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Quite often people have asked me: “What are the components of a powerful image?” I gave the question a lot of thought and decided that there’s so much in it that a whole eBook could be written on the topic, which is exactly what I did, with lots of practical examples to illustrate the points. This post is something of a sneak peak and an overview of some of the most important components that make up a powerful image.
Most would agree that a powerful photograph needs a subject that resonates with us for some reason. The kind of thing that makes us say “Wow!” or “I want to know more!” or “Isn’t that beautiful!”.
This woman’s wrinkled face, full of character and stories is one example of a strong or special subject that resonates with the viewer.
The beautiful aqueduct in Segovia, Spain is a completely different, yet also powerful example.
I’m not saying that an obviously special subject is an absolute must to make a powerful photograph. We can photograph more subtle things that might not usually stand out in everyday life and make them look amazing in photographs. It’s also true that a special subject alone doesn’t make a powerful image. I am however going to put things in perspective. A special, captivating subject is definitely a good start. Ultimately, even a badly executed photograph of that special subject will, to at least some extent interest the viewer, while a masterfully executed image of something that nobody finds interesting might not do the same.
What makes a strong composition? It’s not necessarily a framing which strictly follows the rule of thirds, or any other of the usual rules for that matter. The rules help, but they’re a means to a bigger aim, which is to make it clear what the image is about–what you are trying to communicate. Before anything else it is important that everything that does’t matter to what you’re trying to communicate is framed out, then we can think about how to position all that does matter within the frame for maximum impact. This is where the rule of thirds, use of geometry and all the other compositional theories come in.
The image above is a good example of framing out everything that doesn’t add to the story. The story is about a pilgrim’s physical sacrifice to make the journey to the sacred town of Lalibela, Ethiopia.These are feet that have walked a lot of miles. To communicate effectively, a minimalist approach was the best one, I got in very close to the feet with a long zoom lens and framed absolutely everything else out. Imagine if I had something else in the image, we’d be distracted from the main story and as a result the impact wouldn’t be the same.
This image is about the beauty of the geometry in the landscape. Again, to make it abundantly clear that this is what I’m trying to communicate, I composed the photograph in such a way that the curves and triangles dominate the frame. Everything that doesn’t say geometry or that breaks up the rhythm is excluded. The curvy lines lead the eye around and through the photograph and that’s what makes the composition work.
And so, all in all a strong composition is one that makes it clear what it is you, the photographer are trying to communicate. No matter whether the subject is a pilgrim’s worn out feet, or curvy sand dunes.
Capturing a moment can mean a few things – capturing an expression (a smile for example), or the wind blowing and moving the trees, or it can be a tender moment, like the one between the grandmother and her grandaughter in in the photo above.
A moment can be that of an action frozen in time, like this stork bringing a twig to build a nest.
Of course a moment can also be an instance during the day, for example an instance during the golden hour, when the light from the setting or rising sun makes everything look warm, vivid and generally more beautiful. What makes the photograph above powerful is the fact that I captured it at that moment. The landscape looks beautiful and lively. The same photo at a different moment could produce a much lesser result.
To conclude on this point, capturing a moment which is somehow special or different from what most of us consider mundane definitely contributes to the creation of a powerful image.
Light needs a further, more detailed mention in this post. It can be crucial to creating a powerful image. Light is capable of creating a strong sense of mood, it can add to the story and, it can even become a subject in its own right, which often leads to dramatic, powerful images.
This image of Ethiopian women cooking in a traditional kitchen is a good example of light adding a strong sense of mood to the photograph. It also adds to the story by accentuating the smoky conditions in the kitchen. The image would be decent without the light beam, but with it, the photograph goes to another level, where we not only see, but feel what we see to an extent.
In this landscape from Morocco you could say that the trees and the hills in the background are the subject, but, the light and its’ effect is equally prominent, hence, this is an example of light actually becoming a subject in its own right. An image of the trees and the hills in a different lighting scenario would not have nearly the same impact as it does when the light is so distinct and prominent that it becomes a subject itself.
Editors Note: for a comprehensive exploration of the topic of light check out Mitchell’s best selling eBook on Natural Light.
Emotional impact is probably the main factor that makes an image powerful, but, it isn’t something that’s always obviously tangible. It’s sometimes hard to pin-point exactly what causes the emotional impact. It can be that the subject captures you, or that the light really sets a strong mood, or, that the moment captured is fascinating, maybe even rare. Of course, it can be a combination of all the factors I’ve mentioned here and this makes for truly powerful imagery.