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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The High Concept Image


Pro tips to help you take your photos to a higher level

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The run-of-the-mill, low-concept portrait of the egret (left) contrasts with the high-concept group photo (right). The apparent visual mismatch between the birds and their reflections was caused by Plant's choice of camera position relative to the scene. It creates a photo that's intricate and unexpected. A dark exposure helps to emphasize the eerie mood he was trying to convey. J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Florida. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon 500mm ƒ/4L EF IS USM, ISO 800, ƒ/9, 1⁄500 sec.
A lot of things can help you tell a story with nature images: interesting weather, the line of sight or the pose of an animal, or even a brief, but unique and meaningful convergence of natural elements. What you should be looking for are what I like to call "story cues"—the elements of a photo that get viewers interested in the subject's story. Just as a good composition visually entices the viewer, story cues can encourage the viewer to linger and study an image.

Just remember, when you make a photo, not just one, but at least three stories are often the result: the real story behind the photo, the story that you're trying to tell others as an artist (which may or may not be connected with the true story, depending on your artistic whim), and the story that each viewer extracts from the photo (which is often completely untethered from the first two stories). There's no need to try to make all three stories the same; there's especially no need to try to force your viewers to see the story you're trying to tell. It's sufficient to make a photograph that sets viewers' imaginations on fire.

2 Move your feet and seek novel compositions and juxtapositions. I see it all the time—photographers who show up to a location, drop their camera bag and start shooting, never moving from that first spot. Successful photography is all about moving your feet, and looking for unique and compelling angles. High-concept photography, in particular, requires finding fresh perspectives. Learning to see scene elements as abstract shapes, lines and colors helps; so does a creative eye and a willingness to think outside the box.

Even more important is to be constantly on the lookout for unique and compelling juxtapositions of visual elements. Successful artistic composition is more than just figuring out how to arrange everything within the image frame; it also involves finding meaningful, sometimes even ironic, relationships between elements. A compelling composition will do more than just lead the viewer's eye into the picture frame—it can help tell a story about the subject and arouse the viewer's curiosity and interest.

In the high-concept photo, twilight blues and an interesting cloud formation come together to create a solemn mood and elevate this scene to a higher level. Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 16-35mm ƒ/2.8L II USM, polarizer, 2-stop graduated ND filter, ISO 400, ƒ/11, 2 minutes.

3 Don't just chase "magic hour" light; chase expressive light. Too often, we end up chasing stunning sunset and sunrise light to the exclusion of other types of light, which can be equally effective (if not more so) for the subject matter at hand. I look for the edges of light, mixed light and complementary colors when creating high-concept images—and not always at sunrise or sunset. Often, high-concept lighting can occur at other times of day (even in the middle of the day). It's all a question of matching the light to the subject and patiently waiting for unusual lighting events to occur.

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