Continued from part one.
Context is the way the viewer of the image creates the story of the primary subject, using the secondary elements in the frame as mental markers. The secondary elements help to place the subject in terms of time, location, culture, era, mood, as well as giving countless other psychological clues such as wealth, poverty, uncertainty, danger, unasked questions, etc. A subject in isolation is fine for a commercial product shoot, but it lacks the emotion and narrative richness that well-framed surroundings can add. The photographer also has to ensure that the elements in the frame have the correct relative prominence, which is to say the framing should direct the eye of the viewer to the primary subject first, and then the secondary subjects in order of importance. If this is not the case, then the message of the photograph can land up being quite different to the intention of the photographer at the time of capture. Properties of a subject that affect relative prominence include size, position in the frame, relative brightness, and contrast/ color vis-a-vis the background.
Perhaps the concept of context is best illustrated by an example: let’s take the classic photojournalism shot. Wide angle, strongly directional lighting, some atmospheric haze, angry person waving a gun front and centre standing in a shaft of sunlight, close to the camera. The background scene contains other people grimacing (we think – they’re too small and far from the camera to tell) and greatly reduced in prominence to the primary subject, some destroyed/ burned objects, and a fire, all set to an destroyed building in the background. First thing we think when we see an image like this: war. But what if the angry person wasn’t highlighted in a shaft of sunlight, the camera was closer to the other people, who now turn out to be laughing, and we see that the destroyed background building is actually abandoned and the only one in a relatively prosperous-appearing urban area? Would these two images not have a very different story?
4. Cultural background and history
There are some images which will never mean anything to any observers outside a closed group of people; this is because the compositional elements and subjects make reference to things that are culturally unique or specific to a historical time period. The trick to making images like this work is that they must have enough context for the viewer to be able to make a reasonably accurate guess at the context, even if they have no idea of the specific references invoked. Good examples would include any sort of cultural or religious ceremonies; historical events that were not publicised outside a particular country; or ethnic differences between different racial groups. (I doubt most viewers would be able to tell the difference between Dinka and Masaai tribespeople, for instance. But there would be enough visual cues in the frame to correctly think ‘Africa’.)
I’d probably widen this to include any technical sort of photography where a good portion of the visual impact comes from the subject – fully conscious of the fact that this also covers a good portion of my own work. I could take images with identical lighting and camera/ subject positioning of say a Lange Datograph and a Lange Double Split, but only the horological afficionados are going to display any meaningful difference in excitement for one image over the other.
5. Human psychology
Something related to cultural background – think of it as a collective culture for the human race. There are things that universally invoke a reaction amongst the vast majority of people; for subject matter, this includes anything taboo such as death; anything universally celebrated such as birth or marriage, smiles, tears, tension, anger and anything other strong emotional cues (feel free to add to the comments if I’ve missed anything). The ability to include such cues in a very obvious way in an image further increases the overall impact of the shot – seasoned photojournalists such as those who produce reportage for National Geographic, Time, Life etc are very good at this.
There’s also a second set of elements related to the human psyche that can form useful toolkit – these include use of color (or B&W); directionality of lighting, and particular hues or shades to provoke a reaction. It can be as simple an image of a place with predominantly warm hues (reds, yellows) feels cosy and inviting; the same place with shifted white balance or cooler lighting resulting in blues and whites can be made to feel clinical and sterile. Part of our response to color is down to conditioning imposed by lifestyle – incandescent light, hearth fires, sci-fi culture, medical clinics etc.# – and part of it is probably a physiological thing from our time in the jungle. It’s well known that in the natural world, brightly colored animals and plants are either that way to attract the attention of mates or other members of their species, or to warn potential predators of toxicity.
#I’m sure you all had an image in your mind at every single one of these examples – now think, what was the predominant tone, color or white balance in each of those images? This article goes into the psychology of color in more detail, and this one deals with how to achieve control over color.
Finally, there are compositional rules that most people react to, to varying degrees. These include a preference for balance and symmetry; responding to leading lines, and singling out things inside natural frames. There’s also the expectation of the top of the frame being lighter than the bottom; I’m not sure where this emerges from, but I’m fairly confident it has something to do with the sky being brighter than the ground in real life.
6. The personal connection
The one element that the photographer has almost no control over for the majority of his audience – assuming that the image is to be viewed by more than those who commissioned it or who have direct involvement in it – is to do with the personal response of the viewer. A good example would be pictures of a wedding – they’d mean something to me if it was my wedding, and I might even be able to overlook compositional shortcomings because of the moment they capture (though I suspect my wife might disagree) – but to somebody with a detached and critical eye, the images may hold very little merit. Or perhaps a well-executed still life of bananas; I might love fruit and therefore be more inclined to like the image over somebody who’s allergic to them, or perhaps suffered from one too many banana peel pranks as a kid – they, on the other hand, might be made very uncomfortable by the image indeed – and possibly not even know why.
Moral of the story: take some time to understand your audience, and you’ll be surprised at the difference in the response. It’s one of the first questions I always ask a client: is it for you, or your customers? And what would your customers want to see?
This concept is best encapsulated in HC-B’s decisive moment philosophy: unlike with a video, you’ve only got one frame to tell the entire story. This means that everything that has happened, is happening, and will happen in the future must be captured in that one frame; it’s the relationship between the events clearly occurring in the frame, and the cues given from which the viewer’s mind interpolates what’s on both sides of the timeline. Although each of the other factors almost always have multiple possibilities that ‘work’ as an image (albeit with different stories) – there is only ever one decisive moment for each message or story. If you miss it, there are other moments, but they each have a different story. Time is a continuum and an artificial human construct, but at the same time the flow of causality is one-way. (This is getting a bit more metaphysical than intended; for more have a look at this article on the relationship between quantum mechanics and photography.)
8. The X factor.
Truly outstanding images have something that goes beyond items 1-6; it’s an unquantifiable something that is perhaps almost born out of luck and chance, and never to be repeated. You have to have the right subject, at the right moment, in the right light, with just enough context to tell the story but not so much as to overwhelm, and some sort of personal or emotional connection created with the viewer. (And if you’re a commercial photographer, you’ll have to create all of this from scratch on demand on a repeatable basis.) I actually think the final part of what makes an image work is a degree of controlled imperfection; this appeals at a subconscious level to the humanity of the viewer; it’s almost as though it says ‘what I saw affected me as much as it should affect you’. (Of course, there is a time and place for this, and in commercial shoots, camera shake is just sloppy.) Finally, never underestimate the importance of luck: being in exactly the right place, at the right time.
I want to finish on a high note. Even though there are a lot of elements that one has to manipulate – and a couple that you can’t control – to make an outstanding image, it’s clearly possible, because outstanding images happen all the time. And probably more frequently than we think, too – not all of them are shared with the world; Vivian Maier’s work is a great example of that. The single most important element of all isn’t covered in any of the sections above, and that’s practice and preparation. It’s also the best advice I can give to any photographer at any skill level. No matter how deep one’s understanding of the concepts is, if you don’t have a camera with you, or can’t figure out how to get the effect you want, or find the spot metering button, or accidentally shoot in a thumbnail-sized jpeg or something similar, you’re going to miss the shot. If your eye isn’t trained to passively seek out compositions all the time, then you’re going to miss something. The best thing, however, is that the element of preparedness is 100% under the control of the photographer. MT
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