Sometimes I feel that there are a few misconceptions about what a photo should be. Many photo books and classes will discuss methods and procedures to create “tack sharp” photos. Tack sharp certainly has it’s place, but when it comes to documenting movement, it’s about as boring as one could get. Personally, I prefer my photos to tell a story. And when it comes to movement, shutter speed is best suited for telling those stories. This week, we once again visit the work of Christoph Htzmannseder who has already taught us of story telling. This time, Christoph tells us stories by breaking the rules with his photo, Night Mass Biking.
Theory and practice often rest on two sides of a discussion with a large area in between. It’s rare that the two jive from an aesthetic perspective. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. The old adage is that one needs to learn the rules before they can break them. Theory world focuses on the rules, practice is where you learn to break them. Problem is that sometimes people forget. Night Mass Biking is much more deeply set in the practice world. Christoph is little concerned with whether or not this photo is technically correct from a theory perspective and is much more interested in telling a story. As such, the subject is not tack-sharp. For that matter, the subject isn’t so well defined – we know it’s this group of cyclists, but as they are a blur bisecting the photo, it’s not so well defined. The rule of thirds and golden mean are out the window – there is no one prominent focal point in the photograph, and the blur that is the subject (as a whole) is almost dead-center in the photograph. And while the building is in reasonably good focus, it is a little beyond the depth to be considered sharp, it’s just sharp enough to help tell the story. If this photo were entered into a technical competition – one that was judged by theory-rooted individuals – I wouldn’t expect this photo to do well. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad photo. Quite the contrary. Many widely celebrated photographs through the decades are also not technically correct. On the flip side, many technically correct photos aren’t memorable. There’s a significant difference between knowing what to do and knowing how to appeal to an audience. Christoph’s photo appeals to the audience.
I don’t want anyone to think that the rules are irrelevant. They are essential to understanding what works and what doesn’t work. If you are, hypothetically, poised to break a rule, you need to know why. If your goal is like Christoph’s and you wish to get a sense of the movement in a shot, well you need to break a rule. If the placement of the mass is important to telling the story and you want the viewer to focus on the moving mass as opposed to the building’s architecture, another rule needs to be broken. But you wouldn’t be able to convince me that Christoph didn’t think of every one of these technical aspects when composing the shot. Notice how the trolly rails are tack sharp? I suspect that he used that point for focusing to let the hyperfocal distance fill in the rest: Just because the subject is moving doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be in focus. The result is that the blurs in the pavement beneath the riders is a direct result of the movement. There are still a few points where the pebbles are plainly visible, and this wouldn’t be possible of Christoph didn’t set his camera in anticipation of the riders. This is just one aspect of the many things that I suspect went through his head as he set up the shot. To me, Mr. Hetzmannseder’s intent is clear and well thought out. That is why Night Mass Biking stands as a fine photograph, despite it’s disregard for the rules.
Christoph’s work is of course can be viewed through his photostream on Flickr. He is a regular contributor to our Shutter Photo @ Flickr Group and we previously featured another one of his photos, Lost Shoe, back in July. You can also view and acquire many of works through his Getty Images profile.