The image making process

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Yangon. Ricoh GR1v, Delta 100.

Not to be confused with the previous article on workflow, or what makes an outstanding image, this essay is a collection of more detailed thoughts on what goes on outside the technical portion of photography, and in a way, how the creative evolution of a photographer affects this chain. Understanding how this works can help us to make stronger images that have a bigger impact on their target audience – all the more so if we can push specific buttons of the intended viewers.

The typical process involved in producing an image for most people looks like this:

Trigger -> Capture -> Share/ View

The Trigger is the external or environmental factor that makes a person want to take a photograph in the first place. It’s composed of both a why, and a moment or scene; inevitably, the why is because there’s an event or location or object that is out of the ordinary for the photographer, and they therefore wish to preserve it for personal remembrance, or to share with other people of a similar background and persuasion. Next comes capture, which is usually little more than aim, and press – I’m not going to call it framing, because that implies some care with composition. Often it’s just a case of making sure the subject is inside the middle of the screen or viewfinder. Sharing/ viewing, the final portion, is where the image is seen by somebody other than the original captor. Most of the impact of the image is generated at this point: the greater the response it triggers in the viewer, the more likely it is to provoke thought and be remembered, and therefore the stronger the image.

Assuming our end goal is to maximize impact, then this chain of course has many limitations: firstly, the trigger is an event that has to be deemed unusual by the observer; any negative mismatch between the experience and expectations of this person and the end viewer will likely result in boredom – the audience has seen it all before. This is compounded by a probably low-thought capture process, which results in an image that isn’t technically strong in itself, further lowering the attention it will hold. The sole redeeming grace is that the end audience is likely to be of a similar situation – culture, social status, experience etc – to the viewer, because that’s typically how social networks operate; it is therefore likely that the image will register as no more than a small blip or distraction on their radar, and be soon forgotten.

This is of course not the desired fate of our images, especially if we take photography seriously. But how can we ensure that – for want of a better concept – no ‘impact’ is left unclaimed along the way? Let’s look at the process again: this is how I typically approach photography – it might be right or wrong (please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments, as always) – but it is familiar, and for the most part, works:

Trigger -> Consider audience -> Conscious framing and exposure choices with end result in mind, allowances made for processing required -> Editing -> Postprocessing including cinematic color adjustment -> Final cull -> Sequencing/ Presentation -> Share/ View

You can see straight away that there are a lot more steps in this process. It begins with a focused mind towards both the desired end result and the likely audience; I know what my finished shot is going to look like before I capture it – if you don’t have that image in your mind, how are you going to ensure that you do everything possible at the time of capture to achieve it? Next, the Trigger is different: I go into a situation keeping as open a mind as possible, trying to always be a conscious, active observer and not take anything for granted. The latter is especially important given that most keen photographers frequently shoot in the same location – the more you do this, the harder it becomes to see something new. Personally, I’ve shot downtown Kuala Lumpur to death – both in my own personal work, and in the course of testing equipment (in a previous life, I was editor of a photo magazine here – I’ve easily had to do writeups on over 150 bits of gear, not counting the reviews i now do for this site). Although I suppose you could only shoot when you travel, but that becomes both expensive and frustrating: without continual practice, you’re going to be scrambling and struggling to make it work once you get on location.

My personal breakthrough here came when I finally managed to develop the ability to decompose a scene into abstract shape and form, rather than look at it and see identifiable objects. The world thus becomes an endlessly changing and variant tableaux of shapes and forms; composition then devolves into arranging those shapes into an order that is both aesthetically pleasing and balanced. The audience enters into mind at this stage only briefly: just make sure the subject is clearly identifiable, and if not interesting to the audience in its own right, then at very least it should be aesthetically pleasing. My aim has always been to present an alternative viewpoint – regardless of subject; with that viewpoint being different enough and sufficiently well-executed that it the ensuing images should call out to a wide audience, independent of cultural or social biases. I suppose a good definition of ‘success’ in this case is when somebody who encounters your subject on a regular basis pauses, looks, and thinks ‘in all my years of X, I’ve never seen that before.’

Next comes the execution portion: what is the mood and feel you want to induce in your viewer when they look at the image? What does this mean in terms of exposure choices and colors – or lack of colors? In very basic terms: low key translates to mystery or something hidden; high key is purity and cleanliness; anything in-between is normalcy. The quality of the light plays an important role, too: harsh and non-diffuse light produces a typically provocative, slightly uncomfortable reaction in the audience; it’s not normal. At the opposite end of the spectrum (no pun intended) is very soft, diffuse light; this isn’t normal either, and once again, causes our viewer to pay attention because such light tends to give any objects bathed by it an air of ‘perfection’ or ‘cleanliness’ – there’s a reason why most commercial shoots use very diffuse light.

I’ve already addressed the impact of color choices and hue shifts in a separate article here; suffice to say that the dominant tonal palette is another tool that the conscious photographer can use to induce a particular feeling or emotion in the viewer. The easiest way to accomplish this in a situation where you have no control over the color of the light – or even if you do – is by shifting the white balance in either direction by a small amount. Note that you have to start out from an accurate zero point to begin with to avoid shifts in certain hues.

Suppose we’ve gotten past the conceptualization and execution stages – that puts us square into the editing process. In fact, editing – conscious culling, or selection, if you will – is a continuous process that happens from the moment after the trigger: you have to consciously decide what to include and what to exclude from your frame in order to tell the story you want, or balance/ fill out the composition. You’ll probably then take a few shots and delete some (if digital); during the sorting and postprocessing, more of them will get the axe, and even from the fully processed haul – it’s likely that you’ll do some more deleting. I’ve explained in the past why I’m always culling: perhaps it’s best compared to distillation; you’re removing the unnecessary bits to make the remainder stronger.

Maintaining the alcohol analogy, there’s an order in which accompanying drinks follow a meal – an aperitif to whet the appetite, light wines to accompany the first courses, heavier reds to balance out meat, and a finish of liqueurs or brandy. Note that you don’t drink every type of alcohol; rather, a selection is made that best accompanies the meal (in this case, the photographic goal). If you have too much alcohol, you’re probably going to forget the meal and take leave of your senses, which certainly doesn’t result in the outcome desired by the chef or host (I suppose the photographer plays both roles). Similarly, if you have too many images in a set, this dilutes the overall impact of both the set and the individual images; there is such a thing as too many, just as there is such a thing as too few – if you only have one wine, it might be an excellent vintage, but it probably won’t be a perfect pairing for the salad, the steak, and the dessert. One photo may be enough to convey one message – one dish – but will be a compromise for an entire story (the meal).

Let’s take the image at the start of this post as an example: I saw the quality of light, and wanted to create an image using that backdrop which would convey a bit of the flavor of the city – manual, dirty, industrious, gritty, human – knowing that my public audience would be enthusiasts/ hobbyists, but primarily for my own personal satisfaction. I knew I was limited to black and white and a particular tonal range because of the film stock I was using; I’d have to overexpose it a bit because the camera’s meter would see the highlights first, and with film you’ve got quite a bit of latitude there; finally, there’s the issue of timing. I didn’t know what I’d get in terms of passers-by, but I did know what I was looking for: something fitting the local style. All I had to do was know where I wanted them in the overall composition, then be ready to hit the shutter at the right moment.

When I present images, I typically do it in sets of ten or so – enough to build a flow, tell a story and convey a flavor of the atmosphere – either the extent of its consistency or variety – as well as showcase a few different perspectives. There have to be enough images to give the impression that that the coverage is complete; but at the same time, few enough that the individual images are themselves memorable. And ensuring that only memorable images are shown also of course helps with the latter. I might be a prolific photographer – I’m pretty sure I am, actually – but I know that the impact of the work is severely diminished if you show too much at the same time; the viewer simply can’t take it all in. Simultaneously, there isn’t time or opportunity to show everything if it was to be properly sequenced and presented in this manner – so it drives me to be even more ruthless in the editing process, ensuring that only the very best makes it to public viewing, which in turn (hopefully) forces me to stop shooting images that are 99% as opposed to 100%…

Bottom line: what you choose not to present is just as important as what you do present, in much the same way that composition itself is a subset of this. I’ve long said that more than anything, this is the one differentiating trait that separates pros and amateurs: we don’t let you see anything other than what we want you to see, which in itself results in greater control. I certainly don’t put unprocessed work or B-roll up unless I want it to say something or serve as an example: there’s a reason for this. I’m sure that if I showed nothing but my near misses, everybody who views my photographs would have a very different impression of my work. Ultimately, this process is all about human psychology – or at least the psychology of your viewer. It has a far greater impact on the outcome – success or failure – of an image than most photographers give it credit for. In order to create images that are memorable, powerful and impactful, we therefore need to understand and consider the role of the viewer throughout the entire process. MT

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

Comments

  1. Quote:

    “The sole redeeming grace is that the end audience is likely to be of a similar situation – culture, social status, experience etc – to the viewer, because that’s typically how social networks operate; it is therefore likely that the image will register as no more than a small blip or distraction on their radar, and be soon forgotten.”

    The reach of social sharing + networks can and usually does extend far beyond one’s own immediate circle of friends with similar persuasions. Hence, there goes your “sole redeeming grace”!

    • True, but even so, images only get shared if they resonate with the viewer – go too far outside that circle, or rather too different – and the sharing stops when the audience no longer relates.

  2. You talked about decomposing the scene into shapes. I found it useful to look at a live view display upside-down to learn this.

    In alcohol terms, is HDR a Strawberry Vodka Cruiser Alco-pop ? Or what? ;)

  3. Sorry, the last sentence should be …I think at a certain level the quality of an image is connected also to the personal development or personality of a photographer…

  4. Thanks for this article Ming. Very helpful read again! I stopped at the point when you’re talking about decomposing „a scene into abstract shape and form, rather than look at it and see identifiable objects“ Do you mean by this that you’re seeing 2-dimensionally the actual scene and segmenting this plane (I’m thinking of your article with the dots…) giving the subject its place within the context or do you mean seeing the subject itself as an abstract form and how does light play its part in this process of abstract seeing? Would you call this photographic seeing? And also, I guess different from documentary or better academic photography which I would define as trying to present a subject objectively you’re aiming with your explanations above a more subjective approach. In this context another question or statement of mine is also about authenticity: A subjective approach to photography should be authentic when you aim – and are able – to communicate to the viewer your own feelings, mood, the impact a scene had on yourself, rather than following the desire just to receive any maximized and spectacular impact on the audience (I’m thinking spontaniously of instagram). Insofar I think at a certain level the quality of an image can show also the personal development or personality/status of a photographer… I could ask/discuss more about this, but I’m still walking with this question, curious about your ideas to this!?

    • Not quite – I just see subjects as basic shapes – in their simplest forms, a portrait is a circle/ oval sitting on a rectangle, mountains are triangles etc. It’s separate from being able to convey what you’re feeling/ seeing through an image: this is just to help your composition.

      I don’t think instagram etc are spontaneous or good for conveying the mood: they put somebody else’s filters/ image processing/ interpretation of the scene onto what you’ve captured in an attempt to (usually) hide fundamental compositional deficiencies.

      The ideal photograph has compositional balance, an emotional connection with the viewer, technical perfection, a story, perfect timing, and that x-factor – it could be the subject or the moment. This is obviously not a simple topic…

  5. Just a heads up, the first link to the workflow article has the wrong date in the url and leads to a 404 page. I actually missed that article and am glad I found it!

  6. thank you for these articles and photos. very nice.

  7. Deeply Insightful >> Especially relevantand Meaningful in today’s Mindless digital Clicking & Sharing madness

  8. Very Nice Ming! Well said!

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  1. […] le blog de Ming Thein dont voici deux articles à lire : Pourquoi photographions nous [en] et le processus de création d’une image [en], un blog à suivre assurément. N’hésitez pas à parcourir le reste du site il est […]

  2. […] post is a continuation of the previous essay on the image making process. It’s a question I’ve often asked myself; rationale being that if I could understand […]

  3. […] Yangon. Ricoh GR1v, Delta 100. Not to be confused with the previous article on workflow, or what makes an outstanding image, this essay is a collection of more detailed thoughts on what goes on out…  […]

  4. […] Not to be confused with the previous article on workflow, or what makes an outstanding image, this essay is a collection of more detailed thoughts on what goes on outside the technical portion of photography, and in a way, how the creative evolution of a photographer affects this chain. Understanding how this works can help us to make stronger images that have a bigger impact on their target audience – all the more so if we can push specific buttons of the intended viewers.  […]

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