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Human: At the Heart of the Image

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I promise this isn’t another “It’s not the camera, it’s the photographer” post.  That song has been played to death.

I just always had this image in my head. I know it’s probably been done before.  It’s the classic photographer self-portrait, with a different take.  When it comes to selfies, photographers usually have no time to set up lights, stands, umbrellas, backgrounds, and remotes in the name of vanity. And some of us event photographers know how to pose other people to look their best, but posing yourself is not so easy!

In the online social scene, everyone who’s anyone needs to have a profile picture.  So the busy photographer takes a hurried self-portrait in the mirror, peeking out from behind the camera. On each occasion, the camera takes priority, not to mention a large portion of the picture.  Just as well, since we’re not used to being in front of the camera, and we’d rather not be seen anyway.  We always have the camera raised and ready to fire, so this kind of portrait represents a photographer best, kind of like a musician posing with his cherished guitar.  Only, the guitar doesnt cover two-thirds of his face.

At any large event with a hired photographer – If you remember his face very clearly, then he wasn’t doing his job.  🙂
Wedding guests often remember that I was short, had spiky hair, and that’s about it.  The rest of the evening, I had a large black glass filled tube protruding from my face.

In any case, the sheer largeness of any SLR will lead most to believe that great images are a product of the sophisticated camera.  The photographer becomes nothing but a breathing, two legged trigger.  Point it, shoot it, and magic happens.

In all fairness, the gear does play a part in every great picture.  I couldn’t have made the image above exactly as I would have liked if I didn’t have a three lightstands, a tripod, two umbrellas, two speedlights, a black reflector, and two SLRs with large lenses, and Photoshop.

Despite all the fancy gear, it is the photographer that decides where to place said lights and lightstands – how high to raise them, which umbrellas to use, at what angle and distance.  It’s the photographer that adjusts the manual settings for shutter, aperture, ISO, focal length, to make the exposure exactly what he wants, not just what the camera dictates on Auto mode (On Pro-level cameras, there is no Auto mode!)  It is the photographer that composes, that sees artistically, that poses the subject, that steadies the camera.

It’s the photographer that shoots.    (and imports into computer, and develops)

Again, this isn’t another “It’s not the camera…” post. Why? In those posts, people hint that the camera is the great and perfect tool, and if you make garbage images, you are solely responsible.  It implies that the camera is on a higher level that you as a clueless user, need to reach.  Let’s turn that around.

Instead of focusing on the photographer’s faults, focus on what the camera lacks versus the photographer.  Any camera.

  • A camera can create images, but cannot truly see.
  • A camera can process, but cannot truly think.
  • A camera has energy, but it has no heart.

Instead of condemning fledgling photographers for less than award-worthy images, lets celebrate the human factor that goes into every masterpiece.

  • A camera cannot learn.

Any photographer today can be a better photographer tomorrow. The human ability to learn and improve is astonishingly fast and unlimited.  The pitiable camera cannot grow more megapixels, or increase it’s battery life with use.  It doesn’t get any better than the day it was bought:  The human, the talent, the artist, can grow to magnificence.

If I could give any new photographer “advice” or “tips” – it’s that they have to believe and nurture their own ability to learn and improve. It’s a lesson I need to repeat to myself all the time, every wedding, every engagement, every job, every shot.  I can do better. I will do better.  (Of course, you need to invest in that ability. Lots of reading!)

Though I love my Nikon cameras, I don’t agree with their current company slogan: “At the heart of the image.”  Because really…

At the heart of every great image, there is a human.

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For more photography updates and my personal projects, check out Josh Liba Photography on Facebook, or follow @JoshLiba on twitter!

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. Well written man. Though I must confess, I am guilty of the hurried selfie (just look to the left and you can see it clear!). Not only that my most use profile pic is several years old =P
    Enjoyed reading, and great job on this composite! I gotta get you to help me do something like this 😉

    May 18, 2011
    • Hehe. I wasn’t thinking of your icon specifically when making the picture, although it did come to mind when reading your blog last time. 😀

      Though.. There IS a sweet wedding ring in your profile pic – you’ve got me beat, man! 🙂

      Thanks bro. You remain one of my best teachers. I am myself an example of this post. 🙂

      May 18, 2011
  2. Awesome post. My friends always assumes that ever since I bought my DSLR, it was the one taking the great shots, and that had always bothered me.

    I like the way you turned the whole it’s-not-the-camera concept, and talked about what the camera lacks. A great post! 🙂

    May 19, 2011
    • Thanks so much for the visit and comment!

      The modern camera is definitely a great tool. But so is a hammer!
      In either case, nothing gets made without a human involved. 🙂

      Thanks again!

      May 19, 2011
  3. Nice post, and great photo! Amateur photographer here, so I can’t even begin to imagine how you achieved that effect, but like you said, we all learn!

    May 20, 2011
    • Thank you very much! I’ll be posting a ‘making of’ soon! Definitely check back to see how it was created. 🙂

      May 20, 2011
  4. Jenny #

    This is really an amazing post, and so well written! It provides a lot of food for thought. I am a (very, very) amateur photographer on a super tight budget and the tendency for me is to think I am limited by the equipment I have (or, rather, what I don’t have). Sometimes I feel like I could be a good photographer if only I could afford this lens or that lighting. But maybe that is a crutch? An excuse to be lazy? You are so right. The beauty of a good photo is from the heart of the person behind the camera and the effort they put into improving their skills, not just the price tag of the equipment. Maybe the lack of goodies and gadgets can impel me to be more creative, to work harder and to push boundaries that I may not otherwise. Great equipment is fantastic, but it’s the person who creates the art. 🙂

    May 21, 2011
    • I appreciate your comments and thoughts as always, Jen! And I really do agree! Every photographer looking to upgrade should always ask themselves “Am I fully using the equipment I have to it’s potential? Am I buying this new lens because I know exactly what it will let me accomplish?”

      Or is it just more expensive, and therefore arbitrarily better?

      Better gear is great, but only when the human uses it to create the image they already have in their mind.

      And! All the pros usually rent gear and expensive lenses. Even they know it’s ridiculously expensive. 😀 haha!

      Thank you very much!!!

      May 21, 2011

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