I thought that once I could take a properly exposed photo that was all there was to it, and I would shoot nothing but world-class images from that point forward. (Yeah, I know… I was pretty naive.) It wasn’t until I learned the creative skills that go into making an image that I began to produce images that I was satisfied with and which caught people’s attention. ~CB
Make an Image, Instead of Taking a Photo
When we make an image, we are doing much more than just pointing our lenses at something and pressing the shutter release. We use the tools in our creative toolkit to focus on the artistic elements of our images to elevate them past being a snapshot.
How do we do this? One way is to slow down to become more purposeful when we choose to snap our shutters. When you become more purposeful, you are focusing on the artistic side of the creation of the image.
Just like knowing how to use your camera like the back of your hand, learning to slow down is one of the foundational skills that every successful photographer has mastered. It allows you time to creatively evaluate the scene at hand, as well as time to experiment to find the best possible image to share your “story.” It is important to remember that we do all this for us first, our viewers second. Don’t forget to be present and take the time enjoy the beauty in front of your lens. Feel the joy of performing your craft. When you do, your photography will matter, and it will show in your work.
#1 – Tell a Story
Knowing how to build an image frame to tell a story is just another step along the path to taking creative images. When you begin to see the world as a succession of stories being played out, it is much easier to see them and capture them in your unique way.
All through time, the most memorable stories have typically included a hero. That single point of focus, around which the story unfolds. This holds true for our images as well. Having a clearly defined main subject in your image is crucial to tell the story.
Often additional items are needed to support your main character or subject. These are the things that put your main subject into context and helps your viewers determine what is important in the image.
Compelling storytelling (and images) eliminates all superfluous elements, keeping only the core elements (main and supporting actors) in the frame. By doing this, it allows your viewer not to be overwhelmed visually.
#2 – Add Emotion to Your Images
We have talked about the importance of story to strengthen our images. Applying your unique perspective to even relatively common things can dramatically improve your work as well. Everything that we experience or learn make us who we are. How we choose to react to events in life are what makes us so unique. It is this reaction that is key. Without it, your image will be devoid of any emotional components.
Taking this point a step further, shoot things that you love. If you don’t slow down and be present, it is doubtful that you will be “in” the moment that you are trying to capture with your camera.
Here is a prime example. I love water. Whether I am near it, on it, or beneath it, being around water is where I am the happiest. Is it any wonder that all of my best landscape and travel images contain water in the frame? How do you expect to convey to your viewer an emotion that you are not feeling yourself?
Capturing life as it happens instead of contrived poses for the camera will also add emotion to your image. It allows for your subjects to react to their environments, and to express their feelings. An even better way to make the image is to capture them doing something they love to do and watch that magic leap into your frame!
#3 – Use Creative Compositions
Move past the use the Rule of Thirds and basic leading lines to create more compelling images. While understanding both of these techniques is important, knowing when to ignore them is just as important. If you look at the work of successful professional photographers, their most impactful photos are at war with these simple compositional techniques.
We see in three dimensions. Cameras capture the world in two dimensions. My images began to improve the moment I realized that I had to overcome this deficiency. Think of your images as containing multiple layers. Creating a flow from foreground to the middle ground and the background will give your images a three-dimensional look. You can then use leading elements to take your viewer’s eye through these layers and to your main subject. Master this, and you will produce amazing images. How do we do this?
One way is to begin to see the world in a more abstract way. Work to see objects as shapes instead of what they are. Use these forms as compositional elements to support your frame. For example, pine trees become triangles. Triangles look like arrows. We use arrows to directional point at things.
The key is to see everything in your frame as a means to either support your main subject or to lead your viewer’s eye through the frame to it. This will leave no doubt to the viewer of your intended main subject in your image.
#4 – Keep Your Frame Simple
The most impactful images all have the same general feature. They only include the essential elements that are required to impact on their viewers the emotion (and story) at hand. Adding extraneous objects lessens the impact of the image as it confuses your audience as to what you are trying to show them. Ways to do this are using depth of field to isolate your subject, zooming in close to your subject, and by choosing simple backgrounds.
With that said, there are instances where having a busy background can convey emotion as well. If the story that you are telling is one of urgency, tension or confusion, then consider using a background that is very busy. It will make your viewers eye uncomfortable, imparting an emotional response from them. To pull this off your main subject has to remain clearly visible in the image.
#5 – Use Creative Camera Techniques
You will hear me often refer to your creative toolkit. These are all of the concepts and techniques that allow you to create an impactful image. The first four tips above fall into this category but more on the artistic side of the creating an image. Let’s now look at a few camera techniques that are used to improve our photographs.
Understand how Shutter Speed impacts your images. The use of movement is another creative tool that you can use to add emotion to your photos. Whether you choose to freeze motion or allow it to be blurred can cause the same scene to be captured with two entirely different moods.
If you are trying to capture a crucial point of an event, and the emotion surrounding that moment, then frozen movement works well. Slowing your shutter will introduce motion into your image. When you do this, it adds energy and urgency and can lead to dramatic images. Do this by showing your subject’s movement in the image through allowing them to be blurred or by panning your camera along with your subject (moving in the same direction and with the same speed), thus freezing the subject and providing a motion blur to your background.
Proximity to the lens of your camera can distort size. The closer to the lens, the larger the object appears compared to objects in the background. A great example is a classic shot of someone holding up the leaning tower of Pisa. The tower is of course much larger in physical size, but because of proximity to the lens, we can make the person look to be the same size as the tower. We can use this technique in our images to create interesting foregrounds that draw our viewer’s eye. This goes to helping create the three dimensional look week described earlier.