What makes an interesting image, part one: subject and presentation

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A traveller’s view. We have the required visual cues to say ‘airport’ – the aircraft, boarding gates, apron, terminal, bits of ground hardware. But also the vertical bars that suggest perhaps we are being imprisoned or limited in some way, and the lack of clarity or definition from the plastic windows making it unclear if the view is a reflection or perhaps the illusory product of jetlag…

In previous articles, I’ve explored what makes a technically good image; what makes a visually balanced image; what makes an emotional image, and of course what makes an outstanding image. But at no point have I really addressed what makes an interesting one. I’m going to attempt to tackle that today; but bear in mind this is an extremely subjective topic, and opinions may diverge enormously.

You have been warned.

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This image rides entirely on the merit of the subject. There is no ambiguity, nor is there any room for interpretation of external context.

Something is visually interesting if it holds our attention and demands some degree of conscious contemplation or consideration. There can be many reasons for this; most of it has to do with personal biases and preferences – what do you like, subject-wise? What do you like, atmosphere (i.e. light)-wise? Hold this thought for a moment.

There are two parts that make up a photograph, or any visual image: the subject, and the presentation. The subject is of course whatever the image is about; what is the focus? What is supposed to draw the attention of the audience. I think this is relatively straightforward, except in cases where the intended subject doesn’t match the obvious one*. A subject may be something very literal – such as in a commercial catalog photograph in which there should be absolutely zero possibility of the image depicting anything other than the intended subject – or it can be quite complex, in that perhaps we are presenting an idea or concept that requires many individual elements in a specific arrangement to get the idea across. It may be a very small portion of the frame, if there are no other distractions; or it may be the entire frame, if we are trying to make an abstract image.

*If these are mismatched, then we need to start again. An image constructed around the premise that the audience should focus on an element that isn’t obvious or immediately apparent creates all sorts of problems, because whatever element actually is of greatest visual prominence simply won’t stand out or make sense in context with the rest of the presentation.

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Breakthrough. Literal definition and critically timed moment.

On the other hand, the presentation is a minefield. Of the four things, this accounts for at least two, and usually three. (We have previously dealt with subject and to some extent, the idea.) There is a complex and usually messy interaction between presentation and subject: if a subject is not presented properly, it won’t stand out; if it doesn’t stand out, you can’t convey the intended idea. Presentation encompasses everything about how we perceive the subject: its brightness and color (i.e. light); its size; its relative prominence to other elements, to foreground and background; whether it is fully revealed or left somewhat ambiguous, either through light, color, depth of field, size or spatial obstruction. There’s also the very important matter of timing. Miss something by a fraction of a second and you only see the precursor or the aftermath of an event; miss it by hours and you may well see nothing. Of course the definition of ideal timing and a ‘miss’ depends on what ‘it’ is…

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A boring subject made interesting solely because of presentation (light)

Images can therefore attract our attention and hold it for either or both of two reasons: the subject is interesting to us, or the presentation is interesting, or both. (For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to set aside personal biases: an individual might not like flowers, but that doesn’t necessarily make the image bad – just not relevant to that particular audience.) Ideally, you want to have an image that has both an interesting subject and an interesting presentation. Arguably though it’s even more difficult to present a pedestrian subject in an interesting way; you’ve got to overcome the innate bias of the audience towards thinking ‘boring’ immediately when recognising the subject. The weakest images are those with no elements of interest, but personally I think that an image which holds attention solely because of the subject is one that’s both binary and one-dimensional: there is nothing to stimulate further contemplation beyond the literal, nothing to encourage remembrance other than the historical context of observation. An example of this might be a celebrity with a wardrobe malfunction stepping out of a car – nobody is going to remember such an image as being of particular creative or intellectual merit even one week later. It is merely a record of interest because of the subject. (Even worse, you might land up with a boring image of an interesting subject – which isn’t even doing the subject fair justice.) Personally, I try not to take these images for anything other than personal notation/recording, or if I do, I won’t publicly share them. Besides – why have a boring presentation if you can challenge yourself to do otherwise?

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Reformed tree, I. It’s literally a pile of leaves and a puddle.

We therefore need to ask: how can we present any subject – pedestrian or not – in an interesting way? This gives us the maximum flexibility in creation: independent of subject, we control the perception of the viewer.

Presentation itself decomposes into two elements: composition and light. Both affect how much of a subject we see, and from what angle; but only light – and specifically quality of it – controls how we feel about it. You could keep subject and camera position static, but change nothing but exposure and already affect the mood; we haven’t even talked about color temperature, hardness/softness/directionality, secondary sources and fill, shadows and shadow direction, or what might be reflected (or not). With extremely shiny objects, the object itself only takes on form and color in relation to its surroundings: to photograph something like that, you must construct the reflected world in light**. If that world is uninteresting, then so too will be your photograph of the object. Remember that even matte objects reflect light.

**This is what I do when photographing watches. I don’t light the watch so much as light the reflection.

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Cloud Gates, Chicago. Shape literally defined by reflection.

We can control and create light, we can shape and modify it, or we can find it. Regardless of which approach we take, two things are necessary: the ability to recognise what makes good light, and the ability to compose for it. Shadows are always necessary to provide definition of texture and spatial translation of a three dimensional world into a two dimensional image; we can however use this translation to ‘trick’ the mind into seeing certain things that make no physical sense but may be visually interesting. Exposure and light affect composition, too: what you can see vs. what you can’t, and an appropriate balance of the two.

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The discontinuity – this image will make more sense after reading part 2. Think of it as a teaser.

Keeping this in mind, we naturally move on to looking at the relative relationship to the subject and its environment. For example, a reflective subject may well be the direct mirror of its surroundings, so adding anything else in the background or foreground would be confusing and distracting from the primary essence of the subject – i.e. the fact that it is reflective. Conversely, a very matte object doesn’t say anything about where it is other than the quality of incident light falling on its faces; we must therefore consider the surroundings as part of the composition if you want to suggest any sort of story beyond the immediately literal (“here is how the object looks from this angle”). The relative size and position of the subject is of course dictated by camera position and angle of view; certain angles of view encourage the use of other elements in the scene to control the order in which the scene is read (e.g. leading lines and frames) by changing the visual prominence of the subject, or creating a path for the viewer’s eyes to follow.

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Only the clouds are truly free. Every element here is necessary to convey the idea, no extras.

But here comes the next tough question: how much additional environment should the image include? That should be dictated solely by what is necessary to convey the idea or story you want the image to tell. Anything extra is merely distracting, and weakens a composition. This is the challenge of the telephoto perspective: you can keep paring away ‘surrounding context’ to the bare essentials but be left with perhaps too little to tell the story. Conversely, it’s always possible to compose with more context – a wider perspective – but there’s a new tradeoff between perspective distortion if you want the subject to remain physically the same size, or reduced prominence and too many distractions if not.

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Fracture. Too much extra and we lose that abstraction because we can identify scale and surroundings.

The very act of composition in itself is really cropping: we are consciously excluding the bits of the world which we think are not relevant. Remember, the audience’s view of a scene through an image is limited to what is in the image: you cannot know what is outside and could have been included to improve clarity of the idea, but by the same token, you cannot know what is outside that would have distracted or created ambiguity. We photographers are always cropping the world down to the bits we notice and want to share. But that doesn’t mean we should do it again after capture; that merely suggests a lack of clarity of vision and not being able to make up one’s mind.

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Reforemed tree II. Excluding the other panes of glass and supporting structure of the building removes the suggestion that the seam is part of panes of glass and in turn part of a greater structure.

This brings us to the end of part one: it’s all the theory. There are as many ways to apply it as there are people; and every given photographic opportunity has a range of different approaches that might work equally well. In fact, the concept of ‘photographic opportunity’ in itself is somewhat vague, as there is no way of really defining what constitutes one since it’s so open to personal interpretation. Isn’t that at least a good chunk of the joy of photography? 🙂 MT

Come back for part two where I’ll share some of my theories on practical application.

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Comments

  1. I am fighting extremely hard to come to the point where I can present the subject in a different view or avoid a cliche. It seems much harder and difficult than just said.
    Nevertheless it is what I am trying to do. If I can’t get up there over the next coming couple of years, I see no reason why I should show what already have been done a million times before and by that have nothing to add.

    Ming your images here are no less than stunning examples of seeing and presenting ‘The different View’ .. viewing those shows me there must be a way.

    • Gerner, don’t be discouraged. Yes, it gets harder as more presentations of the same subject have been done, but also harder as your own standards improve. I have the same problem as you: it’s easy to make a 3 or 4, but that elusive 5 is precisely what makes it a 5. The potential for ‘failure’ (or being unsuccessful) in the attempt is higher, but so are the rewards when you make it work. 🙂

      • It has happened I’ve made a 5. Can be counted on 2 fingers or less .. but it’s my goal anyhow to get up there, otherwise I think I am wasting precious time.
        It is so rewarding to make a 5 🙂

        Not so really just spitting out one 3 after the other. I still need to show those to learn from the response. I would feel more contend if I could show 5 or 10 5’s a year rather than 400 3’s.

        • Then it’s just a case of getting over the disappointment from not making a 5…shoot less, but higher quality. Means less time postprocessing and curating, too…

  2. liramusic says:

    Wonder if this makes sense. The “awareness of the camera itself” creates a tension that translates to interest. I suggest that people find it interesting to wonder as they gaze at a picture how much the presence of the camera affected that picture we see. If this translates to an awkward feeling or cognitive dissonance, maybe becomes the gaze and the level of sustaining of our interest. This means that the photographer by proxy is in the scene– through the picture we see. As we wonder we then enter the scene, too, identifying with either the subject of the photographer, or just feeling something from the sideline. The picture causes us to wonder like that. That is my guess to the answer to why a photo is– not perfect or amazing, or even terrible– but interesting.

    • liramusic says:

      In the mode above, All your photos are exquisite, but maybe the inverted tree on is the one “interesting” one. One gazes and wonders idly if the photographer moved the leaves (you didn’t) or is an environmentalist or poet or songwriter or abstract artist or builder or just who knows…..

      • liramusic says:

        and with the second question above Fracture, the added quality is psychological, I think. I am not as concerned with the lens, or barrel distortion, or the compositional objects at the edge. Was Fracture a rebel statement about wretched corporate life that destroys the earth, pollutes, steals, fails us when it wants to, is on the take, mocks us, and maybe implodes with any luck. The person gazing at the photo, in this case both the photographer & the viewer, are dwarfed by grotesque, enormous shards of glass with cryptic business names in cold, non-serif fonts. As said before, your photos are exquisite, but that is a given at this point. Asking if you can take good pictures would be like asking of Michael Jordan can handle a basketball– but is something “interesting.”

    • An interesting take – thank you for sharing!

    • Daniel Boyd says:

      Reading your post remind me of what I’ve read somewhere “we intellectualize everything we see, and in doing so, we change the things we see” (don’t remember who said it). Images are the same. Some of us just looking at the image, and enjoying it. Some wonder how it was taken, the technique behind it, the camera that was used…These two type of viewers see completely difference aspect of the same image, like you and I. That said, we both enjoy them, yeah?

    • liramusic says:

      …to be clear, I never meant to imply that my interpretation of a photo was the same as the photographer’s. Quite the contrary which is the point. I felt that interest was interaction thought wise.

  3. Hmmm, applying that metaphor to myself, I feel the past year of reading these helpful posts of yours has begun to help me switch my mental mode from Auto/Program, creating simple JPEGs in my mind, to the more methodical Manual mode, extracting the RAW data that’s more complex and potentially more rewarding in the eventuality I’ve stumbled upon something worthwhile when using my eyes/sensors to discover scenes to photograph.

  4. Every time I see one of your Chicago pics in a set I want to go stand in the same place and try to see what you see.

  5. A very helpful article. I wish someone would park that red car in my garage and leave the keys.

  6. An interesting photo has in many cases a metaphoric content. What you see on the photo connects you with some thoughts or aspects of the world, which are not visible on the photo. A work of art needs empty space, not on its surface but between the parts of it, which are obvious and those which are not clear at all. Boring, when the interpretation is done in two seconds, much more interesting, when your grey cells get something to do and when their job doesn’t come to an end. It was Duane Michaels who said: ”My eye is never the source of my work – but always my mind.” One could turn it around and say: „I never aim on the eye of my viewers but always on their mind.

  7. Jon Barker says:

    Hi Ming,
    Any chance that Reformed Tree II will be released as an ultraprint run? I’d be interested in a series of these too.

  8. MT, all of your images are as usual excellent! But an roofer can climb the peak of the roof from two sides!

  9. thoughts are articulated and supported well by your excellent photos as per usual. outstanding.

  10. Great article Ming! It really ties thing together. Wonderful images. I admit the Ferrari image (and the car itself) looks very nice. 🙂 I actually think this is my biggest challenge in curation of images is that I often gravitate to the spectacular subjects.

  11. Solid explanation MT. I agree with your comments on cropping. I alway know I wasn’t dialed in when it seemed to need to be cropped.
    Bonus points for using Only the clouds, one of my favorite purchases.

Trackbacks

  1. […] the actors. The image has been limited in potential by removing or at best making ambiguous one of the main things that can make an interesting image. And if you don’t know what your image is about, then there’s simply no way for your […]

  2. […] the previous article, we distilled down the two components of an interesting image: subject and presentation. We looked […]

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