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.
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.
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…
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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