I believe there are two main reasons people make photos: (1) people take pictures to please themselves or (2) people take pictures to communicate something to others.
Making photos of ourselves is pretty easy. We know right away if the photo was successful. Either we like it or we don’t. If we don’t like it, we probably can figure out what would make it better. Photos we take for ourselves belong in the category of snapshots. They are intended for the family photo album to hold memories of vacations, birthdays and life’s other special events.
One year I decided to help my father transfer the family movies to video. It was a pretty crude setup, but it worked. We projected the movies onto a screen and videotaped them while our family watched the old movies. The video camera captured the comments we made as we watched the old films.
The funny thing is, every time we watch these videos together, the family made the same comments. We caught ourselves laughing at how these old pictures always trigger the same responses.
As I think back I realize that the older films, made before I was born, don’t do much for me. You just had to be there for these snapshots to work.
Photos Need to Communicate
If we want our photos to communicate, we must consider another person’s point of view. How can we attract and hold the attention of our audience? One way to learn to do this is by studying the work of photographers whose work does just that.
I suggest aiming for the top. If you like sports, then open Sports Illustrated and study the photos. Ask yourself and others why these photos work. If you enjoy travel photography, study National Geographic, Southern Living or other magazines that do a good job keeping a paying audience.
There are some key elements that keep the viewer’s attention. Editorial photographers try to stop the viewer with their photographs. They want the photo to spark curiosity; to make us read the caption under the photo. A good caption will make us want to read the story.
Here are some of the key elements that distinguish a good photo from a snapshot:
Stopping power. The world is full of visuals vying for our attention. There are photos on products, TV, magazines, newspapers, the Web … everywhere pictures, pictures and more pictures!
I believe the key is to show our audience something different. Most snapshots are shot from standing height and way too far away. Get down to the ground for a worm’s eye view or get up on something for a bird’s eye view. Get a lot closer. This will give our photo a little stopping power. It’s out of the ordinary. It’s a surprise.
Communication of purpose
Getting the attention must be followed by good content. People want to be amused, entertained or learn something from a photograph. We need to think about why we are taking a picture. If we aren’t sure, no one else will be either. We’ll end up with another snapshot.
Emotional impact or mood
Some folks just tell stories better than others. The same is true with making photos, but we will make better photos if we consider how to bring more drama into them. The key to creating emotional impact is to first experience the emotions we wish to convey. We need to have a genuine interest in the subjects we photograph.
Our photos need to be technically correct, that’s understood, just as a musician is expected to at least play the right notes. But if the photo doesn’t draw the viewer in and move them in some way, it’s like listening to a machine perform Chopin. What we choose to include or exclude makes up the graphical elements that can catch the viewer’s attention. Remember, a technically competent photograph, is often no more than a technically competent boring snapshot.
Of course we must be sure the camera’s settings are correct, but this is only the beginning. We need to look from a new perspective, look for another point of view so that people will want to see more of our pictures rather than looking for ways to get out of enduring more snapshots.