In a previous post, I tackled the general concept of an abstract photograph. I think it can be refined down something of the following: an image which is balanced equally across the entire frame such at that no one area attracts your attention more than any other area; the eye wanders, takes in the details, and never really lingers. By this definition, there is no subject since no one area or element of the photograph stands out more than any other; however, you could probably also argue that the entire frame is really the subject. Semantics is a funny thing, though, and this isn’t quite the definition of the term: we must think in terms of essences and summaries instead. An ‘abstract’ of a paper or article is really the core idea distilled down to the simplest possible terms; the objective elevator pitch rather than the marketing tagline. Today’s article tackles the visual equivalent of that: how do we take an idea and translate that into something visual?
The first hint lies in something I mentioned earlier: the core idea distilled down to the simplest possible terms. In a live situation, if there are too many things simultaneously taking place, chances are you’re going to miss something or have your attention swayed by the obvious rather than the essential. The same applies to a photograph: if there are too many visual elements present, the main subject or idea is going to go overlooked. Thus the first order of business is not just to pare away the nonessential (the act of composition) but also to figure out exactly what the idea you’re trying to convey is so you know what is essential in the first place. I’ve seen a lot of finished images in the last dozen years or so – not just my own, but the work of others in the course of seeking inspiration or curiosity or something different, or social media; for the reader flickr pool alone, the rejection rate is such that I’ve probably seen close to a million images alone. That’s a staggering number. And these coming from people who arguably have more understanding of photography than most.
Yet images that don’t work tend to be the ones that are lacking a clear idea; the technical stuff can be great, but if you a) have no idea what the image is about (i.e. the subject), and b) the implied relationship between that subject and its contextual surroundings (i.e. the composition) then the net outcome is confusing rather than memorable. Even the idea of chaos is something that has requires curated exclusion*: if you have elements of order, these contradict the idea of chaos, and the image and its message weaken.
*Modern Japanese photography is a good example of this: the photographs appear to be haphazard and messy, but if you consciously try to recreate this you’ll find it’s a lot more difficult than it looks – there’s frequently something in the scene which is not messy or haphazard and this spoils the frame.
The feeling of flow from left to right is created both by the direction of dominant motion blur lines, but also the disorder/chaos to order. And we typically view things left to right with a Western upbringing – Asians may well view it differently.
This is not to say that every photograph must have a deep philosophical meaning; far from it. Some – what typically falls under the category of abstract images, for instance – are purely about color, light and form. A product photograph is first and foremost about showcasing the product – back to color, light and form. And frequently landscapes are nothing more than aesthetically pleasing, or aesthetically pleasing born out of an unusual combination of color, light and form. But I think you can see that even in those three examples, there is still a distilled concept and intention: you need to know what the subject is, and it has to be presented in an aesthetically pleasing way. That is both simpler and harder than it looks, of course.
It is important for us photographers to be consciously aware of both the intended and unintended – anything included in the composition is necessarily assumed by the audience to be important and a conscious choice on the part of the artist. (Whether it is noticed or not is another thing, of course – it is our job to make obvious what is meant to be noticed** and not obvious what isn’t.) Their order of visual prominence matters, too – this dictates the order in which they are ‘read’ by the audience. The more something stands out – by contrast/color/texture/DOF/motion – the more obvious it is to us, and we consequently notice it first. It is therefore possible in that fashion to create a sort of ‘visual sentence’ or establish priority. As an audience, we make automatic assumptions about the relationships between elements in a frame based on what is implied by physical proximity or other spatial cues; e.g. two people sitting closely on a bench probably have some kind of relationship; solo persons each on their own bench probably don’t. We can use this to our advantage – both in implying relationships and implying lack of relationships.
New Venice. The poles stand out, intentionally, because they are the subject, isolated by contrast, color, texture and motion (the water is moving). It’s Venice because that’s pretty much the only place where tree trunks are sunk into relatively calm water (not much amplitude or agitation suggested by the water, despite being obviously moving) to form foundations for new land by barges (visible) and at the edge of an existing artificial shore (the pier). Note lack of anything else in the frame.
The previous example of two people on a bench is a good one, because if the frame excludes everything immediately outside the bench we assume the image is about the people and their relationship; if they sit nearby they’re lovers or friends, if they sit far apart and consciously avoid each other they’re enemies. If they sit apart but in their own activities, they’re strangers. However, if the bench and the two people are just a tiny part of a much larger frame – say a desolate beach – we take it into context and their relationship pales in comparison to the expansiveness of their surroundings. In each case, the composition creates an implied relationship and message – and thus, an idea.
It is clear, then, that we must really think carefully not just about subject inclusion, but also subject prominence and positioning. We cannot have an idea that centres around people with no explicit or implied people; the elements must be visually conspicuous through their presence (e.g. a crowd) or lack (e.g. a long exposure of a usually busy place like Times Square with no people). Empty space itself plays a part beyond visual/aesthetic balance, too: lots of it implies that isolation, solitude or something along those lines should be in consideration. Lack of it implies immediacy and rawness and immersion. Space in front of a figure suggests anticipation or something about to happen; behind it, history or escape. But you wouldn’t notice the space if it was full of irrelevant but distracting (for instance colourful) objects. Composition is really about conscious exclusion.
For an image to be successful – memorable and visually impactful – we must first have the idea in mind, then evaluate each element or portion of the composition to see if it is relevant, irrelevant and/or confusing or simply unimportant. If it is either of the latter, why include it? For example, product photo – perhaps the simplest sort of idea – almost always never includes anything other than the subject itself. Advertising is a different matter – when the product is shown with some other objects, that’s because the intention is to associate the product with those other things or the ideas and feelings created by those other things – for instance, luggage and private jets implies luxurious travel; watches and movie stars implies fame and recognition if you wear one. You’d never see a Ferrari and a baby diaper together in the same ad; that would go completely against the high life the car supposedly gives you entry to.
In a studio situation, it’s easy to have every element under control. This is obviously not possible in documentary or candid or street or general travel photography; we have to work with what we’ve got. The only controls at the disposal of the photographer are really composition and timing – we can re-aim the camera, or wait til something moves into the right position (or out of the frame). In these cases, it’s very difficult to translate a very precise and minimal idea; complete exclusion is usually impossible. We have to therefore compose such that we eliminate the distracting or confusing, and minimise the irrelevant. On top of that, there’s some further wiggle room afforded by making the main idea somewhat flexible and open to interpretation; a very nebulous concept (e.g. ‘freedom’) need not have a precise definition specifically because it likely conjures different imagery and means different things to different audiences.
This lack of specificity is not a bad thing – since every person is different and brings their own biases and expectations when viewing an image, the more room for interpretation without destroying the overarching idea, the better, simply because more people are going to go away happy having seen what they expected to see. All we have to do is remove the distractions that might guide thought otherwise, whilst leaving enough clues (captions included, especially in situations where there are specific cultural or regional references required) for our audience to piece things together – hopefully in the order and way we intended. I leave you with one closing thought: next time you frame up an image, ask yourself “what can I remove?” instead of “what else can I include?” MT
The Fundamentals and the Making Outstanding Images video series break down how to create a strong image based on the translation of an idea and subject into a series of exercises that will show you how to master every single detail of your composition and workflow process; they’re available here from the teaching store.
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Ultraprints from this series are available on request here
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