Think Like a Photographer: Introduction

What is a Photograph?

The question may seem like a a simple one but if you are going to think like a photographer you first need to start with the basics and work from there. A photograph is a still image of a subject captured with a camera and rendered in a print form. What I just said would be a good definition of a photograph if you are a scientist. However we are interested in thinking like photographers not scientists so let’s try a better definition.

A photograph is a visual story. That is the definition of a photograph we will concern ourselves with. Typically many new (and even experienced) photographers get so hung up on the technical side of photography that they forget what they are doing and that is to tell a story. Photography at its core is an art form and an art form seeks to engage the senses. We can buy all the gear we want, learn every Photoshop command and take all the photography courses in the world but at the end all we want to do is tell a story.

Best selling books will sell books because they tell compelling stories with a mastery of their language. Compelling photographs tell compelling stories with their compelling subjects, composition and technical details. If a photograph is done properly people will be remember it without having to see it again. Some of the most compelling photographs are not the best technically but present subject matter so compelling we can remember it because of the stories they told.

I would urge you to remember this little bit of wisdom: a finely composed and technically superior photograph of a boring subject is still a boring photograph.

What is a Photographer?

If a photograph is a visual story then a photographer is a visual story teller. A photographer needs to understand all the different elements of a successful photograph and how to bring them together. Ultimately we not only want people to understand our story but why we are telling it in the first place. We as photographers need a purpose for doing what we do and our photographs should answer it.

If you are a portrait photographer then your photographs should say this photograph was taken to capture the subject and make them look good. Good photographic journalists take photographs that make viewers understand that the event and subject captured was captured because it was significant. Because there is always more to be done to tell a better story photographers always need to be improving their knowledge and understanding of the craft so they can put it in practise with the visual stories they tell.

How do we tell a story with a photograph?

We compose it. Composition is part visual design part technical. We need to understand both and bring both together to make our photography work. If you have spent any time practising photography then you know that this is easier said then done. Composition involves the basic shapes and colours and placement of subjects. The technical side of photography involves things like lighting, exposure, depth of field, digital editing etc etc.

For the most part this discussion is going to be limited to the visual composition of photographs and how to organize them to make compelling photographs. Most new photographers tend to skip the visual composition education and jump into learning about subjects like how to expose photographs and use their flash. As they start to get good at these subjects they start to notice their photographs are missing something they can not quite figure out and that is the visual composition.

Why do we compose a photograph?

In order to understand why we do it we need to understand the two largest limitations about photographs. The first is that a photograph is two dimensional representation of a three dimensional world. Imagine a big mountain range and now imagine it compressed into a piece of paper. The second is that the photograph is a cropped version of the world. If you want to see what is around the corner of a hallway you simply walk around the corner. In a photograph we do not have that ability.

We have to remember that when others see our photographs they are going to see them and attempt to see them as the three dimensional world we captured so we compose photographs to present things to the brain in a visually stimulating fashion. We spend a lot of time constructing photographs but we need to remember that people are going to look at them and try to deconstruct them again back into the original scene.

A good photographer is not only a visual artist but a cognitive psychologist who understands how the brain sees and interprets photographs and attempts to manipulate it into things the brain will find visually stimulating.

What makes a successful Photographic Composition?

There are a few basic elements that go into composition. The first is the placement of the subject. Do we put our subjects in the middle of the photograph, the side, top etc. The second is paying attention to the foreground and background of the subjects. The third is the visual elements such as colours, lines and shapes. All of these will be explained in greater detail later on.

Why do we need all these elements?

Because we need to add visual cues for the brain to interpret. Remember that the brain will attempt to deconstruct our image back into a three dimensional world and we are looking to give brain some cues to help it out and see the world we captured. You may find the foray into cognitive psychology a little daunting but keep in mind the ancient Greeks figured a lot of this stuff out many centuries ago. In fact a lot of what we know about visual composition is derived from the ancient Greeks.

The one thing we need to remember is that 99% of the population probably knows nothing about the elements needed to properly compose a photograph yet they know a good photograph when they see it. We can write an essay in poorly written Italian and get away with it as long as we have an audience that does not understand Italian. Photographs on the other hand transcend cultures and education levels. A well composed photograph by a Chinese photographer can be understood and interpreted by a German viewer.

What happens if we neglect these elements?

The brain will misinterpret the cues and the wrong visual story will happen. A poorly composed photograph in the pianist’s equivalent of playing Mozart with boxing gloves. So therefore we need to remember this one simple rule: No composition means no photograph.

Of course if you take enough photographs, you will eventually get lucky and end up with a happy accident (the writer’s equivalent of a million monkey’s on typewriters attempting to write Shakespeare). Ultimately we would like to move away from the happy accidents and get more into composed photographs.

Where Does Photographic Composition Happen?

It happens in our minds. Before we take a photograph we need to see something we want to photograph and have an idea of how we want to do it.

Where Do we refine our composition?

The viewfinder of the camera. We take a look at what the camera is seeing and make the proper adjustments.

Where do we enhance our composition?

Photoshop or whatever your favourite photo editor is. Even if you shoot film there is still an enhancement phase at the photo lab.

What happens when we combine our mind camera and photo editor?

We develop our photographic vision. A photographic vision is what will make you an artist and separate you from 99% of the people running around with cameras.


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