Matt: “This is What I Saw” Photography

The Big Lens Fast Shutter group on Flickr is a big part of our mission and the place where Ryu and I get to answer questions in a more direct way than the blog or the podcast. Flickr’s ancient group structure still works, but more and more, group pools serve as a dumping ground for pictures. We’re here to help people get better at sports photography, not help you get your pictures into Explore.

This post on Black Star Rising details David Saxe’s view that photography can be split up between “This is what I saw” photography vs heavily processed (darkroom or digital) photography where the original image is just a starting point.

The first is the photographer observing something, photographing it, and printing the image exactly as he or she saw it. Outside of correcting the RAW image for color balance and exposure, nothing else is done to the photograph…What they are telling me is, “This is what I saw.”

In order for these types of images to succeed as photographs, what the photographer saw has to be special — something unique; something that is unnoticed by the casual viewer. A different angle, a shadow, a relationship between between subject and background, anything to tell me that the photographer noticed something out of the ordinary. Then it is transformed into a photograph, something special. Unfortunately, when it does not work, it is because the photographer was working to a formal, preordained plan or statement and the resulting images are no more than a checked-off list to suit that plan. Working this way results in dull, uninspiring images.
The second path is to view something ordinary and make something special from it — to take what the photographer saw, and then by some form of manipulation such as framing, dodging, burning in, contrast adjustment, adding something personal to the image. I am not referring to extreme Photoshop manipulation techniques but simply the same adjustments that photographers have traditionally used to place their distinct marks upon an image — passion, feeling, something to tell me, “This is what I felt.”

As sports photojournalists (for the most part) we (generally) don’t have the luxury of adding very much to the pictures after they are shot, so as Saxe puts it, we must present “what I saw” in special and unique ways. If you’re reading here and/or participating in the Flickr group, this is what you should be trying to achieve. You’re welcome to continue putting a (sports) picture per day in the group pool, after all, it can’t hurt. But if you are truly trying to get better, you’re much better off putting a couple of pictures into training ground and working towards implementing the suggestions Ryu and I have for you.

Photographers put pictures where people can see them for several reasons: vanity, desire for attention, self-promotion, the prospect of sales, to show the grandparents, etc. In each case, you are communicating with the viewer. Do you know what you are saying? Why exactly are you saying it? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, or don’t like what your answers are sometimes, my suggestion is to think about the answers while you are shooting. Great pictures are sometimes the result of luck, but more often they come from careful thought and planning. And we’re here to help.


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Big Lens Fast Shutter is funded solely from the pockets of Ryu Voelkel and Matt Cohen. If you think the information we give you about sports photography is making you a better sports photographer and as a result a well balanced human being, please show us your appreciation by supporting us on Patreon and send some of your hard earned dollars/euros/Brixton pounds our way. People who donate will be mentioned on our next show unless you want to remain anonymous. Thank you for supporting us and may the force of sports photography be with you, always.

2 thoughts on “Matt: “This is What I Saw” Photography

  1. Great post. I would add another category: “pre-processed” photography. Changing the lighting of a scene, getting a subject to pose or react (consciously or not), adding or removing physical objects, or inducing a behavior in a subject – these go beyond recording what is seen without altering the scene, and it’s all done before a photon strikes a recording medium.

    Maybe it’s not the focus of sports shooting, but some of the creativity that you and Ryu bring to the table involve a little pre-processing. Using strobes or even shielding a subject from an existing light source would count. Color filters on a lens or gels on an existing or added light source counts. Setting up an encounter with a subject (perhaps simply by predicting when they’re going to come onto the pitch and getting into your spot) counts.

    I’m not saying you have to disguise yourself as a rodeo clown, or violate the PJ rules to get an unusual shot. But I just want to give full credit to the creative techniques that sports shooters need to master that go beyond passively documenting the action. Just as one example, having the ability to talk to and convince the venue’s officials that you should be allowed to get access to a certain space or to talk to an athlete or coach, is the key.

  2. Good points, Yugo. Negotiating access, being prepared, and creative are all key, and I’ll have a post about this at some point. This one was directed at those photographers who are less experienced, and need a bit of a push to see things a bit differently.

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