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A Photographer's Guide to Developing Themes and Creating Stories with Pictures

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Amid all the shutter actuations, lens changing, model posing, gear buying, and minutes spent in front of the computer screen, Jerod Foster suggests it’s probably worth a second of your time to reflect on what it is we are actually doing when using all the equipment we collect in the name of photography.
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A Texas windmill and vibrant sunset offer a sense of place.

Canon 5D Mk II, 400mm, 1/1000 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100

So, who are we really? When you pick up your camera, strap it over your shoulder, and walk out the door, are you suddenly a different person than you were moments before? If you’re like most folks who consider photography a profession or a hobby, you don’t spend much time waxing philosophical about what it means to trip the shutter or compose an image. You’d rather get on with making images, thinking creatively, and deciding on what to eat later that evening. However, amid all the shutter actuations, lens changing, model posing, gear buying, and minutes spent in front of the computer screen, it’s probably worth a second of your time to reflect on what it is we are actually doing when using all the equipment we collect in the name of photography.

The Camera Is Our Sounding Board

If you’re like me, you enjoy traveling. It’s probably one of the reasons you picked up the camera in the first place, and since then, you’ve found more reasons to travel. When you are traveling on assignment or for leisure, you can’t help but notice the abundance of other travelers with digital SLRs (dSLRs) slung around their necks, ready at a moment’s notice to snap a frame of a street performer or a restaurant sign.

Now, before you pass any judgment about the tourist clutching his brand-new Canon, keep in mind that we’ve all been there in our photographic journey, and the tourist may see you in the exact same light. However, if you’re reading this book, it stands to reason that you’re seeking to be a bit more than the stereotypical tourist shutterbug.

What separates you from them? In the way of technology, not much, I’m afraid. Their camera does the same thing as yours: records images. You might have spent thousands of dollars on your rig, versus their $600 purchase, but often that won’t cut it.

How about travel destination or location? If you’re standing right next to them with camera in tow, you can’t really make this distinction either, although you may be driven to find a more original vantage point. On the surface, you are another traveler with a camera. Sure, maybe your tripod is carbon fiber and you use a fancier strap, but theoretically, you’re there to do the same thing: make images.

What separates you from the crowd is your ability to record images in a way that stitches together a narrative and a greater understanding of where you are and what you are seeing. We’re not just experienced tourists walking around with cameras in our hands. We are storytellers, and we have a very specialized, creative way of carrying out our purpose!

The camera serves simply as our sounding board. Historically, that device was used to help project the sound of orators to crowds of listeners. Just as stories were told first vocally, then in writing, and then through various forms of art and communication technology, taking photographs is one of today’s prime methods for visually describing what is in front of us at the moment.

At the risk of sounding awfully clichéd at this point, the camera is just a tool we use, much like the writer’s pen, the singer’s microphone, and even the ghost storyteller’s campfire. We use the camera, its ancillary components, and all of our technical knowledge about it in an effort to record visual nuance, dynamics, and emotional context within an environment that throws a variety of contingencies at us in the process. Understanding how to use our equipment in any situation brings us closer to becoming better visual storytellers.

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