the photoshooter's journey from taking to making



A Forest Of Rebirth, 2015. Image cropped nearly two-thirds from original.

The Nexus Of Resurrection, 2015. Image cropped from 4928 x 3264 pixels to 3550 x 1477, leaving enough density for a printable enlargement.


BY NOW MOST OF US PROBABLY REALIZE THAT THERE IS NO REAL ADVANTAGE to “budgeting” shots in digital media the way we used to do in film. Harking back to the time of 24-exposure limits on one’s photographic fun, shooters maintained a running total in their heads of shots taken versus shots remaining, a cautious way of allocating frames on the fly, the idea being to finish the film roll and your tour stops at about the same time. Some kept notebooks; some doled out shots on a priority basis (one image of the waterfall, three of the ruins, four of the kids on the rides), and some, I suppose, were tempted to count on their fingers and/or toes. You had to be careful not to run out of frames.

Jump to the digital now, where we realize that, in all but the rarest cases, our shutter finger will crack and fall off before we “run out” of shots on even the most meager memory card. However, I still run into people who believe they are being prudent and providential by taking images at lower resolutions to “save space”, a false economy that is not only needless, but actually limits your options in the later process of editing.

Big files mean image density (lots o’ pixels) and therefore higher resolution. High resolution, in turn, means that you can crop substantial parts of a photo as needed and still have enough density for the image to hang together, even when printed out. Now, if you look at your work solely on a computer screen, protecting the integrity of a cropped image is less crucial, but if you’re lucky enough to create something you want to enlarge and frame, then you should begin with the fattest file you can get.

Review a few of your images that were, let’s say, less than compositionally sublime coming right out of the camera. Look at the pixel count on the same images after they were cropped to your liking. You’ll arrive at your own preference on what minimum resolution you’ll accept from the cropped versions. Thing is, the bigger you start, the more wiggle room you’ll have in editing.

As I say, most people already shoot at the largest file size possible. I merely send along this note to remind us all that we do it because it makes sense, and affords us real flexibility. It’s one of the amazing by-products of digital; we can, generally, shoot as much as we want for as long as we want.




AS CONVENIENT AND SIMPLE AS MANY PANORAMIC APPS AND TECHNIQUES HAVE BECOME OF LATE, there are many ways to accent a wide linear line of photo information within a standard camera frame. With images shot in very large file sizes these days, (even without shooting in RAW), plenty can be cropped from a photograph to produce the illusion of a wide composition with no loss in quality. It’s the pano look without the pano gear, and it’s a pretty interesting way to do exposition on crowds.

I first started noodling with this in an effort to save images that were crammed with too much non-essential information, most of them random streets shots that were a little busy or just lacking a central “point”. One such image was an across-the-street view of the area around the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Lots of building detail, lots of wandering tourists, and too much for a coherent story. Lopping off the top two-thirds of the frame gave me just the passing crowd, an ultra-wide illusion which forced the viewer to review the shot the way you’d “read” a panel in a comic strip, from left to right.

Tickets, Please, New York City, 2015.

Tickets, Please, New York City, 2015.

Lately, I’ve been looking for a purer version of that crowd, with more space between each person, allowing for a more distinct comparison between individuals. That is, short guy followed by tall woman followed by little kid followed by….you get the idea. Then, last week, I happened upon the ideal situation while shooting randomly through a window that looked out on the 51st street side of New York’s Radio City Music Hall: a long line of folks waiting to pre-purchase event tickets. The space between them and the street rhythm shown by a few out-of-focus passersby was all the composition I needed, so in the editing process I once again aced the top two-thirds of the picture, which had been taken without zoom. A bit of light was lost in shooting through the window, so I added a little color boost and texturizing in Photomatix (not HDR but Tone Compression settings) and there was my pseudo-pano.

It’s a small bit of cropping choreography, but worth trying with your own street shots. As as is the case with many images, you might gain actually strength for your pictures the more ruthlessly you wield the scissors. Some crowd shots benefit by extra context, while others do fine without it. You’ll know what balance you’ll need.



Competing architectural styles establish a natural rhythm of conflict in major cities.


EACH MAJOR URBAN CENTER HAS ITS PHOTOGRAPHIC SUPERSTARS, those destination attractions that are documented to death by shooters great and small. Name the city and you can rattle off the names of the usual suspects. The landmarks. The legends. The here’s-proof-that-I-was-there vacation pictures. Meanwhile, the rest of the buildings within our super-cities, that is the majority of the remaining structures on most streets everywhere, remain under-photographed and, largely, unknown.

Part of the problem is our photographic viewpoint, which apes our human viewpoint. As drivers or pedestrians, we necessarily focus most our attention at events topping out at just about two stories above street level. This means we will almost certainly n0t see the mashup of architectural styles just outside our peripheral range. We don’t follow the visual line of buildings all the way up, either because we are walking, or because we don’t want to look like some out-of-town rube. But there is real drama in the collision of all those unseen details, and, if you’re interested in showing the city as an abstract design, some real opportunities.

I find that shooting toward the intersection of parts of three or more buildings amplifies the contrast between design eras, with doric columns and oak clusters crashing into International style glass boxes, overlayed with Art Deco zigzags. I shoot them with standard lenses instead of zooms to preserve the intensity of color and contrast, then create the final frame I want in the cropping. Zooms also tend to flatten things out, making buildings that are actually hundreds of feet from each other appear to be in single flat plane. Regular lenses keep the size and distance relationships relatively intact.

Importantly, I don’t shoot entrances, emblems, signage, anything that would specifically identify any one building, and I steer away from places that are recognizable in a touristy way. I’m not really interested in these buildings in their familiar context, but as part of a larger pattern, so I don’t want to “name” things in the image since it will draw away interest from other elements.

The city is a concrete (sorry) thing, but it is also a rich puzzle of design that offers almost infinite variety for the photographer. Best thing is, these compositions are just inches away from where you were bored to death, just a second ago.


Capital Capitol, 2015. A re-cropped and post-processed remix of a casual 2007 snapshot.

Capital Capitol, 2015. A re-cropped and post-processed remix of a casual 2007 snapshot.


BEING A MULTI-TASKER IS NO LONGER A MATTER OF CHOICE. We love to pretend that we’re adept at turning off selective parts of the hurricane of sensory input that comprises the whole of our daily life, but, fact is, we cannnot. You might be able to do as few as three things at a time in this world, but only if you struggle against a constant cacophony of sensations.

Unfortunately, creating art sometimes requires quiet, clarity, the ability to edit out unwanted sights and sounds in order to find a clear path toward a coherent vision. And this impacts photography as well as any other creative enterprise.

The 2007 original, taken from a Circle Line tour boat.  There was a picture hiding in here, but it took me seven years to find it.

The 2007 original, taken from a  NYC Circle Line tour boat. 

Urban life presents an especially big challenge to this urge to “get clear”, to untangle conflicting stories and draw out clean, direct messages for our images. Major cities are like 24-hour whistle factories, with thousands of things screaming for our attention. Thing is, there just isn’t enough attention to go around. Often, in poring over old projects, we find that a fourth, a third, even half of the information in a picture can be extracted in the editing process and still leave more than enough data to get our point across. And herein lies a problem.

If it’s getting harder and harder to edit in the moment to boil a photograph down to its essence, the editing phase becomes more crucial than ever before. You either get the best picture in the taking or in the remaking. It can be argued that practice helps the photographer learn to quickly ferret out simple stories within a mass of visual noise, and, of course, the more you shoot, the more you learn what not to shoot. But it seems inevitable that editing, and re-editing, will become a bigger part of the overall task of making pictures.

If the weakest of your photographic skills is post-processing, you might strongly consider upping that particular part of your game. The world isn’t slowing down anytime soon. It’s great to know, in an instant, how to make a strong image. But, as my dad always said, that’s why God put erasers on pencils. Editing can be where acceptable pictures buff up into contenders.


This street shot from a park in lower Manhattan is not ready for prime time, but it might get there with creative cropping.

This street shot from a park in lower Manhattan is not ready for prime time, but it might get there with creative cropping.


FOR ME, ONE OF THE GREATEST ANCILLARY BENEFITS of doing historical research has been the privilege of poring over old files of newspaper and magazine photographs, in many cases viewing original, pre-publication master shots. It’s truly an exercise in reading between the “lines”, those hurried slashes of white grease pencil applied by editors as cropping instructions on shots that were too big, too busy, too slow in getting to the point. In many cases, you realize that, while the photographer may have taken the picture, it was the editor who found the picture.

Of course, no amount of cutting can improve a shot if there is not already a core story hiding within it. You can pare away the skin and seed of an apple, but some apples prove themselves rotten through and through. It’s the same with a photograph. However, if you teach yourself how to spot what, within a frame, is fighting with the central strength of a photo, it becomes obvious where to wield your scissors.

In the master shot image at top, the symmetry of the left and right groups of park visitors is blunted in its effect by the unneeded information along the top and bottom thirds of the frame. The shot is not really about the museum in the distance nor the ground in front of the benches. They just don’t help the flow of the picture, so losing them seems like the easiest way to boost the overall composition.

Now the shot is essentially a wide-angle, and, absent the earlier distractions, a kind of horseshoe curve emerges, tying the two benches together. You might even think of it as an arch shape, with the walking woman at the top acting as a keystone. She now draws attention first to the center, then around the curve, so that getting people to see what I am seeing becomes a lot easier. Finally, there is still a very loud distraction from the color in the shot, so a black-and-white remix keeps the reds and louder colors from “showing off” and lessening the impact of the story. The final result is still no masterpiece, but it does demonstrate that there was a very different picture hiding within the master shot, one that was certainly worth going after.

The "after" version, minus the color and some high-and-low visual distractions.

The “after” version, minus the color and some high-and-low-end visual distractions.

One of the downsides of being an amateur shooter is not reaping the benefit of a ruthless photo editor. However, learning to spot the weaknesses in potentially effective shots can be learned, most importantly the “ruthless” part. If you believe in an image, you won’t shy away from trimming its fingernails a bit to give it a chance to shine.



The girl's form in ceiling light is a start, but this picture needs some help to get where it's going.

The girl bathed in ceiling light is a nice start, but this picture needs some help to get where it’s going.


IT IS SAID THAT THE GODDESS ATHENA WAS BORN, FULLY GROWN AND ARMORED, out of the forehead of Zeus. Other than being the only case where a man experienced anything that approached labor pain, the story always reminds me that ideas rarely arrive in their final form, especially in photography. If Athena had a Leica, she probably could have taken perfect shots without needing to compose or plan. We mere mortals are forced to either (a) report to hate-crazed photo editors, or (b) learn how to crop.

Many shots are created in stages, and there’s no shame in the game, since our original conception undergoes many phases from the first spark to something we’d actually hang on a wall. Creation itself is a process, which is why photographers should actually embrace the stages their work will pass through. The more thought that is applied to making an image, the better chance that the best way of doing something will reveal itself. Of course, it can also reveal the fact that there is nothing really to work with, in which case, hey, the bar should be open now, let’s go lick our wounds.

The original shot shown above is not yet a good photograph, but a good beginning for a DSC_0236_2photograph. The lady bathed in light seems certainly to have been pre-selected to be the focal point of the picture, but there are way too many competing elements around her, robbing her of the prominence she deserves in the final frame. So let’s get after it.

First, none of the information on the left side of the frame makes it any clearer that she’s alone or that she’s on the second floor of the building. We can make that plain with half the acreage, so snip. Similarly, the guys in shadow to her right aren’t part of the story we are crafting for her. If she’s isolated, let’s make her isolated and be unmistakable about it. She’s “apart” already from the sea of people below her. She’s geographically and physically separated from them, but the extra guys make the argument weaker, so, snip, away they go.

Finally, the entire upper-floor/lower-floor line of sight will be accentuated if we crop for a portrait orientation and move the frame so she is on the upper-right-hand corner of it. It forces the eye to discover the story of the picture vertically, so snip and we’re done.

So, at the end, we did not make any changes via processing, only the old scissors. Taking things away, not adding them on, actually made the picture work better. Fate gave me the girl and the wonderful light she was bathed in, but there was work to do. She didn’t arrive, ready to party, like Athena, but she’s a little closer to goddess status after some adjustment.



From Lobby To Terrace, 2015. A near 50% crop from the original, seen below at left.

From Lobby To Terrace, 2015. A near 50% crop from the original, seen below at left.


YOU CANNOT BECOME A GREAT PHOTOGRAPHER WITHOUT BEING YOUR OWN BEST EDITOR, no matter how brilliant or instinctual your shooter’s eye may be. Art is both addition and subtraction, and the image frame is about both inclusion and exclusion. You get your viewers’ attention by knowing what to show. You hold that attention, and burn your images into their minds, by learning what to pare away.

I’ve written several variations on this theme, so the best way to restate it is in the voice of the truly visionary godfather of street photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson. Ironically, this master of in-camera composition (he is reputed never to have cropped a single shot after it was taken) was nonetheless remarkably aware of what most of us must do to improve an image through post-editing:

This recognition, in real life, of a rhythm of surfaces, lines, and values is for me the essence of photography; composition should be a constant of preoccupation, being a simultaneous coalition – an organic coordination of visual elements. We must avoid snapping away, shooting quickly and without thought, overloading ourselves with unnecessary images that clutter our memory and diminish the clarity of the whole.

Insert whatever is French for “Amen” here.

The original. It's easy to see what needs to be cut out of this one.

The original. It’s easy to see what needs to be cut out of this one.

I often find that up to 50% of some of my original shots can later be excised without doing any harm to the core of the photograph, and that, in many cases, actually improving them. Does that mean that my original concept was wrong? Not so much, although there are times when that’s absolutely true. The daunting thing is that the 50% floats around. Sometimes you need to cut the fat in the edges: other times the dead center of the shot is flabby. Sometimes the 50 is aggregate, with 25% trimmed from two different areas of the overall composition.

On occasion, as with the above picture (see the original off to the left), the entire bottom half of the shot drags down the top. In the cropped shot, the long lateral line between indoors and outdoors is much more unbroken, making for a more “readable” shot from left to right. The disappearance of the dark furniture at the bottom of the master shot creates no problems, and actually solves a few. Do a disciplined search of the nobler near-misses in your own work and see how many floating 50’s you discover. Freeing your shots of the things that “clutter our memory and diminish the clarity of the whole” is humbling, but it’s also a revelation.


Do you need either the entire tree or the entire hammock to sell the idea in this picture?

Do you need either the entire tree or the entire hammock to sell the idea in this picture?


ONE OF THE MOST FASCINATING PARTS OF THE LEGEND of Henri Cartier-Bresson, the artist who is the world’s model for street photography, is the oft-repeated story that he never cropped a shot over the many decades of his remarkable career. Thus the man who originated the phrase “the decisive moment” to indicate that there was but one ideal instant to capture something perfectly in the camera is also credited with creating flawless on-the-spot compositions, image after image, year after year. Yeah, well….

I love HCB, and I personally can’t find a single one of his images that I could improve upon, no matter where I was to wield my magic scissors. But just as the writer in me believes that great novels aren’t written, but re-written, I believe that many great photo compositions emerge after much additional consideration, long after the shutter snaps. It’s not that one shouldn’t strive to get things as perfect as possible in the moment. In fact, there is overwhelming evidence that many photographers do exactly that, nearly all the time.

The Maestro.

The Maestro.


It’s that “nearly”, however, that describes most photos, something which might be converted to “definitely” in the cropping process. In fact, I am starting to feel that the very first thing to be done with a picture in post-production is to just start paring away, only stopping when the center of the idea has been reached. It’s gut-wrenching, since we usually fall in love with our pictures at first sight (and in their first versions). But even if God decided to make one of us, say Cartier-Bresson, the messenger of his divine eye, he certainly didn’t make that trait as common as, say, green eyes or freckles. For most of us, most of the time, we need to eliminate everything that diverts the eye anywhere but where the main message is. As an example, the hammock image above is the result of cutting away nearly 2/3 of the original photograph.

There are a few times when an image comes full-born out of the camera, all muscle and no fat. However, in the digital age, re-thinking one’s realization of a concept is easier than it’s ever been, and there is no downside to doing so. If there is a narrative ground-zero to your photo, don’t worry. The center will hold.



THOSE WHO BELIEVE THAT SUBJECT MATTER IS KING IN PHOTOGRAPHY ARE FACED OFF in an endless tennis match with those who believe that only impressions, not subjects, are the heart of the art. Go away for fifty or sixty years and they are still volleying:  WAP! a photograph without an objective is a waste of time! WAP! who needs an object to tell a story? Emotional impact is everything! And so on. Pick your side, pick your battle, the argument isn’t going anywhere.

Thing is, my assertion is that you don’t actually have to choose a side. Just let the assignment at hand dictate whether subject or interpretation is your objective. There are times when the object itself provides the story, from a venerable cathedral to an eloquently silent forest. And there are times when mere color, light patterns, or texture are more than enough to tell your tale.

Set Your Face Like Flint, 2014.

Set Your Face Like Flint, 2014. Shot wide at 18mm, cropped to square format. 1/100 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100.

I find, for example, that texture is one of my best friends when it comes to conveying a number of important things. The passage and impact of time. The feel and contour of materials, as well as the endless combinations and patterns they achieve through aging and weathering. A way to completely redefine an object by getting close enough to value its component parts instead of viewing it as a whole. This is especially true as I try to refine my approach to images of buildings. I find that breaking the overall structure into  smaller, more manageable sections helps to amplify texture, to make it louder and prouder than it might be if a larger scene just included the entire building among other visual elements. Change the distance from your story and you change the story itself.

This Massachusetts barn has tons of character whether seen near or far, but if I frame it to eliminate anything but the raw feel of the wood, it demands attention in a completely different way. It asks for re-evaluation.Contrast the rough-sawn wood with the hard red of the windows,and, again, you’ve boosted the effect of the coarser texture. Opposing textures create a kind of rudimentary tug-of-war in a picture, and the more stark the contrasts, the more dramatic the impact.

Traditional, subject-driven story telling will dictate that you show the entire barn, maybe with surrounding trees and a rolling hill or two. Abstracting it a little in terms of color, distance and texture just tell the story in a distinct way. Your camera, your choice.


Thought the cute kid would be what this picture was "about". Guess I was wrong.

Thought the cute kid would be what this picture was “about”. Guess I was wrong.


SEPARATING ONE’S IMAGES INTO “HIT” AND “MISS” PILES is always painful, since it’s kind of like telling some of your kids that they will be power hitters in Little League while their siblings should take up…well, macrame. But self-editing, over time, is nearly as important as shooting, and the mindfulness of asking “what was I thinking” is the useful corollary to “what do I want to do next?” That don’t make it smart any less, but at least you understand the pain.

Usually I hurl photos into the “miss” box for purely technical reasons, which means that I should have known what to do and just blew it upon execution. I’m more exacting nowadays, because present-era camera make it tougher to absolutely boot a shot, although I have striven to stay ahead of the curve and make lousy pictures even in the face of rapidly advancing technology. People who think they’ve idiot-proofed their gear have never met this idiot, I boast. It’s a point of pride.


Cropping the image got to the main impact point lurking within.

Cropping the image got to the main impact point lurking within.

Occasionally, though, you review a shot that was okay exposure-wise, but completely got the narrative wrong. Sometimes you can recompose the shot and redress this problem, and sometimes you’re just sealed out of the airlock with no oxygen. That’s the breaks. In the original image at the top of this page is a candid of a little girl next to a horse that I thought would be charming. Cute kid, nice horsie, you get the picture. Problem is, I never really captured her essence in any of the photos I shot (trust me) and I framed so tight that I was only showing the horse’s body. First verdict on this one: thanks for playing our game, sorry to see you go, here are some lovely parting gifts.

However, as a rainy day project, the photo suddenly presented a different way for me to go. It wasn’t that I had shown too little of the horse; it was that I had shown too much of both the horse and the child. The central part of the image, taken by itself, had a narrative power that the larger frame lacked. To crop so that just a part of the girl’s small arm connected with the strong, muscular torso of the horse magnified his power by contrasting it with her fragility. I wasn’t losing the horse’s face, since it hadn’t been in the original, and losing the girl’s face actually improved the impact of the image by reducing her to an abstraction, to a symbol of innocence, gentleness, but above all, contact. We could deduce that the horse and the girl were friends. We didn’t need to see it reflected in their features.

Sometimes an image we are ready to reject is hiding a more concentrated fragment that saves the entire thing, if we are unafraid to pare away what we once saw as “essential”. It’s the go-out-and-come-back-in-again school of thought. It’s at least a seeing exercise, and you gotta flex them eye and brain muscles at every opportunity.