One image that appears to break the rules, but really doesn’t: relatively flat light prevents texture from being too harsh, but it’s directional enough to create the curved shadow between the mown and unmown grass, with the line leading to the yellow flowers – that stand out from the rest of the meadow. Order in chaos, guided nature.
In the past, I’ve written about ‘The Four Things’ – what I consider to be the cornerstone elements of a good image. I’ve also written about subject isolation and finding that extra unpredictable magic element that lifts an image to the realm of the memorable. I’ve not written about ‘the idea’ yet, but that’s in the works. What I’d like to do today is revisit the core structure of an image with the benefit of hindsight and simplify those four things as much as possible, with the background context of understanding how our brains work. It might seem like photography and psychology all over again; but remember that photography is really a conversation between photographer and audience – and like all forms of communication, the rules are both cultural and somewhat more deep-seated at an anthropological level.
Firstly, it’s important to remember that The Four Things are independent of subject and despite what many think, have nothing to do with the technical qualities of an image, either. In looking at tens, hundreds of thousands of my own images, those of others and those that are critically acclaimed – I’ve not found an exception to these rules. Some of those images may require flexible interpretation in conjunction with an idea in order for them to satisfy all criteria, but if you do not do this, then the idea falls apart and the image doesn’t work anyway. I’ve done my best to find images that ‘work’ but break this rule, but have not succeeded – I welcome the audience to try, because if we do find an exception, it helps us to refine the framework.
I suspect the reason there are no or almost no exceptions to these ‘rules’ – I am hesitant to use this term because it implies creativity is limited and rigid, which of course it is not – is because our interpretation of a scene (as photographer) and an image (as audience) is very much dictated by the limitations of human psychology. It has almost nothing to do with ‘seeing’: what we notice, observe and the byproducts thereof (i.e. images, or crystallised observations) are driven by the way our brains are wired. If you live in a city, then another high-rise building is not going to attract much attention or distract you – but if you live in a rural village and have never visited a city, it will probably do so – in the same way a large herd of cows might be unusual for an urban resident.
The good news is that there are some fundamental things that apply to everybody: our brains all interpret certain things in certain ways, which are undoubtedly a byproduct of a pre-societal age. The sky is always lighter during the day, clouds imply rain or worry, we notice high contrast areas, color and pattern recognise human forms first, etc. Water is calming and blue skies are never a bad thing. Smiles are the same across all cultures, and nobody can resist a killer sunset. Barring cultural context, there is actually already a very strong underlying framework for us to work with that’s a consequence of evolution and the way our brains have been wired. The more abstract stuff and the implied causal relationships between subjects are a little more complex and require some ability to identify elements and their functions, but once again, there’s enough modern commonality (e.g. we all recognise cars, houses, buildings, telephones, books etc.) for us to have a very rich vocabulary to work with.
Here are the four things again, in order of criticality:
- The Idea
Light specifically refers to having the right quality of light for the subject: note that if your subject is meant to be camouflaged, you probably don’t want strong contrast between subject and background, but if it isn’t, then you do. It also means having light that supports your idea: if you want a warm sunset, then you’d better not have no shadows and an overall cool cast. Hard light is not flattering for most portraits, but it might work for some if you want to depict your subject as having a strong or aggressive personality, for instance. What this really boils down to is our taking subtle cues from the shadows: what we can’t see can’t hurt us, but certainly leaves less revealed and implies uncertainty and ambiguity. And remember that exposure and composition are not independent: changing exposure changes what’s visible – or not – in the scene.
Subject is the essence or prime motive of the image: what is the photograph about? Firstly, you as photographer must be able to identify it: if not, then there’s no way you can make it stand out to a third party observer. Next, think about camouflage: you want the subject to be the least camouflaged element in the scene; everything else that isn’t important should be increasingly camouflaged with the background until it isn’t noticeable at all. Subject isolation is really all about pattern recognition: if something breaks pattern, we notice it. The more it breaks pattern, the more it stands out. Ultimately, it boils down to contrast: both luminance and color; this is why light comes first: if you don’t have contrast, you can’t isolate your subject – period. The more different those two things are from the area immediately behind and around it (remember to think in terms of the two-dimensional projection of a photograph) – the more the subject will stand out. In implementation terms, we’re back down to luminance contrast, color and texture/frequency – that’s depth of field, spatial frequency and motion blur. Less important elements – contextual secondary subjects – should also stand out, but not as strongly as the main subject. Lastly, remember if you go too close: your subject may also become the background. This transition point is somewhere around the 30% mark: if it covers more than that, it’s the background.
Composition is the ability to present the subject matter in a way that’s both aesthetically pleasing – or at least arresting – and that a) assists with subject isolation; b) supports the story, and c) keeps the audience’s attention within the frame. The last item is what I’ve always thought of as balance: if an image is balanced, then your attention goes instantly to the intended area of the frame, i.e. the subject. If it doesn’t, then you need to shift the edges of the frame in such a way that this is resolved – usually by panning the camera directly in the opposite direction from the unintended focus. There are of course other considerations such as perspective and physical camera position, too; each has various ‘better’ choices depending on the intended story – and of course the underpinning psychology. For instance, looking through foreground gives the feeling of being an observer; having no foreground between you and subject makes you feel like an immediate participant. Reinforcing the subject by using a frame – much as you would frame a photograph on a wall to make it stand out from the rest of the wall – is another method of ensuring attention doesn’t wander. Composition is the third item in the hierarchy because you must know what your subject is before you can construct a frame around it…
The Idea has to be both the foundation and the objective of an image. This is of course somewhat confusing because you need to have some notion of what you want your final story or message to be before you can start assembling the visual elements required to convey it, but at the same time, you can’t convey an idea if you aren’t fluent in the visual language to begin with. It’s of course analogous to conversation: there’s o way to explain what you want to say without being able to speak. I’ve been trying to find a way to explain this in more detail, but have not been happy with any of the essays I’ve written thus far – it’s perhaps both the first and only time I’ve rewritten an article half a dozen times. The best I can come up with is the concept of telling a story: the idea is the implicit chain of causality and relationship created by spatial relationships and visual prominence of the various elements in the frame. It’s as much about exclusion as it is inclusion – you leave out everything that isn’t relevant, but include everything that is. It has to be ambiguous enough that a wide variety of audiences can be satisfied, but definite enough that there’s no room for misinterpretation.
After several years, I’m still working to this framework – I haven’t found a better one, yet. It’s good for both composition and curation; if you don’t have all four elements, then chances are the image probably isn’t going to be memorable. Running through the mental checklist before you hit the button can result in a higher keeper rate; eventually this becomes instinctive. Doing it 100% of the time is tough, though: it can be difficult for us to break habit and not shoot things we’ve done before because they appeal to us personally, but perhaps carry no weight for others. The only way to go is keep shooting…MT
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