I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve mentioned ‘the four things’ in any context – teaching, essay, article, review, photoessay…and promptly realised that there’s actually no article in which I explain and detail them comprehensively. 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 underlying structure of the making outstanding images workshop series, and of course I go into significantly more detail in the teaching videos (episodes 1-3) including examples – but after wrapping up the San Francisco Masterclass yesterday, I was looking through the archives recently and didn’t find any solid mention of it anywhere. So, here goes.
“There are four things to consider in making an image that ‘works’: light, subject, composition and the idea.”
Specifically, quality of light: in the simplest form, if there is no light, you won’t have a photograph. THe most ordinary subjects can be transformed into an interesting image if you have interesting light, or light that brings out the best of the subject, or light that is simply interesting in itself. There is really only one thing you need to look for here: shadows.
Shadows are our way of projecting a three-dimensional real world into our two dimensional photographs; in effect they are what gives our audience spatial and depth cues, and signals what’s in front or behind something. Without shadows we also have no texture or colour, if the object is reflective. Shadows give us contrast, contrast gives us the impression of depth and dimensionality, and that stops a photograph from appearing flat. If light is not off-axis relative to the camera-subject relationship, there can be no microcontrast, either. Note this only covers directionality; it says nothing about diffusion or colour or multiple sources.
You as the photographer need to know what your subject is. If you don’t, then you’re going to find out that your audience isn’t going to know, either. This is because you cannot consciously seek to isolate it and make it stand out if you don’t know what you’re trying to isolate and make stand out! The subject is what the photograph is about: it can be the whole frame, too. In the case of an abstract image, the entire frame is the photograph, and no one part stands out more than another; it’s actually not easy to do because most of the time, one or more elements wants to dominate because of luminance, colour, contrast or some other element of visual weight.
Beyond knowing what your subject is, there are five ways of isolating it: by light/ contrast, by colour, by depth of field, by texture, and by motion blur. Note that DOF and motion blur are really subsets of texture, and DOF is actually the weakest of the five and should be avoided so as not to make ‘maximum bokeh’ a habit. You might have an extremely fast lens, but if your subject is at infinity, then you’re still not going to be able to separate it from the background using depth of field alone. And finally, by the same token as a subject can stand out if it has the right combination of isolating methods, an unintended subject can also quickly turn into a noticeable distraction if it too is isolated in a similar manner.
Composition for a photographer is really an act of conscious exclusion, rather than one of inclusion. We have to carve out our frame from the rest of the world; even if you are fully in control of the subjects in say a studio still life, you’ll still need to decide just how much of the rest of the studio you want to show – even if this extends to nothing more than the backdrop. It is worth noting that to make a subject stand out, not just do you ensure that that element in itself is attention-getting, but also that the other elements in the frame do not attract any more attention than they should.
I think of composition as the spatial arrangement of the consciously chosen elements that make up your image, and the implied relationships between these images: if two objects appear relatively close together compared to the rest of the objects in the frame, or dimensions of the frame itself, then it is generally expected/ implied that there is some sort of relationship between these objects (or subjects). In controlling the arrangement of elements in your frame, you as the photographer can decide how the image ‘reads’ to your audience; which subjects have priority, which order the observer’s eyes travel in, and thus what implied message the image sends. It’s also worth noting that there are only two ways of controlling composition: move the subjects, or move the camera. The former implies a strict camera position, since any changes in composition are brought about through relativity; the latter is for situations in which perhaps your camera position is restricted for whatever reason.
There are many tools that can be used to control composition and visual priority of subjects in a scene – physical position and distance for starters; subject isolation, and beyond that, perspective and the relative visual prominence implied. The idea of visual balance must also be considered: as a viewer, dos your eye roam away from the intended subjects? It’s difficult to have this objectivity if you are too emotionally involved with the image; a bit of space – say a few days with the image removed from the front of your mind – can help.
Finally, composition also deals with the ideas of balance and aesthetics; both are relatively subjective, and therefore down to personal preferences. There are no hard and fast rules about the latter, and precious few on the former; basically, if you like the way it looks – it can’t be wrong. There are many, many ways to capture the same subject; even if each image fulfils the four things, some will appeal certain people more than others simply because of personal biases lodged in ones’ subconscious.
Though I typically leave this til last because it’s much easier to put into place one has some solid command of the other there elements, it really should be both first and last: you want to have your concept, story or idea in your mind at the time of capture to ensure you capture the right thing, and compose for your final output intention: remember that ETTR might well give you ultimate image quality, but looking at an ETTR file tells you nothing if you intend to create say a very high contrast high- or low-key file at the end. Bottom line: it’s much easier to create an image if you have some previsualisation of how the final result should look before you start. There are some things – stacking, bracketing or stitching, as an obvious example – that have to be done at the time of capture and can’t be put into place afterwards.
Unfortunately, the idea is also the most vague of the four elements because it’s so subjective (you’ll probably have noticed that each subsequent ‘thing’ increases in vagueness). What makes sense as an idea to one individual may not to another because of a lack of visible context or implied local relevance; this is worth remembering when you’re trying to translate an idea of your own into an image. And quite often there are concepts that require non-obvious visual cues such as association, colour or texture to translate into an idea – think about moisture or temperature, for example. I firmly believe that the very best ideas are clear, but leave just a little room for ambiguity so that the audience has latitude for their own interpretations to satisfy their own expectations. Storytelling also falls into this category – think of the story you want to tell, the elements that are required, and then the order in which they should be seen to form the right chain of causality – then use the visual tools at your disposal to execute.
The three images I’ve chosen to illustrate this article (you may recognise them from the Pentax 645Z review a few months ago) were deliberate because they have a strong conceptual idea behind them; often – myself included – we make photographs because they appeal to us on an aesthetic level, but that’s not always enough to touch a greater audience. There’s nothing wrong with that; after all, art is subjective – but depending on your intention, you might want to go a bit further. Reformed Tree is a metaphor for growth and recovery. Fallen leaves from a tree have been gathered into a pile; there’s a small amount of water and light reaching them, and together with the reflection of another tree trunk in the water, they form the image of a new tree: think of it as rebirth from failure through encouragement and reflection. It is turned upside down partially to form the tree structure, but also as a suggestion of turning things (events) around. It is an image that conveys the idea of hope and the possibility of creating something unique and beautiful through unconventional means. There is no way this idea could have been realised without consciously envisioning it before capture. The light is directional and dappled, creating contrast and texture in the leaves and water reflection. The subject – the tree, leaves and reflection – are isolated from the ground by colour and texture. Compositionally, I’ve chosen to exclude almost all other elements to avoid distraction; the trunk forms a leading line to the crown of leaves, and is deliberately less defined than the rest through shallower depth of field. Finally, stylistically, colour is graded warm to convey a feeling of hope.
This pair of images is about humanity and balance. Face left, face right conveys the idea of people having two sides that fit together to form a whole; it may be our public persona and private persona, or people who say one thing and do another (interpret as you wish). This impression is created by the two halves of land/water fitting into each other; the dividing line down the middle isn’t exactly the same in both images, but then this isn’t required anyway as in reality, the boundary between different sides of personality isn’t strictly defined anyway. Light is diffuse but directional for both images, and comes from the same direction to lend a sense of unity to the pair. The subjects are clear – silhouettes created by variations in texture and colour. Compositionally, they are simple and again consciously exclude any distracting elements, but at the same time equally weighted visually about a vertical axis – neither left or right side of the frame dominates.
There is of course quite a lot more instruction to it than I can hope to fit into even a relatively long article; and of course everything is best learned with demonstration, and even better remembered with direct feedback – that is the purpose of the email school, the workshops, and of course the teaching video series – Making Outstanding Images Episodes 1-3 cover this in a systematic way in great detail with many examples. In practice, the best way to get to a level where a photograph becomes the visual translation of concept rather than a snapshot is to practice: start with light; move on to subjects, then composition, and finally, start thinking of ideas. Attempting to do everything in parallel is going to be rather tricky: there are a lot of moving pieces, and they definitely affect each other. For example, if you want a low key image, you will need to look for a different quality of light to a flat one, and compose according to what will be visible in the final output. What we are really trying to do is learnt to see with our brains, not just our naked eyes. MT
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