HDR, extreme fisheye lenses, and excessive digital photo editing rule photography nowadays. While these cool new effects are great, the art of communication in photography seems to be fading into a lost art.
Here’s why this is bad.
The Focus on COOL
When the focus of taking photos turns to how ‘cool’ the image looks, photos lose depth and substance. John C. Maxwell, a communication expert, wrote a book titled “Everyone Communicates Few Connect”.
The same idea holds true for photography. There are thousands of photos out there on the internet by amateur, ‘up and coming’ photographers. Sure they look cool. But if your photo doesn’t connect with the viewer…
You’re just another photographer with a cool looking photo.
Where’s a newbie to learn how to communicate and pack a visceral emotional punch to their photos? Well, look no further.
You see, few photographs actually have the power to move people beyond the superficial ‘damn that’s cool, I want to take a photo like that’ reaction.
Your goal should not be to spark envy from your viewer.
Instead, you should focus on more powerful emotions like anger, fear, love, grief, happiness, surprise, anxiety, and melancholy and crafting a visual message that is unforgettable. I am going to show you how. The first step is to understand your viewer.
Unless you are taking photos solely for your own pleasure, you must understand what drives your average human viewer. Think like a chef.
The chef does not cook for his own personal tastes but what he feels his customer will enjoy. When you take photos, always think in terms of ‘moods’.
What mood are you trying to create? What mood is already built into your location? How can you accentuate this with your composition?
Now I’ve really just opened a big can of worms. There is so much to cover when it comes to connecting with your viewer. To start, here is a simple exercise.
Give Everything A Human Perspective
When you photograph people it’s easy to capture human emotion. Whatever the person is displaying through their mood and personality is captured in the shot.
Taking photos of everything else isn’t so easy. The answer to this is to try seeing the moods or emotions that objects and locations around you create.
When you look at a tree, how does it make you feel? When you see the sunrise, what emotions does it spark in you? This is a great starting point. From here you can use composition techniques to highlight these moods and create a message in your photos.
Here is a list of a bunch of different ‘themes’ you can communicate in your photos.
- At peace
The first step is to decide which you want to communicate in your photo. The next part is composing your image to best convey this message.
Lead the Viewer By the Hand to Your Message
When a viewer looks at your photo, they are almost always caught by ONE specific object. Your goal as a photographer should be to control what that object is.
This can be done with your composition, lighting, and color.
For example, a red object surrounded by dark, colorless objects will catch the viewer’s eye first. Now, when viewers see the first object, the first thing they are going to do is ask ‘what does this mean?’ You can control this through your composition.
Certain angles will make objects look more powerful, less powerful, or neutral. And how you arrange your main object with the other objects in the photo determines how that object relates to the other objects.
Every part of your photo communicates something.
OK. Now that you have the basics of communication down, let’s go further down the rabbit hole.
Simply using the ‘themes’ list above and a well composed image is most likely NOT going to get you taking powerful shots.
You need something else.
You need to be bold. Be unique. Tell a story that viewers will never forget.
To start, select a theme from the list above. Then let the hunt begin. Look for this theme everywhere and anywhere around you. There will be obvious themes for ‘happiness’ for example. Flowers and bright sunny days.
Is that unique? No. Is it bold? No.
How about the poor lady on the street selling flowers for $3 smiling from ear to ear because someone just purchased five flowers – enough money for her to by her family dinner from the fast food dollar menu.
Does that photo have power to move viewers? You bet. Especially since most people that drive past this lady look down on her, resent her, and feel superior to her.
Then you come along, Mr. photographer, and show viewers that this flower lady is in fact a HUMAN. And you open your viewers heart and mind to parts of the world they never cared to pay attention to -even on their daily commute to work.
A bad chef will use superficial flavors and tastes like sugar and strong spices. A great chef will cook food with subtle but delicious taste.
Using special effects that make your photo look cool is not bad. But if your photo communicates nothing other than ‘this is a cool looking photo’…it’s sort of like candy. Tasty but with no value.