Thursday, March 10, 2011

"Working the scene"... Really?!

I was reading a photography blog yesterday and the author was telling his readers – when he made a particular shot he was referring to – he was "just working the scene". Therefor he was getting the most out of the scene and therefor good results.

I think that is absolutely bullocks! And that is really the worst advice you can give someone. Let me explain.

First you need to understand what the difference is in shooting snapshots (we all do it) and consciously photographing a scene. Imagine this scenario. You're in your car and your driving around looking for something to photograph. All of the sudden you see something worthy and you stop. You climb out of the car and you shoot the subject (with your camera). "Working the scene". Congrats, you just made a snapshot. Probably a whole bunch of them.

What a lot of photographers don't understand is that when you see something worthy of a picture and you stop, you need to question yourself a few things before you start, like:
- what made me stop?
- where is the light?
- what is the light doing?
- what kind of light is it?
- where is the sun setting?
- what are the clouds doing?
- how can I frame this, what are my options?

By "working the scene" you're skipping all of these steps. You're not making a conscious decision on what you want to photograph. You are, with other words not previsualising. You just take a bunch of snapshots not photographs and you'll see what you've got in front of your computer.

Because I think this is a totally wrong approach to landscape photography, I'll let you into my head. This is how I think.

When I come to a location – I am usually about an hour early – I scout the scene. At this point I am looking around, I am aware of what is around me. I take the scene in with all of my senses (eg yesterday evening I enjoyed smelling the humidity, so good). I don't care about what the light is doing (yet) but I know where the sun is going to set and what that could be doing to the colours in the sky.
No, at this point I care about composition and only composition. I am crouching down and I search for features that could make up a good foreground (making snapshots in my mind so to speak). Like I said above, I think about options. I question myself what I need to eliminate in these particular compositions. I think about how I want my picture to look like in the end. I start thinking in frames now. Do I want a square shot? 8x10, 3x4, black and white? What could be the hurdles I am going to face? Is a reflection of a mountain going to overlap my foreground? Will I be shooting the scene from a high or low vantage point? And so on.
If I have all the answers, then – and only then – I start to set up and try out the framing I had in my mind. I take a shot and tweak the composition until I like what I see. Then all I have to do is wait for the light. DONE!

See what I did? I did not run around like a chicken without a head, shooting away, "working the scene", hoping for the best. No, I made conscious decisions, I knew what I wanted. And I shot towards that end result. True, sometimes this previsualising process can go really fast, especially when you know your surroundings or you are returning to a spot you've visited a dozen times before. Sometimes it goes a bit slower. It all depends.
Does it take practice? Yes and lot's of it. Do I think this is a more rewarding process? Without a doubt.

You can say 'I work the composition'. Which is closer to the truth.

You should try it next time you go shooting. Compose in your mind first. Slow down and imagine how you want your composition to look like in the end.

Winter Sunset over the Bow


  1. Hi

    I really enjoyed this blog post. For me, working the scene means research before shooting, early arrival, test shots, wait for light, readjust, different lens or perspective etc.

    regards, Erik
    Kerstenbeck Photographic Art

  2. Hi Eric. Thanks for your comment. I think we both think very similar.

    Like I said in the post, the photographer was shooting as many frames as possible. For him this was working the scene. Which in my opinion is a total waste of battery power and time. ;)

  3. Good Post, I have a similar thought process.