In May of 2013, the sheer volume of images getting pushed to social media was staggering. The online photography forum Petapixel cited a 60 second video from another online community (BuzzFeed) that highlighted the numbers of what is getting published to the web every 60 seconds. It is completely overwhelming to know that 27,800 images were being uploaded to Instagram every 60 seconds, Facebook received 208,300 uploads in the same timeframe, giving them 9 billion uploads every month! Are you getting the cold sweats yet? So how do you have any chance of survival in the photography world among these numbers? I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news, but this is like sprinting uphill, while continuously adding 10 pounds to your backpack every second. Although these numbers are monstrous, they really have no bearing on the quality of that content. Here are 3 questions to ask yourself about your subject before you pull the trigger on taking that photo presented to you in your viewfinder.
What is the subject?
Strongly defined subjects allow the viewer to see and understand the message intended by the photographer. I have discovered that if I know exactly what I am about to photograph, there is a fairly good chance that my viewer will identify with that subject as well. The key to defining your subject is complete honesty within yourself though. When I am teaching clients during my weekend workshops, many people just throw out an idea when asked what their subject is. I am talking about truly analyzing your scene and thoroughly committing to the subject because that element has caught your eye. This in turn helps you to produce the strongest image possible right from the start.
The other piece of the puzzle is to ask yourself if the subject is truly is photo worthy. If you have decided that your subject is an albino banana slug and your goal is to produce an image with that as your subject matter, you may want to reconsider using it as the main subject. Unless of course you are biologist and that photo of the albino banana slug is the topic of your study. Or if that slug is in an other worldly scenario that no one has ever witnessed. In which case, feel free to pull the trigger. This leads us directly to question number two.
What is the action (or non-action) of the subject?
The subject needs to have purpose in your frame. Once you have honestly defined the subject, and come to the conclusion that the subject is photo worthy, you need create the composition so that the subject has purpose. In other words, surround the subject with context that highlights it, strengthens it, and has your viewer hanging on to the image for a little bit longer. It needs to be different or even better than the other photographer standing next to you pulling the trigger with perhaps a slightly different subject and concept in mind.
Is there a way you can highlight this subject that you haven’t seen illustrated before? Can you change your viewing perspective so that you are illustrating the subject from a different vantage point? Can you use your camera controls to illustrate the subject in a new way - think shallow depth-of-field, blurred or frozen motion, or selective focus. All this can contribute to how your subject is perceived by your viewer. You can highlight the subject or add a challenging factor to the subject so your viewer has to work to identify it. Be careful when you attempt this though, because there is always the chance that you will lose your viewer if you are not truly decisive with the reasoning behind your actions.
How does your eye travel through the image?
Photos are two-dimensional representations of a three dimensional world. The more depth an image has the longer people will look at it. Now that our subject is defined, is subject worthy, and has a clearly defined purpose in your frame, we can introduce elements that allow our eyes to interact with space or depth in our photograph. Photos flatten our view of the world, so adding some layers to what we are photographing can bring our viewer into our scene.
Consider adding an element like a guiding line that takes us deeper into your frame. Think about processing your image in a way that dodges and burns your shadows and highlights - remember lights advance and darks typically recede to a human’s eyes. Think about using complimentary colors if they are available. Or even connecting shapes that are in proximity to or part of your subject. Essentially, we want to use anything that is available to us at that present moment to allow our viewer to feel as if they can become part of our photograph.
Once you have thought about these three questions, pull the trigger and create your photograph. The hardest part about this thought process though is that it happens in mere milliseconds. You’ll need to realize that this mental process is going to take time to master if you are photographing anything that has any kind of motion in your frame, and involves speed oriented timing. Once you are used to continually questioning what you are about to photograph, your photographs will become stronger and stronger with more purpose than you ever thought possible.
We have a brand new ebook available on How-To Build a Compelling Photograph. This three part series will teach you how to discover and produce photographs with more purpose than ever before through the theories of design.
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