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Like any form of art, compelling photography is not simply about reproducing your subject, it’s about representing your subject with visual hints and clues that suggest the larger scene. Accuracy isn’t what’s going to excite your viewer and draw them into your image, it’s feel, style and message.
When composing your photos, you don’t just want to show your audience what they can already see when they look at things in real life. Instead, you want to give them an abbreviated version of the scene that will make them try to visualize what lies beyond the borders of your frame. Your goal is to make a creative depiction of the world that invokes the imagination and emotions of your viewer. If you can activate not just their eyes, but also their brains, you’ll go further towards holding their attention with your shot.
One way to shoot abbreviated scenes is to accentuate details that your viewers might not notice as they speed through life. These kinds of shots often make for powerful photographs because it’s an easy way to fire up your viewer’s imagination. Let’s explore a few different examples of how you might approach shooting these kinds of detail photos.
Sometimes you can show a single aspect of the scene without giving away any other information about the rest of the scene, other than what is clearly apparent in your image. Just about every type of subject lends itself to this type of photograph: architecture, travel, environmental features, landscapes and even action.
When shooting the single detail, make sure you focus on creating a simple yet powerful image. Since your subject matter will be limited, the strength of your image will depend on a good composition and the strong use of light, colour and form. (see photos above and below as example)
Including more elements in your shot often hints about how the subject relates with its surroundings. This can really add depth to your shot, because it starts to imply reference and narrative, instead of just being about a single thing. You’ll want to include enough information in the image that suggests a greater story about the scene to your viewers, without giving away too much information or weighing down your photograph.
Detail shots don’t always have to be photographs of smaller objects and they don’t always have to be taken up close. There is enough detail of different sizes in the world that you can focus on nearly anything, as long as you can accentuate that particular subject matter in a visually appealing way.
This is where long lenses really shine. I love shooting long, suggestive shots, of distant subjects with my telephoto zoom lens. The narrow angle of view lets me focus on just two or three elements, and the shallow depth of field creates a soft background that doesn’t distract from the main subjects.
Sometimes your shot will be more about simple graphic form and texture, instead of a physical object. When done right, you can still tell a powerful visual story with limited subject matter. Experiment with lines, shapes, colours, patterns and other abstract subject matter that appeals to you. Shadows can be powerful compositional elements because they suggest how your subject relates with other tangible objects around them.
People often make for the most powerful subjects, because as humans, we all relate with and respond to each other on some level. There is an unending variety of details that you can capture when shooting humans and their actions. Try focusing on elements such as interaction, motion, emotion and their association with others and with the world in general.
Remember, you don’t always have to show the whole thing. Sometimes even a single abbreviated detail can be a powerful image. Experiment with cropping and zooming in on your subjects, to show the minimum amount of visual information needed to make a good photograph. You might be surprised at how little you need to show in order to create a compelling image.
As I like to say, any time you can invoke your viewer’s imagination, you’ve gone a long way towards creating a successful image. Strive for simplicity with your photography and see how far you can take this concept to its fullest potential.
Accuracy isn’t what’s going to excite your viewer and draw them into your image, it’s feel, style and message.