Photography: things I learned last year

Every new year, WordPress sends all blog owners a traffic summary report,  including the option to publish this report. Not for me: rather than share my blog stats I’ll tell you what I’ve learned about photography in 2013.

Beauty is never original

Beauty is defined by a set of common stereotypes and well defined templates and attributes. If you are only driven by a sense of beauty in your photography then by definition your work is not original because you are following the same well defined stereotypes and templates.

This hit me last year whilst looking at photographs someone else had taken of a location I had recently visited. His choice of photographic opportunities were not dissimilar to mine: we had taken the same photographs! Try it for yourself. Search on Flickr for a place you have been to and see how different the photographs are from yours.  Usually not by much. What to do?

Modern art is often seen as ugly because it follows few of the standard/commercial ‘beauty stereotypes’, but that can make it much more original and cutting edge. So before you start following the same old set of templates (rule of thirds, only photographing photogenic people/landscapes, shooting only in good light and generally following accepted rules and practices), ask yourself ‘am I setting up my shots this way because I am trying to take something beautiful/commercial/safe (or worse, simply copying) when I should be aiming at something original?’.

Look at the photograph below. It’s my partner.

'Chemotherapy' (click to see larger image). Shot with Sony A500
‘Chemotherapy’ (click to see larger image).
Photographed with Sony Alpha A500

It  was taken during chemotherapy for cancer. She’d lost all her hair and feeling very ill. She was sat in a nightgown and (understandably) feeling down and claiming she looked awful. I said she looked beautiful and that I would prove it. I took about 30 photographs over about 5 minutes. This is the first one in the sequence.

There’s lots of photo retouching tips and courses out there that defines ‘good’ in terms of stereotypical beauty. Believe me, there is far more to beauty than that. Sometimes you have to look for it, but often it is staring you in the face.

A photograph is a one frame movie

This is a key point that video editing has taught me. Look at your best photographs. I bet they are the ones that evoke memories, tell a story, include a visual joke, illustrate a concept, assume a context (or subvert an assumed context) or visually show the relationship between its subjects.

In all cases, a single frame sets off a visual or emotive sequence of thought in the mind of the viewer. That is also a good definition of the best movie scenes you have seen, right? So a good movie scene and a good photograph are perhaps more similar than we assume.

By thinking as a cinematographer when you take your shots, you start to include so much more in your photography. Instead of ‘capturing snapshots’, you start to think about other things, such as movement, relationships, story, back-story, humor, context, emotion. Thinking about ‘story’ in a single frame may seem a stretch too far in a single photograph, but bear with it, because as we will see, thinking about movement will always imply story.

Hair (click to see bigger photo) Taken with Panasonic Lumix LX7
‘Hair’ (click to see bigger photo)
Photographed with Panasonic Lumix LX7

The photograph above is taken some time after the chemotherapy had ended. Hair has started growing back and is nearly long enough to be styled. My partner should be happy, right? Have a look at the photograph, and tell me what you think she is saying about her hair. Is she as happy as she should be, and is she better than she was in the last photo? I was laughing when I took this photograph. Can you tell? Why?

I have clearly changed the color balance between the foreground and background. The background has a much colder color balance, and I have desaturated everything in the background except the reds. I have left the skin at the original, warmer balance. I have also used a very odd focal length: at 28mm, it is far wider than a typical portrait shot. What does this all add, and why have I taken it that way?

Finally, take a look at the photograph below.

'Summer ice cream' (click to see larger photo). Taken with Panasonic Lumix LX7
‘Summer ice cream’ (click to see larger photo).
Photographed with Sony Alpha A77

This photograph follows almost no compositional rules. Yet for people born in the UK, it tells a very strong story: Summer. During summer, we get ice cream vans stopping on every street to sell ice-cream (US version is ‘ice cream truck’, although from what I am told, they tend to park near public events or near busy areas rather than go street to street).

That the ice cream van is almost totally hidden is part of the story: the photo was taken at child eye level. Just by looking at this photograph, I can imagine a much younger me running inside and asking/pestering for money to buy an ice-cream. and there’s the story and stream of images that our ‘one frame movie’ intends to instil in its target audience.

Learning about movement creates better stills

If your camera has a video capability, learn to use it as well as stills. The brain works in strange ways, and one of them is learning two related skills makes you much better in either  of them. Developing a good cinematography eye will make your composition eye better. Here’s things I have learned through my video editing that I feel have made me a much better stills photographer:

  • Position your camera in the expectation of movement. If your subject is moving, you will already tend to leave free space in the direction of movement. By moving your camera like a video camera and anticipating future movement, you create a better composition. In fact, I now always move my camera as if I am taking video, and my photographs are now essentially key frames in the footage I would have taken if I was shooting video.
  • Create Tension. In script writing, the difference between a scene and ‘just people talking’ is the element of tension (which can be any kind of tension, comedic, suspense, suspension of disbelief, a growing call to action, etc). For example, a scene where two old friends are reminiscing is just ‘two people talking’ and has little interest. If you change the context so that the viewer knows one character is hiding an unfulfilled romantic love for the other, you have introduced tension making the conversation interesting. By creating an element of structural or emotional tension in your photographic composition, you make the photograph much more interesting in exactly the same way. If you think about it, this point is really just a rewording of beauty is never original. By setting up a beautiful or perfect scene and then adding an element of tension or opposition, you create an original twist that begs further investigation. If you are on a typical engagement shoot, where would you take the context if you gave the bride a gun as a prop? Would it take you in an original direction? You bet it would!  Tension can also trigger a sequence of events or story in the mind of the viewer, which brings us to the next point
  • Color is a story shortcut. Color is routinely used to signify emotion or atmosphere in photography, and there’s nothing new in this. Blue for cold or natural expanse, red for strong emotion or heat, green for balance or nature. In cinematography, color is routinely used in a different way: it can give a visual cue to where the story is about to go. Read ‘If its Purple someone’s gonna die’ or any good book on movie scripting. If you want to buy into the ‘a photograph is a one frame movie’ concept  then use of color to imply story or relationship between characters (or between characters and their environment) is key. Your ‘movie’ is only one frame long so you have to be succinct and you have to use color cues to imply  story. Almost all my color edits in the photographs above are purely cinematic.

Conclusion

Take stories not photographs.

We are nothing without our internal stories. Without them we would only be instinctive animals with no sense of context, self, or history. The same goes for photographs. Don’t create visual icons or good-looking stereotypes: they are just not memorable because they have already been done to death. Instead, tell a story. One of the best ways to do this is think in terms of cinematography.

The easiest way to begin forcing yourself to do this is to make a resolution to press the video button on your DSLR more often. You will not only learn video. You may also start to think about stills differently.

Another easy way to think about your photograph is as a one frame movie. As well as thinking about photographic composition, its worth also thinking about cinematic scripting: what is the story and how do your choices in framing, color, depth of field and choice of focal length carry this story forward? Are there any elements that do not add anything to the story, and can they be removed?

Notes

  1. I just noticed in the second photograph that the background mask misses bits. Look at the top of the hand on the right. This is what comes of uploading photographs before you’ve really finished the edit!
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