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A Guest Contribution by Dan Bailey
We photographers seem to have it easy. Whereas most artists spend anywhere from hours, to months to years to manufacture their creations, we can simply point, press and be done. However, that kind of convenience doesn’t necessarily translate into great imagery.
Shooting powerful photos that have lasting visual appeal requires more than just pointing and clicking; it takes applying some fundamental compositional methods that are designed to simplify your compositions and actively engage your viewers. Here are five steps that will help you strengthen the visual impact of your imagery.
Photography is all about light, and it’s the first thing that will make or break the shot. Not matter what you’re shooting, any and every subject will look better in great light. When we think of good light, we often think of Magic Hour, or the stretches of time during sunrise and sunset. As a general rule, shooting during these times will usually give excellent results.
However, be open to shooting at other times of the day, or even using other lighting sources. Fog, diffused window light or a camera flash can all make for compelling illumination. If you become proficient at wrangling the light, you can create great photos under any conditions.
First and foremost, your image should have have a main subject. Period. It needs to be about something. The most powerful photographs are built around a single element that serves as the focal point of the shot. As a photographer, your job is to draw your viewer into the frame, and if you don’t give them something to lock onto, their eyes will wander aimlessly around your picture trying to figure out what they’re supposed to see. If you don’t know what your picture is about, then your viewer won’t either and they’ll just move on.
A powerful photograph tells a story, which essentially means that it communicates some specific message or invokes an emotional response from the viewer. The best way to do build this story is to establish relationships between your main subject and the other elements inside the frame.
The job of these secondary elements is to compliment, reinforce or contrast the main subject in some way. An effective secondary subject can be as simple as a strong, out of focus background that gives a sense of place, or it can be two or three other things in the photo that give your subject something to play off of and help to establish the narrative of how your subject “fits” within the world of your frame.
Adding strong secondary elements to your photo also gives your viewer something else to explore as their eyes scan the image, and more importantly, it gives them something to think about. Anytime you activate your viewer’s brain, you’ve gone a long way towards creating a compelling image.
Depending on how you place your subjects in the frame, you determine the experience by which your viewer scans and respond to what’s in your photograph. The human eyes and brain are hard wired to see and recognize patterns, colors and imperfections in the world; it’s how we evolved to identify our surroundings and spot things like food and danger.
By using a mix of hot and cool colors and by placing your subjects in seemingly random areas in the frame, you cause an inherent uneasiness in your viewers. Their eyes will scan your image, trying to find patterns and that may not exist, and so they’ll keep looking, tracking back and forth between your different subject elements, and darting across broad patches of negative space in order to make sense of the photo. By contrast, if your composition is too perfect, or too balanced, your viewer will quickly spot this nice, easy pattern and move on. That’s not what you want.
A common mistake with beginning photographers is to try and show too much. This leads to cluttered, boring images that do little to engage the viewer’s brain. As I said in number 2 above, in order to create a powerful photo, you need a main subject. However, I didn’t say that you had to show the whole thing.
Abbreviating your subjects can be a very powerful method towards creating a compelling shot. Especially if I they’re things that we’re all familiar with. If you only show part of a subject, you automatically activate your viewer’s imagination as they try to picture the rest in their mind. Photography is a two way street: You have creator and viewer, and if you bring your audience into the process, you invite them to become more connected to your shot.
Remember, good photography isn’t about perfectly reproducing your subject, it’s about creating a visual representation that communicates the ideas or emotions that you had about the scene right when you pressed the shutter.
For more creative photography tips, I invite you to check out my eBook Making The Image – A Conceptual Guide to Creating Stronger Images. I’ll even give you a special price! Use discount code DPS you can get eBook for 50% off.
Dan Bailey is a full time professional outdoor, adventure and travel photographer based in Alaska. When he’s not off exploring in the mountains, writing about photography, or flying his little yellow bush plane, he can sometimes be found lurking in the forums right here at DPS.