This article was originally written for and posted on the official WordPress blog in two parts on 18 and 25 June 2013. I’ve reposted it here as I believe it makes a good primer to the science and art of making outstanding images – the full-blown article is here. MT
Ginza, Tokyo. Sony RX100 (I include camera info here solely to demonstrate that it really doesn’t matter what you use.)
When I was first approached by WordPress, I have to admit that I was a little worried about the magnitude of the task at hand: ultimately my own site is very much about what goes into the creation of outstanding images. And that’s a 600+ article, 1.3-million word work in progress. That’s obviously not going to fit into the length of your average post, so today I’m going to throw the rulebook out of the window and start again. I highly encourage you to do the same: regardless of your experience level with photography, do the same. Approach this article with an open mind and no preconceptions. I’m going to do the same.
We live in a visual world. Text used to be the message medium of choice, but since most people don’t have the time or patience to digest large reams of text, increasingly dense information packages have become the norm – video, for instance, is at least 24 images per second. And then there’s sound and HD to pack even more information in, too. This means that digital media – blogs, sites, any other pages – have two challenges now: to attract attention, and then to hold it long enough for you to say what you want to say. Photographs can do both of those things: firstly, your images have to be punchy enough to have immediate impact, and secondly, support the rest of your text. If you want to go even further, truly excellent images should be able to stand on their own and tell a story without any supporting text; too often captions/ titles and images get separated online. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
There are several common misconceptions about photography: it’s about art, it’s about light, it’s about subject; all of those things are true, but even before all of that, it’s about people and psychology. Even photographs that have no people in them; remember, the photographer makes an interpretation of the scene/ subject; the viewer then makes another interpretation on the other end. The very best photographs and photographers convey their ideas cleanly to the end viewer, whilst still leaving some room for imaginative interpretation. This of course means that to make a good image, you need to be able to recognise one. Look at lots of images – by famous photographers and otherwise (my site’s curated reader Flickr pool is a great place to start for inspiration). Take your time, and pause when one catches your eye. Ask yourself why? What is it about that image that attracted and held your attention? It might be the quality of light, the angle, the composition or the subject itself; or even all of the above. File it away for future reference.
You may not be able to replicate all of the things you see, but being consciously aware is the first step.
Photography imitates art. Nikon D800E
There are a lot of elements involved in creating an outstanding image – I have a very detailed analysis of it here – but the basics are fairly simple, and something I always begin with in my workshops. Realistically, there’s only so much we can consciously think about when shooting, and these are the critical items:
Lunch. Olympus OM-D
1. Quality of light.
You can make stunning images of a very pedestrian subject if you’ve got great light; the opposite isn’t true. In fact, if you have no light at all, you can’t make a photograph, period. Good light has really only one defining quality: directionality. This helps us to project a three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional image; the real hint here is to look for shadows. Without shadows, we have no clues as to texture, depth, spatial position etc. Changing the direction of the light on your subject changes the way the subject looks; a good way to understand this is to start experimenting with a posable desk lamp and a small static subject. If you’re interested in learning more about controlled lighting, I’ve got a whole series of articles that begins here.
2. Clarity of subject.
What is the photograph about? If you show the picture to somebody who wasn’t there at the time you took the picture, will they see the same things you do? If the subject doesn’t stand out from the rest of the frame – then it’s not going to be the first thing that your viewer sees. Subjects can be isolated by light (or shadow); depth of field; colour; texture; and motion (panning). Our eyes are drawn to areas of high contrast or brightness and things that break pattern; you want to make sure any areas in your image that do this contain something you wish to highlight.
Vienna fog: it’s all about the man. Leica M9-P
This is the art of arranging all of the elements in your frame into an aesthetically pleasing way, and a way that draws attention to your primary subject. It covers the relationship or implied relationship – spatial, colour, light – between subjects to tell a story. There are many ways you can do this; filling empty space with subjects; finding the right backgrounds or light to make your subjects stand out, and of course careful placement of lines and frames within the composition to lead the viewer’s eye through the image. At this point, we’re starting to move away from the technical into the artistic: there is a ‘right’ exposure and point of focus, but there’s no ‘right’ composition – only compositions that look right, and those that don’t. This is a skill that has to be learned through both practice and critical observation and analysis of other images. A good primer on compositional theory and how to achieve balance – a composition that doesn’t appear to be ’empty’ in any place – can be found here.
Minimalist architecture. Hasselblad 501C on Ilford Delta 100 film
4. The idea.
In essence: can somebody viewing your image see what you saw in your mind at the time of capture? If not, is it because you didn’t execute it clearly, or because you yourself didn’t know what you wanted when you were shooting? Most often, it’s the latter. This is the toughest of the four fundamentals to master; knowing what you want to shoot before you shoot it, in effect. When I’m on assignment, the idea is usually very clear: it’s either whatever the client wants, whatever portrays a certain part of the product in the best light, or whatever elements I need to tell the desired story. If I’m out and about and shooting for myself it’s a bit different; I’ll notice interesting light first, then figure out if there’s a composition or subject that works with it, and if so, shoot. If I don’t have those things – I probably won’t bother breaking out the camera. No point in making compromised images…especially if you know they’re going to be compromised from the outset.
Sometimes, a smoke is just a smoke. Apple iPhone 4.
Outside of this, there’s also the small matter of shot discipline to worry about. If you’ve ever wondered why some people’s images just look that much crisper and punchier, it’s probably because they’re taken care the whole way through the image-making process. Shot discipline covers everything from eliminating camera shake to choosing the optimum apertures, processing RAW files and saving uncompressed versions. It also extends outside the technical disciplines to editing; this isn’t the same as post processing (or what’s commonly thought of as ‘Photoshop’).
Editing is the curating process of selecting images: your skill as a photographer is only judged on what you show, not what you shoot. This is where objectively applying the four criteria above to critiquing your own images can pay dividends. It’s also good for your personal evolution as a photographer: if you’re only keeping good stuff, eventually you’ll only shoot good stuff, leaving you to keep excellent – and so on. The mark of a great photographer is not somebody with one or two good images: it’s consistency; they should be able to produce at the excellent or higher level all the time, regardless of subject or conditions.
Yellow windows. Olympus PEN E-P5
It of course doesn’t end there: what happens when you’ve mastered the technical basics, can capture what you see, and start to wonder what’s next? Creative evolution, is what; the next step is capturing what you imagine. You create the composition, you create the light; in essence the entire final product is under your control. This is what the best commercial photographers do – we’re as involved in the creative process as the agencies and art directors are, because we have our own vision for each idea. Beyond that lies the ability to imagine and execute ideas so different that most people won’t have even thought of them; often, these images have a very strong style that also identifies the work as being a child of that person – take Sebastiao Salgado, Annie Leibowitz, Steve McCurry, Ansel Adams or Mario Testino for instance: they’ve all pushed the envelope in ways that make their work instantly recognisable. This is an enormous leap that few photographers – perhaps a small handful in every generation – ever make. They define their genre.
Of course, before one even progresses to that point – it’s important to be aware of the common pitfalls faced by photographers; I was asked this enough to make a handy list, which can be found here. By and large, if you have most of the four above – other minor infractions become secondary and not noticeable. It’s only when you’ve got a boring, flat image with no clear subject or message that every single deficiency begins to make itself felt. There are also a number (a hundred, actually) of subject- and topic-specific tips that you might find useful; they’re here.
Basel Messe convention center by Herzog & De Meuron architects. Nikon D600
Photography is a very interesting pursuit in that you can make it as serious or as casual as you like; it can be the star of the show, or it can be a supporting actor to help illustrate your point. You don’t have to shoot medium format digital and make 30″ wide prints all the time to enjoy it – though admittedly a well-executed print of that size will probably blow you (and your clients, friends, family) away. There’s of course a very steep diminishing returns curve, but with a little training, a good eye, and some creativity, you’ll be amazed by what you can do with even the most basic of cameras today – have a look at this article on professional photography with compact cameras to give you an idea. (Perhaps the most common but least photographically relevant question I get asked is ‘what camera should I buy?’ – it’s the photographer, not the camera, that makes the difference (a good photographer can use anything) – I’ve got a handy list here, and there’s also the Camerapedia, which contains a concise opinion on every piece of gear I’ve ever used.)
Film noir, London. Leica M8
I’m going to wrap up by condensing all of this into a couple of tips for you to try: firstly, know why the scene or photograph is interesting to you before you shoot it; if you’re not sure why you yourself took the image, how is anybody else going to know? Next, look for interesting light. Finally, remember what I said earlier about curation: it applies to composition as much as it does to a series of images. What you include in the frame is just as important as what you exclude: if there are any distractions at the edges and corners, the impact of your subject will be reduced; be selective. Above all, there is no substitute for experimentation and practice! MT
Enter the 2013 Maybank Photo Awards here – there’s US$35,000 worth of prizes up for grabs, it’s open to all ASEAN residents, and I’m the head judge! Entries close 31 October 2013.
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