What’s Important in a Photograph, and What Isn’t

(John Sherman, May 2016). You know the drill.  You pick up a magazine or browse a website and flip through the photos.  Most you look at for less than a second, but a select few grab your attention and demand a longer look.  What’s different about these select photos?  What makes some photos great and others mediocre?

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I’ve bounced this question off of several distinguished photographers and the answers are always quite similar.  They may disagree on some of the ordering, but the list of qualities goes something like this:

  1. Emotion
  2. Light
  3. Composition
  4. Creativity
  5. Timing
  6. Context
  7. Layers

We’ll break these down in a bit, but first let’s list some things that aren’t important to a photo’s success.  These are in no particular order and constitute what I call The Box of Technical BS. Behold the contents of The Box: megapixels, noise, corner performance, RAW headroom, coma, xenon afterglow, diffraction, OLPFs, missing midtones, 14 bit files, MTF charts, dynamic range, monitor calibration, reciprocity failure, 1:1 sharpness, ETTR, chromatic aberration, ART lenses and let’s not forget the aptly named Circle of Confusion.  I could go on and on adding to the contents list of the Box of Technical BS, but the one thing all these technical attributes share is that no matter how much you possess of any of these, they won’t increase the emotional impact of a photo one iota.  The only technical aspects one really needs a handle on is the exposure triangle and focus and most cameras will do these tasks for you.  Which brings us back to the important stuff.

1) Emotion

Hands down the most important aspect of any photograph is it’s ability to invoke an emotional response.  This response is what gets you to look longer at some photos than others, maybe even decide to buy a print and hang that photo on your wall.  The response can be anything from happiness to the blues, warmth to chill, serenity to horror.  It could inspire curiosity or a call to action.  It could simply be a cat video saying “cute” or a food photo that makes your mouth water.  If you can pin an adjective/s to a photo other than “boring”, then the photo is succeeding on some level. The stronger the emotions invoked, the more successful the photo and the longer you’ll remember it.

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Add clouds to any landscape and pump up the emotional value.

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The intensity in this adolescent condor’s eye demands attention.

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I’ve got to say this shot is pretty average technically, but because it shows a mom and her chicks, it evokes a response and this shot will sell.
Yes, babies are adorable…

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Well maybe not the cutest kid, but did you have a response when you saw this?  If so, it worked.

2) Light

The word photography, literally means painting with light. The quality of the light directly impacts the quality of the photograph.  There’s soft light, harsh light, warm light, cool light, Rembrandt light, beauty light and so forth.  Your camera’s light meter can measure intensity of light, but only you can judge quality of light. There are no equations to evaluate light quality – it’s purely an aesthetic judgement.  How does one learn to make this judgement?  By studying good photography and painting, watching how movies are lit to invoke emotion, hanging out with photographers and other artists who have an eye for it…  Good photographers key into good light.  When they see good light, they find a subject to shoot.  When they see a good subject, they wait for the good light (or create it themselves with studio lighting, modifiers, etc).
Warm rich light from a low angle – quick find a subject.  This Reddish Egret will do nicely.

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Got a classic subject you want to shoot, like Sedona’s Cathedral Spires?

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Exposure is right on and it’s razor sharp.  But because the light sucks it’s boring, boring, boring.  But come back for sunset and you get yummy results like this.

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Often the good light is very fleeting.  Below is the Organ Mountains in New Mexico – a rugged strong landscape.  I had my subject, now wait for the light — wait, wait, wait….

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Boom.  The light only lasted a few seconds.

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Here I had very diffuse light from overcast skies – pretty blah unless I find the right subject.  In this case this Great Egret made for a splendid high key rendition.
Backlighting can give striking silhouettes…

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or fun fringe lighting.

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And of course there’s the tried and true north-facing window light – perfect for nude studies like the one below — oops, my bad, this is a family site.  Trust me, the shots are awesome.  As a consolation here’s a window-lit still life.

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3) Composition

Composition is the arrangement of subjects within a photo.  A good composition gets the viewer’s eye to travel throughout a photo.  A weak composition leads the eye to one spot where it subsequently gets stuck.  There are scads of articles and books written about composition and the various “rules” and concepts are beyond the scope of this article.  The point I want to make is that a photo with strong composition combined with good light has more emotional impact than one of the same subject with lousy composition and/or poor light.

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Here we have a nice shot of an eagle – it’s properly exposed and focused, very sharp at 1:1, and terrifically boring.  (So boring I didn’t bother to clone out that sensor dust.) It’s just another bird on a stick shot – nothing original or compelling about it.

Verm-Bald-eagle-eating-Dead-Horse-Ranch-0010 copy
Here’s the same eagle on the same tree but with a composition that complements the shot.  The eyes are invited to wander back and forth on the sweeping branch and as the eagle tears off a chunk of fish, his stooped shoulders add a complementary curve to the composition.
Which would you rather look at?  Oh by the way, the first shot was taken with an $18,000 lens, the second with a $1000 lens – toss those in The Box.

4) Creativity

Creativity is all about seeing a subject in a way others don’t.  It’s about being original.  Photographers whose work stands out does so because it’s original.  With the most creative ones you can tell who shot the photo without reading the byline, because their style is so unique.  Avedon and Salgado come to mind.

1self

Other than the model’s stunning good looks (the baby gator that is), there’s not a whole lot going for this shot.

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Here we’re getting a bit more creative, framing through the jaws of a dinosaur.  A smidge of creativity makes this a lot more fun to look at than the first shot.  How about a bucket of creativity?

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Selfie, meet Bizarre Atmospheric Phenomena.  Bizarre Atmospheric Phenomena, meet Selfie.  The subject of this is a tad ambiguous until you realized that is a human figure, in this case the photographer, casting his shadow into a fogbow in the rainforest (technically this is called a Glory [the circle rainbow] and Brocken Spectre [my shadow]).
Some scenes you just don’t want to put yourself into.

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Here’s a nice captive adult gator all plumped up on the turkey dogs the tourists at Gatorland toss him (and maybe an egret or two).  Now for a more creative look at an egret with one of Gatorland’s finest.

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5) Timing

Capturing the peak of action or human emotion or even just waiting for some clouds to move into position can make or break a photo.  After all a photograph is a minuscule slice of time captured and preserved for the ages.  Not all slices of time are as visually compelling as others.

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A second before these ducks were calmly loafing in the water.  Now they explode.

Rafter running Lava Falls, Grand Canyon.
The peak of action is one thing, but sometimes more powerful is the moment of emotional dread immediately preceding the peak.  Hard to look at this and not be relieved that you aren’t in that raft going through Lava Falls.

6) Context

Context is fundamental in storytelling – showing the subject relating to other subjects (animate or inanimate) or the environment gives the viewer more to chew on than just a straight portrait.

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Two Laughing Gulls smooching prior to getting their groove on.
Then there’s the classic little subject in the large landscape.

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Here the vastness of the landscape gives a sense of isolation to the subject which can invoke feelings of isolation, loneliness, independence or even confidence depending on how one looks at it.  Great Blue Heron on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
Let’s go with another tiny figure in big landscape shot.

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Here the tiny figure puts the surrounding landscape into perspective creating a sense of vastness we don’t get if we clone out the person as below.

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Here we still have a nice landscape but the sense of scale has diminished, giving a more abstract feel to the scene.

7) Layers

Layering in a photo is a broad and somewhat ambiguous concept.  Different photographers define it differently.  Here’s my take.  A photo with layers does more than one thing at a time, giving the viewer more to muse over.  Layers can be visual elements, the obvious example being a strong foreground with a strong background.

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Here’s classic near/far layering, with the well-traveled guitar case in the foreground, the guitar-toting rock star (John Stirratt of Wilco) strolling out into the desert in the mid-ground and lastly the sandstone buttes in the background.

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More near to far with the rock formations in Antelope Canyon.  In this case the layering is more subtle as there is a steady progression from near to far.  Nevertheless there are several more definitive points that establish foreground, mid-ground and background layers.

Double-crested Cormorants are superb fishermen; Gilbert Water Ranch, AZ.

Did you really think I’d forget a bird photo?
Note that single layer photos can succeed just fine if the subject is strong enough.

A Double-crested Cormorant yawns at Gilbert Water Ranch, AZ.

Here’s the same cormorant we saw before, but this time its gesturing (in this case yawning – when will that photographer stop shooting?) carries the photo.
Layers can also be story telling layers – where two or more elements of the photo inspire the viewer to consider multiple story lines.

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Here we return to Antelope Canyon and the same vantage point the black and white study was done from.  Only now we’re not just looking at visual layers but the added story-telling layer of the crazy crowds is included – yes this is what to expect if you visit Antelope Canyon, though you might not see the trendy wedding photo shoot going on.
These are the more obvious examples but there can be layers of meaning or feeling and on and on – basically anything that causes the viewer to come up with multiple interpretations of what’s going on.

8) Wrapping up

When you view a good photo you get lost in the subject, the story and the feelings evoked.  You don’t wonder about the metadata.  Let’s revisit the opening shot of the condor landing at sunset.

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Here we have exquisite light, strong composition and spot on timing. The foreground and background layering puts this incredibly rare bird into context within the beautiful landscape it lives in.  All this adds up to emotional punch and a winning shot.
What makes a photograph work is what makes any piece of art work, whether photo, painting, sculpture or other.  Shooting with a Leica or Hasselblad won’t make your photos better.  Shooting with feeling will.  To take your photography to a higher level, think outside The Box.

Source and discussion: https://photographylife.com/whats-important-in-a-photograph-and-what-isnt

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