Monday, March 30, 2009

The three key elements of good photographs

Photography is about three things: light, colour and action. Think of it as the tripod that supports all good images. As you know though it is still possible to take a great image on a monopod so at the risk of straining the metaphor, you need at least one of the following elements to make an interesting image.

Light is the essence of photography. It tells the story in your image by connecting directly with the emotions of the viewer. Harsh light and soft light, shadow that hides and sparks the imagination, bright light that shows every detail – all have their characteristics. To be a good photographer you need to learn how to speak the language of light and use it to tell the story you want to communicate to the viewer.

Colour, and in black and white the tonal range and values, also connect with the viewer's emotions. Colour provides the inner energy of the image. Vibrant and bright colours have a profoundly different mood to soft muted colours. Warm colours come forward while cool colours retreat, creating depth and emphasis in your images. Dark and light tones in black and white images create a pattern and fill the frame with energy when used in high contrast or soften the mood when you use subtle greys.

Action is the word I use to describe what is happening in the image. This may be a decisive moment ala Cartier Bresson or it could be tension created in a still life composition between different elements for example an egg balanced precariously on the edge of a table. The action in an image is what gets the viewer to pose the all important questions, “What happened next and what happened a fraction of a second before?” Action is a slice of frozen time the split second the shutter opened. As photographers we have to both pose the question to the viewer, “Why was this particular split second important?” And in the image we have to provide an answer as well so that the viewer can discover something in your image which makes them say, “Oh I see why!” It could take a split second for the viewer to ‘get it’ or a minute but that discovery has to be there to make the image truly interesting.

Right. There we have the three legs of the tripod that good photography rests on. Now you need to think about how to use all three to make your images connect with the viewer’s emotions and intellect. You have to surprise, amaze and enthrall them to get your images to communicate. Each step of the way you’ve got to think; how can I use light, colour and action/interaction/reaction within the image to make it more powerful, creative and meaningful. Simple really…

Till soon…

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Do we violate people when we photograph them?

Whenever you pick up your camera and take a picture of someone you have to realise that your image is a record of a moment that will be passed down through history.

Your picture can have a profound effect on the life of the person you have photographed, their family and the public. One example that illustrates this is Dorothea Lange's iconic photograph “Migrant Mother”. Jeffrey Dunn has written a great article about the affect of this picture on all concerned.

I find it fascinating when people who played a prominent role in a famous photograph are rediscovered, often unaware of the role the image made of them played in history. A recent example was revealed in the BBC Wales TV documentary where Professor Dai Smith traced a miner who described how he and two colleagues had met renowned photographer W. Eugene Smith on their way home from work at the pit and had been instructed on how to pose for one of the photos published in Life in 1950. The miner remembered the day he was photographed quite clearly and that Smith offered a little guidance as to how they should stand and where they had to look. Smith was trying to communicate his story. The village backdrop, the miners, the light, their gestures, all contributed to the story he was building.

Smith used the miners, as Lange used Migrant mother to visually communicate the truth about a situation. In a sense photographers direct the action and their subjects become actors playing a role, which may or may not reflect their actual personal situation. The photographed subjects may be quite unwitting in their complicity and indeed the photographer may not fully realise the truth they are communcating in that moment. It may come out in the brilliant clarity afforded later by history.

I do not agree with Susan Sontag's statement, “To photograph people is to violate them,” in her book On Photography. The word violate is far too negative. Art and journalism are always an interpretation of reality. Through this interpretation we hope to uncover the truth. I do not think that most people who have been photographed feel that they have been violated. They are usually willing participants in the story and like the miner do not feel strongly one way or the other. Some will feel the truth of their story has been misapropriated but like the Migrant mother's family eventually they may come to realise the role an image played in history was important.

Photography is an incredibly powerful medium. My wife and fellow photographer recently got back in touch with a famous dancer she had photographed twelve years ago. He saw the portrait she had made and he became emotional. He said his whole life since that moment flashed in front of his eyes. The image had a profound effect on him. He has asked Magda to make another portrait.

Photography is about time. The split second the image was taken and the way that image resonates through time. Pick up any book of historical images and you can feel the ghosts speaking to you.

This power to communicate through images means that as photographers we have to realise that we have moral duty to treat our subjects with respect and dignity. We should tell the truth of their situation as well as provide our audience with the the wider social truth of their circumstances. This extends to the way we present our images and caption them and most importantly we should feel the heavy hand of history resting on our shoulders every time we push the shutter with another human being in front of our lens.