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The Most Important Decision

I recently began teaching a class, via Zoom, on “basic photography,” whatever “basic” might mean! I put quite a bit of thought into what the class should address, and how to begin. It occurred to me at some point that the process of making a photograph is really just a series of decisions, and that I would approach the class in that way.

Some of those decisions are technical, relating to the camera. What lens or, if using a zoom lens, what focal length? What aperture and shutter speed? Other decisions are aesthetic, relating to composition, light, timing of the shutter release. Some of the decisions will be made based on analytical thought, and for others we rely on our intuition.

But the first decision to be made is to answer the question “Is this worthy of a photograph?” I would argue that this is the most important decision of all, and the one that most of us fail to answer correctly. Hard drives and smartphone galleries all over the world are burdened with the evidence of too many affirmative answers when the answer should have been “NO!” The standard defensive argument here is that storage is cheap – I won’t address the folly of that reasoning.

But if we make more photographs than we should, we will likely capture a few that are compelling. Far more damaging are the times we fail to recognize something as worthy of a photograph, and one is left unmade. We get a glimpse of this when some photograph we almost didn’t make turns out to be a “winner.” How many good photographs have we missed, when we looked at something and felt it didn’t merit making a photograph?

This may, in fact, be the difference between the good photographer and the great one. Great ones see, in things that most of us would pass by, the prospect of something special - often the most creative photographs are of relatively mundane subjects. It is our task as aspiring photographers to open ourselves to recognizing possibility in that which seems to have none. This will allow us to better answer the question of whether something is worthy of being photographed.

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