Lessons @ Bashang Grassland (中国内蒙古省坝上)

I strongly suggest listening to this podcast from Brooks Jensen before reading the article below.

Most of us tend to throw unsuccessful photographs into the trash bin (physical or virtual depending on whether you shoot film or digital) and try to forget about them (as well as the overall number of photos taken during a particular shoot and the low keeper ratio) the very moment they are out of sight. If one wants to become a better photographer, however, analyzing one's uninspiring photographs is as important as enjoying watching successful prints.

Having been to Bashang Grassland twice so far and produced about four dozens photographs that I like it became obvious that some images were better than others; also, I personally prefer pertaining only crèe de la crèe and would not want to have so many images depicting one place. This initiated the painful process of choosing less successful images, which basically involved looking at the pictures for a long, long time until I could clearly feel which photographs had to go.

Having chosen the less successful pictures I decided to analyze them before sending them to the trash bin; furthermore, I made up my mind to share my mistakes with you in hope that you might learn from them, too. I fully realise that it is not very wise to show one's not entirely successful work, so why would I do this? Well, I do not make any money from photography nor do I ask for donations (as yet ) and so am pretty immune to possible criticism; also, there is no such thing as bad publicity . So, here goes... (Keep in mind that these images did bring me inspiration at least at one point of the photographic process so please treat them with respect.)

Lessons @ Bashang Grassland (中国内蒙古省坝上)

Photograph 1

Grand vistas is one of the main photographic subjects at Bashang Grassland and this photo shows what is possible. The subject, however, needs to be further worked upon as this photograph has two faults. First, the composition is imperfect - the numerous small trees in the middle of the picture do not form any pattern and thus only distract attention; secondly, highlights in the sky are blown out - not too much but enough to disqualify the picture if you look at it long enough. I should have used a graduated ND filter.

On second thought, though, if I crop the photograph a bit it starts to look quite decent (see the new version below) - gone are the blown out parts in the sky and the small trees do not appear as chaotic. This once again confirms my overall perception that spacious places and the sense of space are better rendered with telephoto lenses and by including fewer objects.

Lessons @ Bashang Grassland (中国内蒙古省坝上)

Lessons @ Bashang Grassland (中国内蒙古省坝上)

Photograph 2

I like the colours; however, there is no apparent main subject or anything in the photograph that would guide one's vision. Again, if only the trees formed an interesting pattern?/p>

Lessons @ Bashang Grassland (中国内蒙古省坝上)

Photograph 3

Nice colours, too, but composition is rather banal - I have seen tons of photographs shot at Bashang that have similarly uninspiring structure; lighting is imperfect too - a beam of sunlight would have liven the picture up a lot.

Lessons @ Bashang Grassland (中国内蒙古省坝上)

Photograph 4

This photograph is underexposed (highlights are somewhat blown out, though). I should have used a less contrasty film with more real-life colour reproduction (such as Fuji Astia 100F); I also should have chosen a more uniform and less distracting background.

Lessons @ Bashang Grassland (中国内蒙古省坝上)

Photograph 5

This picture was taken at about 10 a.m. and its main attraction is supposed to be autumn colours. This, however, is a typical example of when one should be discriminating enough to recognize that the sun and, accordingly, colour temperature of ambient light are already too high to produce a colorful palette. It is possible to tweak colours and increase saturation in Photoshop but it still does not look good enough. Nothing beats great ambient light - do not waste film when it is not there.

Lessons @ Bashang Grassland (中国内蒙古省坝上)

Photograph 6

Another example of when colour temperature of ambient light is already too high and elements of the composition are a bit too chaotic. Even the horse in the right corner could not save the picture J.

Lessons @ Bashang Grassland (中国内蒙古省坝上)

Photograph 7

When the horses appeared I had a 180mm lens mounted on my Hasselblad 503cw, which in turn was mounted on a tripod and pointing in a different direction. The horses galloped so fast that I just did not have enough time to add a 1.4X teleconverter (I had to because the action was happening too far away), recompose, meter as well as set aperture and shutter speed. In the end I messed up exposure settings (the shot was overexposed; it, thankfully, is recoverable, though) and seem to have missed the decisive moment.

Lessons @ Bashang Grassland (中国内蒙古省坝上)

Photograph 8

The sun was beyond a thin cloud and thus not bright enough to bring out colours; patterns in the background are somewhat undefined, too. Talk about the perfect way to create mediocrity.

Lessons @ Bashang Grassland (中国内蒙古省坝上)

Photograph 9

This was one of those occasions when one cannot have interesting light on all parts of the image at the same time - when this picture was taken clouds looked great yet the hills were still too dark and colourless; by the time the slopes became orange the clouds were already lifeless white.

Lessons @ Bashang Grassland (中国内蒙古省坝上)

Photograph 10

A lonely horse in the middle of nowhere (to emphasize this condition I used f/4 so that background and, partly, foreground are out-of-focus, which is not very obvious at this magnification)? Sure, @#$& happens, but what the heck did I want to say?

Lessons @ Bashang Grassland (中国内蒙古省坝上)

Photograph 11

I felt that I discovered something interesting when I saw the fence in pre-sunset light; looking at it now, though, neither colours nor patterns nor composition is captivating enough. And even the tiny chicken at the bottom could not save the picture .

Lessons @ Bashang Grassland (中国内蒙古省坝上)

Photograph 12

I think I took so many pictures of birches that the fact that a group of twigs on the right is for some reason black (I actually did not notice this at the time of shooting) disqualifies the photo. Maybe it is not a huge deal yet still a technical imperfection.

All right, what does an image then have to possess to have a chance to qualify as a solid keeper? Most of the photographs that I consider successful boast a combination of the following:

  • They are technically perfect - out-of-focus, blurred, over-exposed, under-exposed, etc. images just will not do (unless dictated by your artistic intent, of course);

  • Straightforward yet powerful composition that either clearly leads viewers' vision or has obvious and dominating main subject or interesting and strong patterns;

  • Unique ambient light that creates either subtle or strong colours or, at least, interesting gradations for black-and-white photography or subsequent b&w conversion.

Our purpose then should be learning to discriminate and clearly recognize when any of the above is lacking - or, if lucky enough, acknowledge presence of magical unification of all the factors - before pressing shutter release. All too often we feel at the back of our mind that something is missing yet we take a shot anyway - maybe "just in case", maybe in hope that "something will turn out", or maybe just because "now that I am here". Try to refrain from doing this and next time when you look into the viewfinder of your camera ask yourself and give an honest answer - is everything in place for a keeper to happen?

Are there any images above that you think are undeservedly here? Are there any images here that you think should be in this collection of not keepable photos? Let me know.

All photographs were taken between Monday 2nd October and Thursday 5th October 2006
with a Hasselblad 503cw system and Fuji Velvia 100F slide film.