Of the 400 or so posts I’ve published up to this point, I recently realized that the one enormously gaping hole I haven’t yet covered deals with the one of the major fundamentals: how do you actually determine if an image ‘works’ or not? What makes it good? What makes it outstanding? I think it was both a discussion on composition in our reader pool forum on Flickr, as well as the strongly mixed reactions to this photoessay post that did it – context, even a mini-article, sometimes simply isn’t enough if you’re missing a cultural familiarity, or local view. This is obviously not a simple question to answer; despite an extensive search online, I haven’t been able to find any good articles that provided any sort of conclusion. (Clearly, I must be a bit of a masochist in deciding to write this article.) Perhaps it’s because it’s an extremely subjective question to begin with; or perhaps it’s because to come up with an answer that makes sense requires a thoroughly multidisciplinary approach: strong images resonate technical, compositional, cultural, psychological and personal chords. And the final two are of course highly observer-dependant.
In fact, it’s a wonder that we have any images at all that are globally recognized and appreciated. Rather than analyze specific images, I’m going to spend some time looking into some of the more abstract characteristics and their implications for one’s photography. I’d recommend finding a comfortable chair and grabbing a drink because this is a pretty heavy article. So heavy, in fact, I’ve decided to split it into two parts. It’s also turned out to be one of the most difficult articles to write, occupying a good couple of days thanks to the extremely vague and ill-defined nature of the subject matter. Finding the right photos to illustrate the article was just as tough; excuse me if there are some repeats of previously-posted images here.
One of the most important things for a photographer to know is specifically why one of their images works, and why another one doesn’t. I was going through my contacts’ uploads on Flickr the other day and noticing that there were three types of photographers:
a) upload everything, no QC or editing whatsoever, mostly poor images;
b) upload most things, has one or two really good images, mostly mediocre;
c) only uploads good stuff, and shows a consistent level of quality.
Type a almost certainly has no idea of what makes a good image, or perhaps they don’t really care; we must remember that social media is also used for indiscriminate sharing. Type b appears to be a more serious amateur, and wants to make good images, and probably knows a good image when they see one, but is unable to deconstruct their successful images into a series of things that they can replicate. The final type, c, knows what works, and either doesn’t bother shooting the rest, or hits the delete key pretty fast when something isn’t quite right. I want to get us all to type c.
*Note that this article contains a lot more links than anything before – it’s because I’ve previously explored a lot of these individual concepts in some depth, but never unified them in a single article – this one.
There is simply no point to a photograph or image if there is no subject. An image is a representation of something: if there’s nothing to represent, or it isn’t clear what the representation is trying to be, then why bother at all? This doesn’t mean to say that abstract images don’t work; in such cases, the abstraction and entire frame are the subjects themselves. But in the broadest possible sense, if you look at an image and it isn’t fairly obvious what the image is about, then it fails. A photograph without a subject is like a meal with no main course, or a story without a plot – it can fill an immediate transient need, but it will not have any lasting consequence or memorability.
The sole implication for the photographer is that you need to know what the subject of your image is going to be before you take the shot, and how the other elements in the frame relate to it and tell the story. Or maybe they don’t relate to it and create an inverse story of juxtaposition and contrast; it all depends on what you’re trying to say with the image. The subject also needs to stand out and be visually obvious, it should be the (metaphorical and optical) focal point of your image. We’ll deal with that in section three. Bottom line: you need to have a clear picture in your own mind about what the image is about; invariably not everything is executable, so this picture gets increasingly blurred as it comes closer to physical execution – hence ensuring that you start off with as strong an idea as possible is paramount.
2. Execution and technicalities
Next comes the simplest of the ‘secondary’ criteria. Even this is relative, however. Generally speaking, a good image is properly exposed for the subject, is in focus, and doesn’t take processing to the extremes. The executional characteristics of the image should not be the first thing you notice when you look at the photograph: you can overdo it**. They should support the compositions, but not detract or outweigh it. This is one of the things I don’t like about overdone HDR, Instagram and other photo apps – the processing is so overdone to the point that fundamental compositional structure is overshadowed, and any flaws hidden. You only see the processing, and not the subject.
However, there are always exceptions to every rule. And in the case of the technical qualities of an image, if you have an exceedingly strong subject or composition, then no matter how poor your execution, the subject is what you’re going to see first. Nobody remembers Robert Capa’s iconic Normandy landing shots for their technical perfection, but rather the subject matter and how he managed to convey the chaotic, haunting, gritty sensation of actually being there.
I include processing under technical execution. The biggest fundamental choice you have here is whether to work in color or black and white; some subjects are particularly suited to one or the other; some could go either way. Whether you should use one or the other depends mostly on whether your subject is best isolated by luminance/ brightness or by contrast in color. (This topic is subject to an entirely separate article here.)
In its simplest definition, composition is how the various elements of an image are located relative to one another, and how this spatial relationship tells the story of the main subject or conveys the desired message. However, there are some restrictions – firstly, we are representing a three-dimensional space in two dimensions, and secondly, there are perspectives imposed by the field of view we choose to employ. The reduction to two dimensions has both strengths and weaknesses: you cannot rely on depth perception to create perspective; instead, we have to artificially impose it through our choice of focal length. However, its removal also means that we can do things that aren’t possible via native human vision, such as have everything in the frame simultaneously in focus. Mastery of composition is knowing when to use the right tool to enhance the presentation of the subject.
That said, for any given subject and situation, there is no one perfect composition – rather, there are probably any number of compositions that can work. However, the big difference is that they will not all tell the same story. Again, there is no right or wrong here: the best story for a given situation will depend very much on what the end objective is for the image.
3.1 Isolation/ separation/ focus
This concept lacks a single defining word – I suppose ‘focus’ would be closest, but the problem is that tends to induce confusion between the subject distance and the concentration around the idea or subject of the image. The ideal qualitative effect is that the eye of the viewer must go straight to the primary subject of the photograph, and then only on to the context that surrounds it, in the order that the photographer desires. This can be accomplished through the use of a number of different tools – leading lines, natural frames, negative space, bokeh etc. The subject itself must stand out from the background or surroundings; in that sense, some sort of natural frame is always required to provide the necessary isolation – it could be a doorway, or a plain color background of a different color to the subject, or a contrast in texture. The sole exception is a whole-frame abstract, where the entire image is the subject. Note that lighting is the other major source of subject separation. (And yes, there is such a thing as too much bokeh.)
There is no right or wrong perspective for any given subject. The sole aim of perspective is to either emphasize or de-emphasize the foreground relative to the background. Does the subject need to be larger than life, or minimized? Does the image require context to understand properly, and how prominent should these contextual elements be relative to the primary focus of the image?
In general, wide-angle perspectives need a clear subject placed in the foreground. This need for a defined foreground decreases as the focal length increases, to a point where it could really go either way at roughly 50mm and above (35 equivalent). Above that, the foreground and background are of similar prominence, and subject separation is no longer achieved through perspective, insofar as depth of field is a consequence of a particular focal length and perspective. Images shot with a wide lens that lack a clear foreground can work, but only under specific circumstances which almost always involve leading lines, or large amounts of context and unusually good subject separation. Similarly, one must also take care with the use of telephotos – you can focus on the subject to the point of exclusion of all context, which can actually weaken an image.
I’ve always found this to be one of the more difficult things to define. Instinctively, you know whether something is balanced or not on looking at it – but what it is specifically that creates, or destroys, that sense of balance is much more difficult to quantify. The eye of the viewer needs to linger for about the same amount of time in every portion of the frame; if you have half of the frame that takes a split second to understand but produces no context, against the complex opposite half of the frame where there’s a lot going on and a few moments of deciphering are required, then you generally might as well not bother with the quicker part.
Doesn’t make sense? Boil it down to opposites. Balance is like symmetry, but not quite; the mirror images do not have to be identical, nor do they have to be symmetric around the dead center of the frame. If the left half of your frame has something in it, then the right half must too, of roughly the same size and level of detail. This is independent of the subject. Now quarters: you can do opposite top-left and bottom-right and leave the other two corners empty, but if you do three corners and omit one, the eye is going to go straight to the empty corner because it’s the odd one out. You might actually want to do that, but make sure it’s a conscious choice. You can keep subdividing your frame and finding opposing points around the middle to balance out, but generally once something gets to be say less than 10% of the frame size in any linear dimension (1% area) then it’s usually inconsequential enough to ignore – so long as it doesn’t intrude into your subject.
This of course also applies to your subject too: don’t make it too small, otherwise no matter how balanced your frame, it won’t stand out!
With no light, there can be no photography. The direct meaning of ‘photography’ is ‘writing with light’. Light identifies and isolates your subject; the softness or hardness or uniformity of it determines the amount of definition and contrast, as well as the tonality; the color and hue determine the feeling of the scene. And the absolute amount of it has an impact on the technical quality of the image, too. It’s inescapable that every good image must have good light – you can make an ordinary subject into an arresting photograph if it’s properly lit, but no amount of photoshop or the most unusual object is going to surmount flat or uninteresting light.
Photographers must therefore either be able to recognize when the light is right, and seek out subjects to be illuminated by it – or go one step further and learn to control it. In fact, you have to do the former before you can do the latter – understanding the origin of a particular look makes it much, much easier to reverse engineer and replicate. Distilling things further, we’re arrive at the inescapable conclusion that successful lighting hinges on directionality, nothing more and nothing less. The right directionality creates the right kinds of shadows and highlights, which in turn creates contrast, texture and subject definition. And the less common the direction (light), the better – why do you think psychologically, we don’t find images shot in noon sunlight or under common indoor artificial light to be particularly arresting? It’s because that’s what we are conditioned to seeing most of the time. However, golden hours or special lighting effects are much less common. But I’m starting to digress into psychology, which I’ll leave for section 5.
Come back tomorrow for the conclusion in part two.
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