What makes an outstanding image? (part 2)

Continued from part one.

_D90_DSC7759 copy
Cinematic light. Nikon D90, 18-200VR

3.5 Context
Context is the way the viewer of the image creates the story of the primary subject, using the secondary elements in the frame as mental markers. The secondary elements help to place the subject in terms of time, location, culture, era, mood, as well as giving countless other psychological clues such as wealth, poverty, uncertainty, danger, unasked questions, etc. A subject in isolation is fine for a commercial product shoot, but it lacks the emotion and narrative richness that well-framed surroundings can add. The photographer also has to ensure that the elements in the frame have the correct relative prominence, which is to say the framing should direct the eye of the viewer to the primary subject first, and then the secondary subjects in order of importance. If this is not the case, then the message of the photograph can land up being quite different to the intention of the photographer at the time of capture. Properties of a subject that affect relative prominence include size, position in the frame, relative brightness, and contrast/ color vis-a-vis the background.

_M9P1_L1011571 copy
The importance of context. Leica M9-P, 35/1.4 ASPH FLE

Perhaps the concept of context is best illustrated by an example: let’s take the classic photojournalism shot. Wide angle, strongly directional lighting, some atmospheric haze, angry person waving a gun front and centre standing in a shaft of sunlight, close to the camera. The background scene contains other people grimacing (we think – they’re too small and far from the camera to tell) and greatly reduced in prominence to the primary subject, some destroyed/ burned objects, and a fire, all set to an destroyed building in the background. First thing we think when we see an image like this: war. But what if the angry person wasn’t highlighted in a shaft of sunlight, the camera was closer to the other people, who now turn out to be laughing, and we see that the destroyed background building is actually abandoned and the only one in a relatively prosperous-appearing urban area? Would these two images not have a very different story?

_M8_L1015994bw copy
The price of progress. Leica M8, 35/2 ASPH

4. Cultural background and history
There are some images which will never mean anything to any observers outside a closed group of people; this is because the compositional elements and subjects make reference to things that are culturally unique or specific to a historical time period. The trick to making images like this work is that they must have enough context for the viewer to be able to make a reasonably accurate guess at the context, even if they have no idea of the specific references invoked. Good examples would include any sort of cultural or religious ceremonies; historical events that were not publicised outside a particular country; or ethnic differences between different racial groups. (I doubt most viewers would be able to tell the difference between Dinka and Masaai tribespeople, for instance. But there would be enough visual cues in the frame to correctly think ‘Africa’.)

_M8_L1025280bw copy
It just has to be Paris. Leica M8, 21/1.4 ASPH

I’d probably widen this to include any technical sort of photography where a good portion of the visual impact comes from the subject – fully conscious of the fact that this also covers a good portion of my own work. I could take images with identical lighting and camera/ subject positioning of say a Lange Datograph and a Lange Double Split, but only the horological afficionados are going to display any meaningful difference in excitement for one image over the other.

_M8_L1024678bw copy
Seeking understanding. Leica M8, 21/1.4 ASPH

5. Human psychology
Something related to cultural background – think of it as a collective culture for the human race. There are things that universally invoke a reaction amongst the vast majority of people; for subject matter, this includes anything taboo such as death; anything universally celebrated such as birth or marriage, smiles, tears, tension, anger and anything other strong emotional cues (feel free to add to the comments if I’ve missed anything). The ability to include such cues in a very obvious way in an image further increases the overall impact of the shot – seasoned photojournalists such as those who produce reportage for National Geographic, Time, Life etc are very good at this.

_7034839 copy
Does this scene make you feel warm? Why? Nikon D700, 85/1.4 G

There’s also a second set of elements related to the human psyche that can form useful toolkit – these include use of color (or B&W); directionality of lighting, and particular hues or shades to provoke a reaction. It can be as simple an image of a place with predominantly warm hues (reds, yellows) feels cosy and inviting; the same place with shifted white balance or cooler lighting resulting in blues and whites can be made to feel clinical and sterile. Part of our response to color is down to conditioning imposed by lifestyle – incandescent light, hearth fires, sci-fi culture, medical clinics etc.# – and part of it is probably a physiological thing from our time in the jungle. It’s well known that in the natural world, brightly colored animals and plants are either that way to attract the attention of mates or other members of their species, or to warn potential predators of toxicity.

_7021860 copy
No missing the subject here. Nikon D700, 60/2.8G

#I’m sure you all had an image in your mind at every single one of these examples – now think, what was the predominant tone, color or white balance in each of those images? This article goes into the psychology of color in more detail, and this one deals with how to achieve control over color.

Finally, there are compositional rules that most people react to, to varying degrees. These include a preference for balance and symmetry; responding to leading lines, and singling out things inside natural frames. There’s also the expectation of the top of the frame being lighter than the bottom; I’m not sure where this emerges from, but I’m fairly confident it has something to do with the sky being brighter than the ground in real life.

_M8_L1023455bw copy
This shot probably means more to me than it does to you, because I’m married to the subject. Leica M8, 35/2 ASPH

6. The personal connection
The one element that the photographer has almost no control over for the majority of his audience – assuming that the image is to be viewed by more than those who commissioned it or who have direct involvement in it – is to do with the personal response of the viewer. A good example would be pictures of a wedding – they’d mean something to me if it was my wedding, and I might even be able to overlook compositional shortcomings because of the moment they capture (though I suspect my wife might disagree) – but to somebody with a detached and critical eye, the images may hold very little merit. Or perhaps a well-executed still life of bananas; I might love fruit and therefore be more inclined to like the image over somebody who’s allergic to them, or perhaps suffered from one too many banana peel pranks as a kid – they, on the other hand, might be made very uncomfortable by the image indeed – and possibly not even know why.

Moral of the story: take some time to understand your audience, and you’ll be surprised at the difference in the response. It’s one of the first questions I always ask a client: is it for you, or your customers? And what would your customers want to see?

_7037081bw copy
Blink and you’ll wonder if you really saw it. Nepal, Nikon D700, 24/1.4G

7. Timing.
This concept is best encapsulated in HC-B’s decisive moment philosophy: unlike with a video, you’ve only got one frame to tell the entire story. This means that everything that has happened, is happening, and will happen in the future must be captured in that one frame; it’s the relationship between the events clearly occurring in the frame, and the cues given from which the viewer’s mind interpolates what’s on both sides of the timeline. Although each of the other factors almost always have multiple possibilities that ‘work’ as an image (albeit with different stories) – there is only ever one decisive moment for each message or story. If you miss it, there are other moments, but they each have a different story. Time is a continuum and an artificial human construct, but at the same time the flow of causality is one-way. (This is getting a bit more metaphysical than intended; for more have a look at this article on the relationship between quantum mechanics and photography.)

_M8_L1022658bw copy
City Hall, London. Leica M8, Voigtlander 50/1.1

8. The X factor.
Truly outstanding images have something that goes beyond items 1-6; it’s an unquantifiable something that is perhaps almost born out of luck and chance, and never to be repeated. You have to have the right subject, at the right moment, in the right light, with just enough context to tell the story but not so much as to overwhelm, and some sort of personal or emotional connection created with the viewer. (And if you’re a commercial photographer, you’ll have to create all of this from scratch on demand on a repeatable basis.) I actually think the final part of what makes an image work is a degree of controlled imperfection; this appeals at a subconscious level to the humanity of the viewer; it’s almost as though it says ‘what I saw affected me as much as it should affect you’. (Of course, there is a time and place for this, and in commercial shoots, camera shake is just sloppy.) Finally, never underestimate the importance of luck: being in exactly the right place, at the right time.

_M9P1_L1003919bw copy
Sometimes, the patient are rewarded. Schonbrunn, Vienna. Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

9. Conclusion
I want to finish on a high note. Even though there are a lot of elements that one has to manipulate – and a couple that you can’t control – to make an outstanding image, it’s clearly possible, because outstanding images happen all the time. And probably more frequently than we think, too – not all of them are shared with the world; Vivian Maier’s work is a great example of that. The single most important element of all isn’t covered in any of the sections above, and that’s practice and preparation. It’s also the best advice I can give to any photographer at any skill level. No matter how deep one’s understanding of the concepts is, if you don’t have a camera with you, or can’t figure out how to get the effect you want, or find the spot metering button, or accidentally shoot in a thumbnail-sized jpeg or something similar, you’re going to miss the shot. If your eye isn’t trained to passively seek out compositions all the time, then you’re going to miss something. The best thing, however, is that the element of preparedness is 100% under the control of the photographer. MT

____________

Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the reader Flickr group!

appstorebadge

Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. Carlos Esteban says:

    Pure X factor works? That’s nothing technical right in it, but (at least for me “but”).

    L1023900

  2. Fred Mueller says:

    Hi Ming – such a great article (both parts) and I only wish I could say I practice all your points skillfully (such would be my ambition) …

    – one aspect not covered: title.

    A title can often enhance or “make up for” (for lack of a better phrase) some of the areas you discuss – for instance, for your readers simply adding a title “My Wife” to your photo of the same, would, I think raise your readerships interest in that photo, had you not provided that information as a course of the discussion (which in fact did raise my interest in that shot) ….

    Photojournalism absolutely requires strong contextual titles. And a title can often kick start or open the door to the photographers main purpose, or sometimes, add an ironic edge, or inform the viewer of the photographers attitude toward the subject.

    In particular I personally like landscapes and travel photos to be identified geographically, and particularly dislike titles that attribute some anthropomorphic quality (eg “Mt McKinley at Sunset, Summer of 2012″ as opposed to “Lord of Light”)

    my two cents

    Fred Mueller

    Southboro, MA USA

    • Interesting point, Fred. I do have an opinion on titles/ captions, but I’ve seen too many images get separated from their text – it seems much more common in the current digital era (and associated lack of respect for IP/ copyright, but that’s another discussion altogether). Although in general the text provides half the explanation or context, I think an outstanding image should be strong enough to stand on their own with or without the caption – if the image has it, all the better.

      Thoughts?

  3. Interesting series, Ming. The first time something ‘clicked’ for me about making great images was Stu Maschwitz’s blog post on Fact, Moment and Light: http://prolost.com/fml

    After reading David duChemin’s series of photography books, I’ve come to think that a great photo has a combination of fact, moment, light and vision – something which guides the photographer’s eye and makes him or her want to say something through a specific combination of fact, moment and light.

  4. Being predominantly taking photos of landscapes, one thing I have come to realised is how difficult it is to convey a beauty or grandeur of a particular landscape into a photo that can touch and evoke the same kind of feeling for the viewer. Even pre visualising a particular shot, the photo that comes out doesn’t pack a punch. One liberalising factor of digital photography in landscape photography is that, you can repeat and recompose as much as time as time permits. I’m not saying about taking mindless snapshots after snapshots, it’s about thinking critically about each shot you take, and try to search for a different composition that gives a different feel or tell a different story about the same subject. Try to pause a couple of second before pressing the shutter button, look into the viewfinder or the lcd panel, look for any elements that you wish to include but more importantly look for elements that you wish to exclude. Hit the depth of field button or not having one, try to visualised your DOF. Only after considering all of these, then you press the shutter button.

    It’s not easy and I’m still learning how to control all those variables, but it takes a lot of time, patience and practice.

    • Good point – I think you’re talking about creating a feeling or perception as opposed to a true representation; to achieve that you need to use all of the tools at your disposal – perspective, color, postprocessing. I do exactly what you suggest – looking around the frame both inside and outside the finder – but much quicker, because if you wait in a reportage scenario – your composition is going to be gone. I think given time and practice, it’s very possible to turn this into an instinct.

    • Fred Mueller says:

      Amryl,

      I don’t consider myself a landscape photographer; but one thing I have realized in recent years is that our “stereo” perception “on location” (and this applies to all photography – but particularly landscapes, and to a lesser degree architecture) adds profoundly to the perceived strength of a scene, but of course our photographs are “mono”. And so despite all the tricks one might use (foreground, background; leading lines, tonality) to elicit that power, some scenes that truly are magnificent in person, collapse when photographed. They just don’t maintain that power.

      One obvious and often mentioned test on location is simply to cover one eye (which you are doing when you shoot actually). But it can help you to not overshoot, as well as looking for the framing and placement of elements that comes closest to transcribing the dimensionality you see in person onto the flat plane. Just being aware that we are often fooled by your native stereoptics helps.

      my 2 cents

      • Great point, Fred. The stereo enhancement is especially obvious when viewing objects at short distances, because the difference in viewpoint between L and R translates to a larger angular difference in observation point of the object and one of the reasons macro photography is so difficult to get right…

  5. Thanks, this is a wealth of information (I will be chasing the links in this article for some time). I must admit that after reading your blog (thoroughly enjoyed) I have developed a bit of a complex! I find you to be very meticulous and scientific as well as artistic, but I am no where near as meticulous or scientific as you are. How much of this is your personality and how much of this is necessary to create outstanding images? How do I find that balance? As I read the article I was a bit overwhelmed by all the criteria that create a great image. I’m not criticizing, I’m just trying to figure out how my brain is going to process all that information while in the moment of taking a photo. Is it merely practicing the individual components so that a some point they begin to become second nature and part of your photography?
    In regards to your images…. I always enjoy your work. My favorites that you posted in these articles I would call your minimalist shots (The mountain, the cloud over water, the dragonfly, and the foggy Vienna shot). They have a very different feel than say your street photography, but I think they strongly support your discussions on the strengths of good composition. Its just very cool that so few elements can be composed and captured in such a way that is so striking. It is one aspect of my photography that I hope to improve. Thanks for the inspiration Ming!!!

    • Good questions, Jeff. I’m looking forward to Ming’s reply.
      Another thing I wonder about myself is: When I look at my images to determine if they’re worthy of saving/processing, I find that the longer I look at them, the less I’m able to decide if they’re worthwhile. I feel like I’m over-analyzing my images. How does one determine if an image “has what it takes” without the analytical process getting in the way?
      Thanks, MT!

      • There are a couple of things you can do:
        1. Edit and process immediately. This way you remember what you originally so at the time of capture, and this no time-induced amnesia which comes between you and your original vision.
        2. Editing process only after some time has elapsed. In this case, you are viewing the work with much more critical eyes than had you just shot it; we tend to be very attached to all of our pictures, especially those which required a lot of time or effort to produce – even if they may be compositionally weak. Here, go with your first impressions and try and stay as objective as possible. The one downside is that you may not remember what you originally intended for the image at the time you were shooting it; this would reduce the potential impact/ effectiveness of postprocessing.

        I tend to mostly use the first method, because I know exactly what I envisioned at the time I’m capturing the image. Leaving it tends to mean that a lot of other things get in the way, and I may forget what I originally wanted to do with it.

      • Thanks Joe! I feel your pain as far as the longer you look the harder it gets! My brain hurts after a while!

    • I think a good chunk is my personality – I was trained as a physicist – but it happens to tie in very nicely with the need for control in producing the perfect image :)

      Yes, you got it right: focus on each item one by one and then eventually everything will become intuitive. I don’t do anywhere near that much conscious thinking before hitting the shutter, and actually had to sit down for a couple of days to figure out and elucidate what my thought process actually was.

      Above all – practice and feedback by both trained and untrained eyes will go a long way towards helping you figure out what works and what doesn’t.

      • Thanks Ming! My wife says my photos are good, but I fear she maybe required by law to say that. Perhaps some day I’ll muster up the courage and shoot some of my work your way for critique! In the meantime….. Practice!

  6. Thank you for a great article! I enjoyed the pictures thoroughly.

  7. The photo shot with the 35mm 1.4 is awesome. Can’t believe you sold it. ;)

Trackbacks

  1. […] Granted, there’s a sort of semi-prioritized proto-version in these articles (first part, second part) on what makes an outstanding image; I go through it in quite some detail as it forms the […]

  2. [...] I’ve always, for as long as I can remember being serious about photography, shot RAW and done some form of processing afterwards. The more potential the file had, the more processing; conversely, I’d also spend time trying to save files that probably weren’t compositionally worthwhile. And as much as I hate to admit it, in the early days, trying to hide photographic mistakes behind punchy processing. In effect, the processing was taking center stage instead of the image. One of the hardest things to do is create a strong, but natural looking image – both from a perspective and processing standpoint; in order for it to stand out well from reality, the light, subject and composition all have to be exceptional. The image has to tell a story – but that’s another topic I covered here and here. [...]

  3. [...] when you’re making an image? (I recently dealt with this too in a two-part article here, and here on what makes an outstanding image.) What is it that you audience sees when they look at your [...]

  4. [...] Image, I highly recommend you do so first and then come back here afterwards. Part one is here, and part two is here. (Both open as links in new [...]

  5. [...] Continued from part one. Cinematic light. Nikon D90, 18-200VR 3.5 Context Context is the way the viewer of the image creates the story of the primary subject, using the secondary elements in the fr…  [...]

  6. [...] out to be so long that it had to be spit up in two different sections, which can be found here and here. Generally I like reading bits and pieces of his blog since he is not too shy to share with his [...]

  7. [...] Context is the way the viewer of the image creates the story of the primary subject, using the secondary elements in the frame as mental markers. The secondary elements help to place the subject in terms of time, location, culture, era, mood, as well as giving countless other psychological clues such as wealth, poverty, uncertainty, danger, unasked questions, etc. A subject in isolation is fine for a commercial product shoot, but it lacks the emotion and narrative richness that well-framed surroundings can add. The photographer also has to ensure that the elements in the frame have the correct relative prominence, which is to say the framing should direct the eye of the viewer to the primary subject first, and then the secondary subjects in order of importance. If this is not the case, then the message of the photograph can land up being quite different to the intention of the photographer at the time of capture. Properties of a subject that affect relative prominence include size, position in the frame, relative brightness, and contrast/ color vis-a-vis the background.  [...]

  8. [...] what makes a good image « Workshop report: 30 Sep Finding Light in Kuala Lumpur What makes an outstanding image? (part 2) [...]

  9. [...] Continued from part one. 3.5 ContextContext is the way the viewer of the image creates the story of the primary subject, using the secondary elements in the frame as mental markers. The secondary elements help to place the subject in terms of time, location, culture, era, mood, as well as giving countless other psychological clues such as wealth, poverty, uncertainty, danger, unasked questions, etc. A subject in isolation is fine for a commercial product shoot, but it lacks the emotion and narrative richness that well-framed surroundings can add. The photographer also has to ensure that the elements in the frame have the correct relative prominence, which is to say the framing should direct the eye of the viewer to the primary subject first, and then the secondary subjects in order of importance. If this is not the case, then the message of the photograph can land up being quite different to the intention of the photographer at the time of capture. Properties of a subject that affect relative prominence include size, position in the frame, relative brightness, and contrast/ color vis-a-vis the background.  [...]

Thoughts? Leave a comment here and I'll get back to you.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 28,367 other followers

%d bloggers like this: