Seamus Costelloe (Kilkenny Photographic Society) recently judged our first Challenge of the year: “A Moment in Lockdown”. Listening to his critique was like getting a top-notch lesson in the basics of good photography.
Club members had submitted many stunning photographs at all three levels. This must have caused the judge to re-visit them several times before deciding on what score to award. However, his commentary made it clear that Seamus focused unwaveringly on the title of the challenge - the top marks went to images that clearly illustrated “A Moment in Lockdown”. Those moments varied from counting the days since it started, masks growing on trees and brown bread, to stargazing, teaching from home, and lonely last rites. Each showed a widely recognisable moment in lockdown. As he pointed out, the photographers had a concept and then took time and effort to pursue that idea.
Having a concept is a good start - but very clear from everything Seamus said was the importance of having the technique to best illustrate that concept. None of the skills he mentioned was very sophisticated - actually, he spoke a lot of basic common sense - but each point was grounded in knowing how to get the best from one’s camera. Several phrases recurred frequently - “Keep it simple”, “Be conscious of the power of negative space”, “Find the right position from which to shoot”, “Take control of lighting”. Light, shooting angle, composition - the heart of good photography. Seamus illustrated his comments by pointing out where they could be observed in many of the pictures. He showed how dappled light in the foreground or creative blurring in the background was a defining feature, how shooting at the right level and angle enhanced the subject, how the correct exposure made tiny details stand out. He also drew attention to the dramatic impact of simple uncluttered composition, how it drew the viewer’s eye to the subject without distraction.
Concept, light, exposure, composition - all to be considered and worked at before releasing the shutter! Photoshop can work miracles (and Seamus showed a few of these in his mini-workshop in the second part of his talk) but no editing suite can take the place of “getting it right in the camera”. He was very clear that true control of an image can only happen if the photographer is in control when shooting - not just in control of their choice of position and angle and light, but also of the camera, experimenting with different settings to best capture the image they see in their mind’s eye.
A constant in his talk was one element that can’t be found in a camera or book or computer - passion. This is what takes photographers out of their comfort zone, empowers them to make the ordinary look extraordinary, to get creative. With passion, one doesn’t follow trends - trends don’t come from the heart, are not inspired by your own imagination and creativity.
Perhaps this last is the most important message from Seamus’ inspirational talk. However, ever practical, he followed up on this advice with 10 concrete tips, “essential guides” for improving our work:
- Get it right in the camera before shooting
- Compose through the view-finder, taking time to observe the angle of the light. Good composition is vital
- Use light to enhance shape, depth, dimension in your image.
- Keep it simple
- Control the exposure, shooting in Manual where necessary, using the histogram and highlighter as a guide.
- Set up the camera in Adobe 1998 rather than sRGB.
- Shoot in RAW to capture maximum detail.
- Find the best angle for the image; this may mean getting down low or finding a point where the camera is at eye-level with the subject.
- Get out of your comfort zone - don’t be afraid to be quirky, to be yourself.
- Put Passion in your work!