Not long ago, I lost my wife of 45 years after a brave struggle against an insidious disease. Putting life back together after her courageous battle and my terrible loss, I have found much solace in the camera. We shared our love of travel and art and family over these many years and recorded a lot of the landmarks and waypoints on those journeys with photography. She was also a talented artist, and I have many of her watercolors to cherish as well…and her advice and guidance in my head. Her eye for composition and uncanny appreciation for color pushed me to stretch my skills and to pay attention to everything in the frame of my camera. And so I hesitate more often before I press the shutter button and try to get the photo right to start with. Admittedly, I will always be finishing up the job in post processing, for I love the slow creative processes involved in molding and crafting the image in the computer and via the printer.
I am going to share here a few photo lessons my wife taught me over the years that guide me to this day. This is certainly not a comprehensive inventory of her wisdom. But these and other lessons evolved over time as I pulled photo prints off of the printer one at a time and took them to her for review under the heartless glare of the kitchen light.
It’s not all in the camera. She recognized much more than I did that a brand new camera will not compensate for sloppy technique. More pixels don’t improve your images. It’s your patience and care in preparing for and taking the photograph that matters most. I’ve lost more shots because I didn’t take the time to get the settings right before raising the camera up to the eye. I lost even more good images because I upgraded to a new, better camera and stumbled over its unfamiliar controls and settings.
Pay attention to the color. Karen loved color images over black and white images. She could see clearly the nuances of color, shades, and color values that I am often blind to. But one skill she had that I never mastered was using the color wheel. When she looked at my “draft” images for what colors were in the frame, she referenced the color wheel and pointed up my hits and misses. Reds opposite blues. Greens opposite yellows. Artists all seem to have programmed the color wheel into their DNA, and she was no eception. Positioning color in the images with the color wheel in mind improves the result dramatically. She knew it well.
Don’t overprocess. A photograph is a photograph, and a watercolor is a watercolor. There is little to be gained by processing an image within an inch of its life until it imitates a piece of art. By that point, an image is often lifeless. Let the artist interpret the scene—I’m no Picasso with a camera. She reminded me to try to capture the existing image with my camera. That said, she had no objections to enhancing the image in Photoshop. Indeed, I try to process the image to better match the conceptual image that was in my mind’s eye at the time of the capture. Some days, the leaden skies don’t dampen the beauty of the scene I see in my mind, and so I turn up the contrast and saturation because that produces the image I remembered and sets it apart from the image I actually saw.
Keep it Simple. Landscapes and macros alike. Keep them simple. She would often critique one of my “busy” images and see a cluttered mess where I had tuned out all the extraneous parts of the image and saw only one aspect of the photo. Cropping, lighting, composing all work in your favor to simplify a cluttered field of view, but in the end, I am still learning to choose a simply presented subject.
Think about what the viewer sees. This is the hardest part. First, you photograph what speaks to you, but if you want the image to have impact, it must speak to other viewers as well. Sometimes I spent hours on producing an image that I absolutely loved then found that it evoked no emotion with Karen when she critiqued it. This criticism is the hardest to take when your invested effort is unappreciated. A technically good photograph is useless unless the viewer can relate to it. So, you thicken your skin and don’t get overinvested in the image and try to see the piece through the eyes of another viewer.
There are more lessons that Karen taught me, but I hope and pray that as I move forward I keep her voice in my head. She made me a better photographer, but more than that, she made me a better human being. I will miss her more than anyone will know, but I hope her voice is always with me.