Updated: Sep 25, 2020
Yes, it's a cliche now, "F8 and be there" (at least among photographers), famously coined by Arthur Fellis (WeeGee), the noted street photographer in New York circa 1930s & 40s. The term supposedly refers to his method of shooting on the spot, quickly and with a high degree of success. Ironically, most of his shots were shot at f16 (with flash), probably to ensure his depth of field would be longer, including more subject matter in focus. Today the quote suggests that "being there" is the most crucial aspect of photography -- being in the right place at the right time, seeing the right things that make a photograph work. Though f8 is generally regarded as the "sweet spot" in the lens where distortion is at a minimum (while also providing a nice balanced depth of field), the quote is meant to suggest that technology is secondary to what's happening outside the camera. Annie Leibovitz is among the most intuitive photographers I have studied and is self-professed as NOT being a technophile in photography -- just the basics and a "feel", working conceptually through most of her career.
Like most photographers, I too get caught up in process and equipment because it's fun, but also because it feeds the brain's intellectual ego in following logical steps to create great photography in the assumption that technical processes and quality gear naturally lead to better images. Though there is some truth to this, it's ultimately a fallacy and a dead-end overall. Most equipment has a point of diminishing returns, and tech means nothing if the photographer cannot see the shot. Which is to say, if you don't have the shot, there is little you can do in execution or in post-editing that will make a mediocre shot great. I can recall many times slaving over highly prepared shoots, reviewing images in post-editing fully aware that the initial work wasn't that good, now trying to convert water into wine. Likewise, it's not unusual that some of my best shots were spontaneously taken by reflex without much preparation or set-up (often even mentally dismissed when taken), but then later found to be among my best work.
Granted, most "keepers" are a combination of these factors -- sought, planned, set-up, with multiple exposures, but with a touch of spontaneity, the presence of good natural lighting conditions, and a little something beyond your control that just might be happening in front of you. In previous posts, I've already attributed nature photographers with a tremendous patience while working in the field, waiting for wildlife to "pose" for effective shots. Street photographers get the same credit for sheer tenacity towards injecting themselves into the middle of a situation and getting "that" shot of unique subjects engaged in a critical-moment-in-time from the right angle and with good technique. It requires the photographer to be more than a technician, but something of a soothsayer who can envision and conjure up the impending future of "the moment" and be there to capture it on film. Henri Cartier Besson was a master at this exact-moment-capture.
So, you might ask, "If the key to great photography isn't my equipment or editing, what is?" Let's go over a few ideas that might help improve the overall scope of your work.
1) Know Your Equipment
At first, this may seem antithetical to what I just said, but really, it's not. Let me explain. Though great shots rarely come from equipment and tech advances alone, without them, it will be more challenging. Cameras and gear have tremendous capabilities now to automate basic functions like focus and HDR compositing, plus all kinds of tools that produce effects in the camera prior to editing -- these options add breadth to image possibilities. If you are not aware of or comfortable with these functions, you will miss opportunities -- not be prepared while shooting in-the-moment, or will be thinking more about the technical aspects of the shot rather than "feeling" the intent of what you want. It's like anything you have to practice -- the process of photography must become more instinctive rather than mechanical, with your mind working outside the camera -- focused on what's going on around you, rather than fiddling with camera settings and tools. The more the camera as an extension of your hand, the better. So practice basic manual settings often, and special functions frequently, especially just before those you anticipate using for your next scheduled shoot.
2) Learn to see the composition before it's framed in the camera
This takes time, and some people never really get it down. Photography is generally presented as a two-dimensional, framed medium. Much like other artwork that has physical borders, our perspective is often limited to a single, flat and static perspective that must convey a broader environment with depth, and movement. The elements of the frame should project a story, thus a timeline, a sense of three dimensions with a passage of time, and a perspective that includes multiple points of interest that speak to the uniqueness of the shot and to that specific instant in time. Painters have the luxury of creating that image directly through their creative mind, and though many photographers may mimic that process through photo manipulation as a sort of painting process, most photographers still attempt to seek, find and capture these elements in a single, authentic instance in time. Painting and images generally follow the rule of thirds or symmetrical balance in combining the elements of line, shape, texture, pattern, and light in creating an image. Likewise, when possible, there are generally three points of interest in an image -- primary, secondary, tertiary, often layered as appropriate between the foreground and background as to recreate the illusion of depth. There are countless books on basic composition, with these rules and processes for building a good frame, but honestly, it needs to be more intuitive in the end. When possible, go and observe the best work in galleries, publications and in your own portfolio to identify these elements, paying attention to which images catch your eye. Stop and ask why. What is it about this image that works for me? Some times they can break the formal rules and like most rules, they are meant to be broken, but generally with the artist's awareness that the exception (in this case) that makes the difference between a good shot and a great shot. They know the rules and know why they need to break them. The more you practice your observational skills, the better you will begin to size up composition more quickly, even anticipating its compilation in time just before it happens.
3) Know your subject matter and know what you want.
For a couple of years when I first started out, I had a few ideas about in-depth photo subjects, but as both my portfolio and experience at that time was marginal, I was pretty spontaneous about planning -- I went out and shot everything. I had few preconceived concepts about what I needed to shoot, and aside from learning what I was doing technically, I spent very little time reading up on what it was I was shooting. That changed when I started accepting money for the work I performed. I found that understanding more about "what" I was shooting and using that knowledge to gain greater insight in a process, I began shooting with a better perspective on what was really relevant and new, and what the client thought was important. Throughout my childhood in Illinois, for example, I was naively unaware of the remnants of an old WWII military base called Camp Ellis we often passed by in the cornfields between the towns of Table Grove and Ipava. My first real clue was Dad mentioning it on one of these trips during a family holiday visit further down the highway. I later drove some of the old backroads while in college and found a few old bunkers, etc., but it wasn't until I actually read up on the camp, surveyed a few maps and drove around at different times of day that I found good things to shoot -- much of the camp had long since been swallowed up by agriculture. However, my research did reveal the old rifle range where the targets were once raised with a series of concrete walls that protected soldiers downrange. Without the research, I never would have been there for the shot.
This no different from WeeGee's success in New York, following ambulances, police cars, hanging out in precinct stations or listening to scanners. He had a jump on the average photographer by getting the advance information he needed to be "where the action is".
I also have a curiosity about all facets of photography, but generally find my passions gravitate in only a few areas -- that's where I concentrate my time. I practice most everything else from time to time to keep my skills varied with techniques that help further inform the work of my passion, but it's that work that feeds my soul that generates my best and most expressive work. Find out what that is for you and how to make it uniquely yours as compared to others that work in the same area. Again, it's less about technique (which still has to be good) but more about how you spiritually resonate with the place and subject matter of your work. Naturally, if you're working with a client, their passion and their needs are paramount to whatever you deliver photographically, but you can't divorce yourself from your style and how it might fit with that of a client's. This requires interviewing your client upfront but also understanding their work, their intended use of your work and whether your style is a good fit for the job at hand. Even if you need the work, it often might not be a good fit.
Today, everyone fancies themselves a photographer, and everyone certainly has an opinion about what makes a good photograph. Getting lost in all that is easy, but to stand out takes more than technical proficiency. Frank Lloyd Wright once said that "genius is understanding what others only know about." "Understanding" requires an innate and developed intimacy with the subject matter where you are connected to what you are shooting -- researching and embracing the work better than anyone else. The technical skills are universal and necessary, but will only get you to the level of proficient. The works that transcend are the ones you connect with deeply, almost spiritually, with a knowledge and emotional commitment that lets you see authentically, and how that can be communicated with an audience so that they can see it as well.