How To Photograph With Meaning

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There comes a point, or a plateau, as in every photographer’s career (whether you are an intermediate or professional photographer) where you hit a wall. It’s a crisis of self that you are faced with when you have reached a certain point of technical proficiency. Well, basically you hit a plateau because you already know all the elements of photography from composition, to technical skills, to editing images, but somehow something is missing — substance, meaning, emotional connection, and finding your own style.

So I invite you to forget what you know for a second, and take a look at your photography in a different light. Composition and technical prowess are certainly important factors in creating good photographs, but how do you create great photographs with meaning?

To realize that there is more behind a photograph than just a visual representation of time, place, and subject, and it can be much more rewarding when you challenge yourself to find your voice, your perspective, and create an emotional connection for the viewer.

Your photographs show your viewpoint and perspective of how you see the world. For example, if you put six photographers in a room and asked them to create a unique image, each photograph would turn out different. You already photograph with meaning, you just haven’t realized how much your subconscious adds your perspective onto your images.

Meaning in action

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Now that you’ve realized that photography is more than a GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) stage, where you’re buying up the latest and greatest cameras, lenses, software, and miscellaneous items for photography, it’s time to evolve into a better photographer — one with purpose.

“The real question is not what you look at but what you see.” – Henry David Thoreau

So how do you separate yourself from the technical nature of photography? The skills you have inherited through tutorials, articles, classes, workshops, online videos, etc., are still there in the back of your mind. You are finally comfortable shooting in different lighting, setting up different lighting schemes, knowing your way around your camera, and all this will come in handy when you are cooking up your own voice or style of shooting.

By setting those aside, you need to learn a new way of photographing, and that will take dedication and hard work, but ultimately it will be the most rewarding endeavor, especially if this is what you want to do for a living.

Mimicry is the greatest form of flattery

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Step one is to try to shoot in the style of your favorite photographer. By learning how they craft their images, you will be clued into their vision, which will inspire your own creative insights. You don’t have to exactly recreate an image perfectly like them, but just try to understand what they are doing, then try to recreate it.

Step two is to take photo challenges. A photo challenge or assignment is a way to test out your technical, and artistic sides, combined to create a homework assignment that others will judge. Being peer reviewed by other photographers will not only give you helpful advice, but provide you with thick skin for future critique of your work.

You may have a certain style of shooting that you are drawn to, like landscapes or street photography. But what if someone challenges you to do some macro shots, architectural, portraits, or anything different from what you’re used to? It takes you out of your comfort zone, and challenges your knowledge as a photographer, while also providing you with ideas to incorporate into your own work.

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You are now using all your technical photography education, and putting it into practice. It finally makes sense that you need to know these technical skills to create something with more meaning. It’s just like a doctor fresh out their residency, learning how to become a surgeon. Would you trust this person to cut you open without learning from other, more experienced surgeons? It’s the same with photography, it’s on the job training.

You need to learn it all, test it all, and learn different styles. Then, you can start to see your style peeping through, because you’ve slowly learned how to create your own vision, by studying those whose work you have a connection.

Meditative composition

I realized early on, my method was to find a subject, compose, take in the atmosphere, and wait patiently. While waiting, I absorbed all the things going on around me, without any sort of preconceived notions, but instead, just letting the world happen around me without trying to control it. It was a meditative state, where I had set up my easel (camera on a tripod) and waited for the decisive moment to shoot (putting the brush to the canvas).

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I was in the White Sands National Monument near Alamogordo, New Mexico this past summer, sitting on a white sand hill, watching the sky turn from a deep hue of blue, to a dark sky, forming into a lightning storm. The winds began to pick up and the white sands began blowing. In my frame I saw the sky change into this deep magenta, and the sands moving almost in a tornado like swirl. I knew at the moment I must click the shutter, and was able to capture a special moment by composing and waiting.

“But there is more to a fine photograph than information. We are also seeking to present an image that arouses the curiosity of the viewer or that, best of all, provokes the viewer to think – to ask a question or simply to gaze in thoughtful wonder. We know that photographs inform people. We also know that photographs move people. The photograph that does both is the one we want to see and make. It is the kind of picture that makes you want to pick up your own camera again and go to work.” – Sam Abell

Equivalence

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Equivalence is a term that has been used since Alfred Stieglitz first started expressing his work as more than just a capture of reality, but instead the things he captured were emotionally connected to him, whether they were geometric patterns, people, etc.

The term equivalence comes from the abstract painter, Wassily Kandinsky. His mission was to create more emotion with his painting, so that the audience who viewed his work could find, and feel, an emotional connection to his work. It was Stieglitz, who during a time where photography was simply documentation, incorporated the idea of equivalence into his photographic process. Boiled down to its simplest form, equivalence is the belief that colors, shapes, and geometric lines reflect one’s inner emotions. By studying Kandinsky he found meaning in his own work.

So what does that mean for you, a photographer trying to create photographs with meaning? Photographic meaning isn’t a literal translation of an image. Instead, it is a way in which you use your voice or perspective, to create a work that doesn’t need to be explained, which also evokes something/anything in the viewer.

This equivalence is what many great photographers have found, and when we see Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” or Robert Capa’s “The Falling Soldier” photographs we are instantly affected by them, and we don’t have to understand what is going on. We see the horror of war, and the look of uncertainty in a mother’s eyes as she holds her children.

Connect the dots

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The beauty of photography is that a single image can tell an entire story, or a photographic essay can piece together an important narrative. A story worth telling, is the same as photographing with meaning. Photographs are your way of showing your point-of-view, or that of your subjects, to an audience.

We capture the human experience, whether that be a genocide, or the coming home of soldiers from war. It can be pain, beauty, grace, disgust, but photographs are visual storytellers, and those who understand how to make a story with their images become the most successful.

“As far as I am concerned, taking photographs is a means of understanding which cannot be separated from other means of visual expression. It is a way of shouting, of freeing oneself, not of proving or asserting one’s own originality. It is a way of life.” — Henri Cartier-Bresson

Each great photographer’s work was influenced by those who came before them. Some of us have a natural eye for composition and great timing, but does that mean that hard work won’t help those who lack these skills, to gain them?

To photograph with meaning, there is a literal route to find this discovery. To hurry up that process it takes hard work, dedication, and humility. You need to burn up your memory cards, and take a look at each of your frames to see what works and doesn’t. You need to look at photo books of the masters to see their vision, to help cultivate your own, by recreating their works.

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You need to be patient, reflective, and willing to subject yourself into uncomfortable, and sometimes even dangerous situations, to really push yourself toward to becoming a better photographer.

Creating an emotional connection with your work is finding the equivalence that will speak volumes to your audience, without you even having to explain yourself. So, to make it clear, to find meaning in your photographs you must be willing to study, try, fail, and explore other genres of photography to find your place, your vision, and to take a deeper look inside yourself and the work you intend to create.

By studying the forefathers of photography you can create something new that was influenced by powerful, meaningful photographs. It’s not plagiarism to combine techniques or processes of others. Besides that would be like telling someone who never read a book, and doesn’t understand plot, to write the great American novel.

You must learn to walk before you can run.

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Adam T Crawford is a photographer and journalist and has been a staff editor at various photography magazines. Adam's current role is the Founder/Editor-in-Chief of Precise Moment Magazine, an online photography magazine that contextualizes the modern landscape and philosophy of photography. Connect with him on his website, Facebook, and Twitter.

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  • Adam

    Thanks 🙂

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  • Adam

    Anytime.

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  • AZ-Zakwanul Faiz bin Zakaria

    I always cringe or feel helpless when somebody starts asking, “what’s the story of this picture?”. now my camera is in the cupboard for quite a long time & i always wonder what to do so my pictures & myself won’t end up like vivian maier where people are starting to recognise her after her death. After reading this, i feel much better rather than, ” it’s impossible (while doing nothing & let relapse take over me)”. Top picture, the cloud on the right looks like a seahorse!

  • Adam

    hi AZ-Zakwanul, thanks for commenting! The self-doubt is definitely something that comes with the territory. The patience and humility to know that you won’t be the best photographer in just a few days or even a few years, is one of the great things about being a photographer I think. You have an entire lifetime to fail, have trail-and-error as a photographer, but the more experience you have, the better you will get and the more fun you will have shooting. The story behind the experience the photographer has is just as important as the photograph they’ve made.

    That experience, that introspection, will help you be more confident and happy with what you create. By putting yourself out there and out of your comfort zone, it won’t only make you a better photographer, it will help you be more mindful and methodical in your photographic practice. Smelling the roses or picking daisies in a field can be some of our best moments as photographers. I’m glad my article helped you in a small way.

  • TByte

    I’m sorry to say this, but these are some of the blandest snapshot quality photos I can imagine. The irony of them being used to illustrate an article about “meaning” in photography is just too much.

  • Adam

    Thanks TByte, I certainly respect your opinion that these are bland snapshots, but I think the point I was trying to get across is that in photography, finding meaning in your own work, regardless of others’ opinions, is important. Why else do it? These photographs have meaning to me personally, and I chose them to illustrate the experiences I had while living on the road last year. Thanks for the feedback.

  • TByte

    I thought the point was about putting meaning INTO your photos. Of course, anybody can find personal meaning in their own photos.

    Honestly, I wondered if these images were typical of your style, so I did a google search for “Adam T Crawford photographer”.

    Literally, NOTHING came up except the images in this post. Yet you are described as “a photographer and journalist and has been a staff editor at various photography magazines”.

    Hey, I can’t blame you for promoting yourself as much as you can, but you might start with having a portfolio of good shots readily available. Meanwhile, I do hold Digital Photography School and its editors responsible for the content providers it promotes.

  • TByte

    I thought the point was about putting meaning INTO your photos. Of course, anybody can find personal meaning in their own photos.

    Honestly, I wondered if these images were typical of your style, so I did a google search for “Adam T Crawford photographer”.

    Literally, NOTHING came up except the images in this post. Yet you are described as “a photographer and journalist and has been a staff editor at various photography magazines”.

    Hey, I can’t blame you for promoting yourself as much as you can, but you might start with having a portfolio of good shots readily available. Meanwhile, I do hold Digital Photography School and its editors responsible for the content providers it promotes.

  • Josh

    I think you can be more emotionally attached to the photos rather than them being great photos. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when sharing them with others we won’t have that same feeling unless there is more ‘story’ or ’emotion’ in the photo so it speaks for itself rather than you speaking for it. I’d compare it to, let’s say a picture of my child. While it might mean the world to me, it may not necessarily be a good photo, and draws little inspiration to everyone else that may see it. That’s a harsh reality for any of us to swallow at times.

  • rob Lamont

    Hi all, there is no problem with shooting with emotion, just realize that everyone is their own person and beauty is a subjective opinion. Some people will like your work and others won’t.

  • Adam

    Thanks Rob 🙂

  • Mike

    Great point! Thanx for sharing.

  • Mike

    Sometimes it’s ironic how subjective our craft can be. I have a photo I took many years ago and thought was great, recently I looked at it and thought, this is really nothing special. I
    entered this photo in a competition to “test” it, and it won an award. It shows that as we evolve as photographer’s that there are still those that appreciate our less experienced work

  • Well said.

  • Interesting article making good points. Personally I believe that developing an emotional connection with your own work is paramount even if the results do not conform to conventional or popular expectations. I also strongly believe that photography should be about process as much as, and maybe even more so than, result. If you focus constantly only on mimicry or trying to generate a popular image as an end it itself, you really lose out. It’s really important for every photographer to identify that inner artist that lies within us all.

  • walwit

    If everyone liked it, you wouldn’t like it.

  • Christopher

    Remember this…photography is a form of art. Everyone shoots their own thing just like a painter does with his brush. We use a different medium to express ourselves. Everyone is going to be a critic. I go into galleries just to look to see what everyone else is doing and I may or may not like what I see. Doesn’t make it bad, just not my style. Doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate it for the art being displayed. Use others work to be inspired or to interpret what they saw.

  • Adrian Lowe

    Thanks for this wonderful brain jump start. This is one of the very best articles I’ve seen in the extremely difficult topic of meaningful images. It at least gets the brain thinking about the result of how to get your impression across to the viewers using the technical know how one has accumulated somewhat – note that I didn’t say successfully, as we’re always learning. Photographs are records/snapshots and art/creations. Any compact these days can accurately record what’s in front of you but it’s a different thing to record what’s in your mind, what you see and feel about the subject, and in a way that’s different to the millions of similar images in this day of millions of cameras. What a wonderful opportunity to slow down and really feel and see what’s there, to meditate on it (without getting too mushy on the word) and create something with that wow factor, whether it be beauty in a different way, drama, pathos and so on. The craft can make art if we think of adjectives instead of subject headings.

  • rob Lamont

    It’s easy to find fault with your own work

  • Donna

    Great post, thank you. Lots to think about and interesting ideas.

  • AZ-Zakwanul Faiz bin Zakaria

    You’re right, i bought my very own first “serious” camera (mirrorless) in October 2014 & I’m still far away for being an experienced/best photographer if I keep staying in this comfort zone (quite boring & depressing too) forever. Thanks!

  • Rob Gow

    Absolutely enjoyed and related well to all u have explained soo well.cheeeers.

  • Agree with the author. Emotional intelligence and connection to the work is important. I think photography is a great mix of art and science that creates a feeling to the person viewing. Thanks for a fine post — Andrew http://myphotoboothnj.com

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