beach. I thought he would continue walking toward the road, but then he saw me and starting walking in my direction. Unbelievably, he walked directly toward me fully in my lens’s line of sight. And he didn’t stop until he was standing next to me looking down at my prone form! Needless to see, the birds scattered as he tromped through their would-be nesting area. I was just staring at him (probably with a dropped jaw), incredulous that he would have so little common sense or self awareness.

“Getting some good photographs?” he asked.

“Well, I was,” I relied wryly. As the acclaimed bird photographer Art Morris is fond of saying, you gotta love it!

The scattered plovers were not to be refound, and I had to settle for the photos I already had. However, I spent some more time creeping up on some sanderlings and western sandpipers who were busy poking through shells and seaweed that had been washed up on the beach. These photos can be seen below.

I quick word to the non-photographers out there. If you are in a remote area and see someone concentrating on something with their camera, please please please don’t just walk up to them and interrupt without understanding what they’re photographing. This is especially important with wildlife that you can spook. The photographers of the world thank you.

A sanderling calls out as it walks along the sand
A sanderling calls out as it walks along the sand. Canon 800mm f/5.6L IS lens with the EOS-7D. ISO 400. Evaluative metering +2/3: 1/2000 sec. at f/8
A lone sanderling sleeps on a smooth beach, framed by a distant ocean
A lone sanderling sleeps on a smooth beach, framed by a distant ocean. Canon 800mm f/5.6L IS lens with the EOS-7D. ISO 400. Evaluative metering +2/3: 1/1600 sec. at f/8
A western sandpiper calls out as it walks along the sand
A western sandpiper calls out as it walks along the sand. Canon 800mm f/5.6L IS lens with the EOS-7D. ISO 400. Evaluative metering +2/3: 1/1000 sec. at f/8
A western sandpiper rests in the sand
A western sandpiper rests in the sand. Canon 800mm f/5.6L IS lens with the EOS-7D. ISO 400. Evaluative metering +2/3: 1/800 sec. at f/8

Breaking the rules

Several long-billed curlews stand together in a shallow wetland pool
Several long-billed curlews stand together in a shallow wetland pool

Every once in a while a photo comes along that I love, but seems to break many of my own guidelines that I usually follow. Many times when I’m out shooting wildlife or birds, I’ll take a few photos of the surrounding area, or try to include some habitat, to help me remember where I was and what the conditions were like. This is especially important when I’m making bird portraits. If my goal is a simple, clean background, it can be easy to forget what the surrounding area was like when I only see a bird’s head and shoulders in the photo. The photo of the long-billed curlew above was one such “habitat” shot that I took recently.

As I was reviewing my photos, I found that I really liked this one, even though it wasn’t intended as a keeper. I also realized that it breaks some of the rules that I like to follow in my bird photography. I put myself in the role of photo critic, and came up with the following negative aspects of this image.

1. Cluttered background – In most wildlife photography, one goal in creating a successful photo is to simplify the shot as much as possible. Eliminate distracting elements and leave only those that help support the subject. In this photo, the background is busy and the water surface messy.

2. Depth of field issues – The curlews in the background are out of focus. Are they part of the subject of the image? It is not clear from the focus alone. They are too blurry to be successful subjects, but not abstract enough shapes to blend well into the background.

So then, given the above criticisms, why do I like the photo so much?

1. Color – I absolutely love the color in this photograph. I like the pastel blues and tans, and the black in the first curlew’s feather pattern really pops.

2. Wildness – Sometimes the simple portrait with a pure single color background can get old. Even though they can be elegant, sometimes they lack the wild and wooliness of the real natural world. This photo serves up enough chaos to do justice to all the birds eating and preening in a bunch that morning.

3. Leading lines – The photo leads the viewers eye well through the frame and into the distance. Starting naturally at the bird on the left in sharp focus, the eye is attracted to the sleeping bird to the far right of the frame, because of the repeated shape of the first bird. Then the eye draws up and left along the line of birds, finally resting on the bird in the upper left of the photo, which is the farthest distinguishable object from the camera.

It is important to choose your best images in order to edit your collection of photos. Beyond that however, it is important to understand why you chose those photos. Doing so will help you to make better informed decisions about future photos, instead of just going with your gut. Next time you say to yourself, “I really like this one,” or “this one doesn’t work for me,” dig a little deeper and list out what you like or don’t like about a photo. What you come up with when your really think about it might surprise you.

So what do you think? A nice break from the norm, or not your cup of tea? Love it or hate it, I’d love to hear your opinion in the comments below.