the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

THE KINDEST CUTS

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This master shot begins as a merely okay bird picture with a whole lot of empty real estate in it. Not bad, but…..

By MICHAEL PERKINS

LEGENDARY DIRECTOR FRANK CAPRA LIKED TO TELL THE STORY of how he pulled one of his classic films back from the brink of catastrophe, by heading back to his office after a disastrous preview and literally throwing the first two reels into the studio incinerator. The shortened movie, Lost Horizon, went on to become one of his greatest triumphs. 

I recall that story every time I attempt to crop away the visual fat from a flawed image, inside of which I suspect there might be a usable picture. Sometimes all I get for my trouble is a worse flop, but occasionally, I will find that a frame is one third, or one fourth, or fifty percent redeemable if I just wield the scissors with complete abandon. The first shot you see here illustrates my point. 

Having shot dozens of pictures of egrets in every conceivable setting, I found that this particular bird was not really earning his sizable part of the real estate. Was it the pose? The exposure? A comparison to better captures on other days? Whatever the reason, I found myself more interested in the near-shore waters he was walking in than in anything he himself was doing. The water wasn’t filled with dramatic splashes or tidal ebbs, but was instead a slow, undulating kind of roll that created playful, elliptical games with the light. At that point, the whole mission of the image changed.

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Literally cutting the egret off at the knees makes this a completely different picture. 

After a series of partial “bird-ectomies”, in which I attempted to keep various portions of the egret’s body in the frame, I just reduced him to a pair of legs, and let the water take over as the star of the show. Again, it was a case of a usable inner picture, eclipsed by being just one of many components in a larger scene, becoming liberated by slicing away all other distractions. The result is hardly a masterpiece, but I prefer the repurposed version over the mediocre original. Turns out that most photographs don’t veer all the way to the two extremes of Really Amazing or Really Appalling, existing somewhere between the two poles. Like Capra, you have to be willing to burn the first two reels to get right to the action. 

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