Another way to learn from the masters is to study them. When we use the term study, however, many people fail at how to actually study a master. It’s not a simple act of just looking at images. That helps, and, you can learn a lot from observing images. But how do you truly ‘learn’ from them?
Part of that is understanding ‘what’ you can learn from them. Are you wanting to learn that this photographer was born in 1908 and died in 2014 and was responsible for coining the phrase “the decisive moment?” There is more to Henri Cartier-Bresson than the decisive moment.
When we look at the ‘what’ do we want to learn from them, ideally, we want to learn everything. We want to learn the five W’s and the H. The Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How, and we want to learn a bit more than that. The 5 W’s are important, but the ‘How’ and the ‘bit more’ are where you will learn and grow as an artist.
If we look at Saul Leiter for example, the important stuff is that he was an iconoclast and he used various signature framing techniques such as out-of-focus areas and other devices such as reflective surfaces; He used bold Colors (part of his iconoclast philosophy of the time) and somehow managed to create visual poetry. All of this is important. And knowing this is less important than knowing ‘how’ he did this, how he created the poetry, and more importantly, how to re-create these techniques and how to use or incorporate those devices in your work.
The idea is not to copy the works you are studying, although learning how to copy images is always a great learning opportunity, but rather to learn new skills and techniques and choose which of these techniques and devices will enhance your works and will better reflect your voice and vision so you can create your own visual poetry and develop your own style.
This post is not about breaking down Saul Leiter’s images, but rather giving you a guide and pathway on how you can get there yourself, studying any photographers’ images. Interestingly, you can use the same tools to study your own images! More on that later.
Part 1 – The Images
The best way to do this is to have a bunch of the photographers’ images on hand. One can do this using a book and then using memory and image-by-image comparisons, but the best way is to print out a bunch of 5×7 images. The more images the better. They do not need to be ultra-high quality, but they should be good enough to see some details and somewhat accurate colors. This is difficult to accomplish if the images are too small. 4” x 5.5” is not too bad if you print them yourself as they are simply 8.5” x 11” sheets cut into quarters or packs of 4” x 6” paper is available.
You need 20 to 40 images for this to work well and to help you spot smaller little devices that may be used less seldom than the 2 or 3 blatant devices that are easy to spot even from memory when browsing a book. You need more than 10 but even small numbers can work well, especially when assessing your own “projects”.
Part 2 – Observing and Studying
Lay all the images out on a surface in a grid and start observing and studying them. Look at EVERYTHING. Look for ANYTHING.
Where are the images sharp and think about why those particular areas are sharp? Do they make sense? Is the main subject in focus or is the focus on a secondary background element that the maker wanted you to look at?
Where are they out of focus and why are those areas out of focus? Are they simply shallow Depth-of-Field from a large aperture or are the out-of-focus caused by compression of areas objects that include objects near the camera? In Saul Leiter’s case, those blurry areas and negative space act as bounding or framing areas and are often blurred on purpose, shallow DOF, or caused by elements near the camera being incorporated into the image.
Is there any blur? Out of focus? Is it intentional? Why was it done? What shutter speed was used from a stationary camera or was the camera manipulated?
Are the majority of the images Black & White or Color? What is the importance or significance of that choice? How does that choice affect the work? Note that the choice of Black & White or Color can greatly change how your images are viewed and what message they will convey.
Are the Black & White images somewhat Flat or are they very High Contrast? Are shadows exaggerated, on purpose, or, are they naturally dark shadowed locations on bright days? Remember to always look at the light and the dark areas.
Do the Black & White images show any grain? Is it in all the images or just some? Is it constant in texture and size (based on the original source and, how you have printed them, the grain and other details, may or may not be visible.)
Are the B&W Images toned? Or split-toned?
Are the colors muted, pastels, or big and bold like Saul Leiter’s? Are most of the colors all the same? Is it on purpose, based on local, or a natural attraction of the photographers? Do the Color images look natural or are the colors off? Are the colors different because of a choice of film or digital filter or manipulation? If so, what film was used, or what digital technique or digital film simulation was used to change or manipulate the colors? Learn to recognize what colors are off and what colors have they shifted to.
You can see from the above questions just how complex this all can get. We haven’t even touched on Compositional Elements or Techniques or Photographic Devices, technical elements such as choice of lens or format, or even on how (what technique) was used to get the images. Then we need to look at physical components within the images themselves including subject matter and other secondary or supporting objects. What creative elements are being used, if any?
And let’s not forget about the mood or the story. What is the photographer trying to say, if anything?
Even simple little things can show up in images. A solitary rock somewhere off on the side or even on the sidewalk or curb within the image. It may be there or it may have been planted by the photographer on purpose as a ‘trademark’ or device that shows up in ALL their images. The variables are limitless.
What you will find is that most photographers who have a style will have some or many of these elements and devices show up in most of their images.
Part 3 – Identify
The goal is to Identify what all these elements and devices are. This can get tricky based on how long a photographer has photographed as their style may have evolved and changed over the years. It may also change based on a subject matter or even based on the photographer’s projects.
Identify and create (write down) a list of the elements and devices you spot.
Part 4 – Grouping
This is where grouping images can help. It’s sometimes a good idea with a prolific long-time photographer to group images by date. Or with a photographer that shoots different projects to arrange images by project, but before you do, try this.
Based on all the images in front of you, re-arrange the images into groups of images that look similar or work well together. Do they ALL work well as a group of images or do they seem to naturally split up into various groups? Are there any outliers (images that do not fit within the framework of the other groups?)
Part 5 – Identify by Group
Now try identifying the elements and devices by the group. This will usually be easier as you will be working with similar images. What makes them similar?
How is one group different from the other groups?
Are there any elements, devices, or similarities that are in several groups?
If you found some outliers, why are they outliers? Identify why they are different and notice the elements that are missing and not making fit within any of the other groups.
Part 6 – Observe the Natural Groups
This often is the fun part. These groups you created often will group themselves by date, or a different phase of a photographer’s development, or often by the different projects the photographer works/worked on.
It’s possible these are not projects but rather the photographer’s affinity or attraction to specific elements, devices or subjects. Some photographers NEVER actively work on projects.
Check to see if these groups have any significance. If the photographer has iconic images, are they mostly from the same group? Are they from a similar period in the photographer’s development or are they scattered in time?
With some photographers, you can get a history of different phases in their life. It’s a bit more work but sometimes the groups or certain types of images will come from certain periods in someone’s life. Pre or post-drug addiction, loss of a spouse or child, a move from photographing one genre to another, you get the point.
Part 7 – Chose a Group
Find a group you like best or that you are attracted to. Once you have identified and written down all the elements and devices used within that group, set out to detail all the elements. What are they, and how are they created? Was a specific lens used? What was the aperture or shutter speed? Distance? Lighting? Composition?
Be specific with all your details. Write them down. This list will become important.
NOTE: A reminder that writing things down is a great way to learn but more importantly a great way to force yourself to learn about your emotions, your art, and how to verbalize what your art and emotions are about. A large part of this is learning what vocabulary to use.
Part 8 – The Blueprint
Search in books or online how a photographer photographed. What equipment did they use? What camera? What lens? How did they specifically shoot? What settings did they use? Fixed focus? From the hip? Find out all you can and then look at the images again. Is what you have read about the photographer’s work reflected within the images in front of you?
If something isn’t clear, i.e. doesn’t make sense, make some guesses and write them down. You can do this photograph by photograph.
Part 9 – Shoot!
Now you are equipped with a roadmap to photograph just like the person you are trying to emulate and learn from. This site is about Street Photography but the same applies to ANY of the genres.
Equip yourself with the camera and lens you think you need to re-create the images (no, you don’t need a Leica). Familiarize yourself with the Exposures (over/under) you will need, the Shutter Speeds and Apertures you will need, and set your camera appropriately.
Head out and shoot using the same skills and techniques and be mindful of the elements and devices you are trying to mimic. Think lightness/darkness, shadows, silhouettes, composition, Color, and whatever elements you had on your written list.
If you are heading out on a different day or on different days, it’s a good idea to re-read the list as a reminder just before you head out to shoot. This will help you with visualizing and spotting the elements subconsciously when you see them.
Part 10 – Print Your Work
Print some of your better images and put them into the images of the group you used for creating your studied photographer’s blueprint. How well do your images fit in? What works? What doesn’t? What needs to change? How will you change it?
Part 11 – Shoot and Repeat
Shoot again until you get it right. It may be a technique, or it may be composition or any of the elements. Make notes on what’s right and not right. Figure out what you need to change to make it right. Ask fellow photographers for help if you need it. Another eye can be very helpful.
Repeat this process until you master their style. Every step along the way will be a learning experience.
Part 12 – Final Step
Once you have mastered the style and look you are after, you can choose another group of images to emulate, or you can move on to another photographer to mimic.
The idea is to learn all the techniques and shooting styles you can and then incorporate these into your work. You want to shoot with specific elements and devices that will complement your style and will enhance your voice and will help you tell the story you want.
You want to choose elements and devices that speak to you, and you want to photograph the subject matter that speaks to you. By this, I do not mean shooting ‘Street Photography’ but rather small slices or parts of Street Photography that you like and that speak to you. You need to love what you are doing and photographing, and you should shoot for yourself, not please others. This is another post for another time, just remember to be true to yourself and your images will be better.
See you on the streets.