The Value of Reference Points

October 24, 2021

Long Reef WharfLong Reef Wharf2m00s, Automated Frame Average

Long Reef, NSW.
Phase One XT 150MP with 32mm Rodagon lens, 1 minute @ f11, ISO 50

Reference points are ideas. And ideas are fundamental to photography. Over the years (decades) of interviewing photographers for Better Photography magazine, I'd ask two questions. The first was how much time they spent in promotion and advertising (it was more than 50% for successful photographers) and the second was, where do your ideas come from?

There's no single answer, of course. Gay Campbell called her ideas 'cosmic Fedexes' - ideas or dreams which she would carefully write down in a journal, waiting for another time. My iPhone has a bunch of apps on it with lots of different ideas. Or references points.

Reference Point 1: Christian Fletcher published a book 10 years ago and if memory serves me correctly (let's hope it was Christian's photo and not Tony Hewitt's), it was on the cover. But it matters not: the photo was of an old wharf or wharf posts in the middle of a beach with waves washing around it. The light was beautiful, composition strong. I filed it away in my memory banks.

Reference Point 2: Most afternoons, Kathie and I walk around Long Reef headland with the dogs. There's a point where the walk comes down to the beach and a ramp extends down to the sand. However, usually there's so much sand, the waves never reach the wharf, except with a high tide and a large swell. But every time I walked past the ramp, I'd think of that reference point.

Last week, after nearly 10 years of walking around the headland, the stars aligned and while there wasn't quite as much water around the ramp as I wanted (and even then, I had to wait for the set waves), I managed to shoot a few photos. Did they look like Christian's photo? Hell no! No point copying something that has already been beautifully done. Besides, it's a completely different location and no one looking at this photo would think of Christian's shot, but the reference point was there for me.

I have a little more thinking to do with this image - and three or four other frames. I'm not sure if the colour grading is completely resolved and I find myself still fiddling with the saturation and balance. I'll print a test and pin it up on the wall in my office, so when Christian Fletcher calls up to tell me how good life is in Western Australia, I can tune out to his monotone and concentrate on my photo!

When I go on photo tours, photographers often ask how it is that I usually know what to photograph, while they feel they are struggling to work it out? One of the answers is having a database of reference points that can act as a catalyst for your photography.

And building up that database takes time, so start now!