What makes an outstanding image? (part 2)

Continued from part one.

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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.

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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?

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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’.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.)

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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.

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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

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What makes an outstanding image? (part 1)

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Apples. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2/100 Makro-Planar

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.

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Two old men. Olympus OM-D, 75/1.8

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.

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The diving board, Hong Kong. Leica M9-P, Zeiss ZM 2.8/28

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.

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Omega Speedmaster 9300. Nikon D800E, 85/2.8 PCE

Let’s begin.

1. Subject
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.

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The cloud. Sony RX100

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.

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Hommage a Claude Monet. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2/100 Makro-Planar

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.

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Seeing the wood from the trees. Leica M9-P, 21/3.4 ASPH

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.

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Service – with just the right amount of motion blur. Sony RX100

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.)

**I cover processing workflow in general here, and here for B&W.

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After work. Olympus OM-D, 45/1.8

3. Composition
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.

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Dessert, before and after being enjoyed. Nikon D700, 60/2.8G

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.

This article and this article both enter into more detail on compositional theory.

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Vanishing point. Leica M8, 21/1.4 ASPH

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.)

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Before the take. Nikon D700, Zeiss ZF 1.4/85

3.2 Perspective
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?

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Trees. Ricoh GRDIII

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.

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Mt. Yotei. Nikon D700, Zeiss ZF.2 2/100 Makro-Planar

3.3 Balance
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.

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Breguet Tradition. Balanced, but not perfectly symmetric. Nikon D700, 60/2.8G

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!

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There are always exceptions to every rule. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2/100 Makro-Planar

3.4 Lighting
I just completed a whole series on lighting here – intro to equipment, part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and tips and tricks.

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.

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Prague. This would not be interesting on a flat, gray day at noon. Olympus E-PM1 Pen Mini, 45/1.8

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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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!

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