What kind of picture taker are you?

I had the pleasure of looking at some of Gerd Ludwig’s work recently, a personal project he’s been working on for some time and is now moving toward conclusion.

Seeing Gerd’s photographs again - we worked on two stories together when I was at National Geographic - was such a treat. But looking at a batch of them is difficult. Why? Gerd is exceedingly thorough in photographing a scene. He will not give up until he is certain the best photo possible has been made - and he’s equally good at deciding what settings to photograph.

So in his case, the choice between pictures isn’t that a stellar example pops out from the crowd of near misses and failures. When one tree clearly stands above the others, it’s easy to see. Gerd’s takes tend to generally succeed. What makes the best image stand out will be a matter of nuance. Editing his work takes hypercritical focus, you can’t let your eye or your mind meander, you have to look at each frame carefully and spend more time comparing similar frames to see how one might be just slightly better than another.

I learn a lot about a person by looking at a photographer’s raw takes. One aspect is how they approach a scene. I remember taking a personality test years ago for a job interview, and one of the questions asked how you approach a problem, presented as a barrier in the road. The choices were to turn around to avoid the barrier, drive around the barrier, plow through it or get out of your car, examine the barrier and then move it - imagine all the variations of those choices.

Photographers approach their subjects in a similar range of ways. Everyone has a rhythm to the beat of their picture taking.

Some photographers do bursts of five to 10 images of a scene, the first anticipating something happening and then a few more to catch the coming and passing of the moment, with compositional refinements along the way.

Others turn on the motor drive hoping that shear volume catches the best picture. A dozen or two or three dozen pictures with scant variation fly by.

Others make one or two or three carefully considered frames, each slightly better than the previous. They start with a complete idea and make it better. There is immense patience, confidence and forethought with this type of seeing.

Others use the camera as a flashlight, exploring the darkness of a possibly amazing setting as if rummaging through an attic’s disarray. What seems like chaos with this approach is actually the search for something they can’t necessarily see but hope to achieve.

Any one of these approaches can result in an amazing photograph. I’m not saying one is better than another, inherently. I enjoy editing every one of them. Each presents a challenge in finding the best images.

Which one are you?

When does a photograph become dishonest?

Toni Greaves talks at the Portland Art Museum