How to Make More Powerful Photographs

How to Make More Powerful Photographs

One of the most difficult parts of any art is learning to express the things you feel through the medium you are working with. Today we’ll look at one way of approaching this in photography.

As photographers, we talk a lot about composition and how important it is to our art. However, the most technically perfect composition will fall short if there is no content in the resulting photograph. We need the objects of our photography to stand out and tell their story. Whether this is a human story or even a landscape, the way we observe, understand, and interpret that scene will dictate how we tell that story. 

The great photographs in history are not great because of what they are but, instead, because of how they feel. The greatest photographs strike a chord and give the viewer something in return for their time. They are not necessarily technically perfect, post-processed to involve certain colors, nor are they photographed with the latest and greatest gear. Rather, they are images that communicate a deeper meaning. They show us the photographer's view of the world. 

It is this idea that I want to explore today: how you see the world. Being able to see the world and express it in your own way requires that you are honest. Here, we’re not exploring the way others react to your imagery or how to increase your Instagram following. We’re exploring how it is you see the world and how you can express that. This will be a little lofty, but consider how you can approach these ideas in your own photography. Let’s dive into a story.

On a recent workshop with Pics of Asia, we visited a small fishing town with our group and after rising at 4 a.m. to be on time for the sunrise. Still groggy, we made our way down to the beach to find that the sunrise would not eventuate, and what we were left with was pure chaos. All of the images we had discussed on the way down would not be possible because of the light on the day. It was overcast. So, the backlight from the sunrise wouldn't be very strong. It would be difficult to get beautiful silhouettes of boats and fishermen against the sky. But that wasn’t going to stop us.

Observe

There were hundreds of people buying and selling fish. More still were rowing small bamboo boats out to collect the catch from larger trawlers. As I mentioned above, what we were hoping for wasn’t going to eventuate. So, rather than forcing our wills onto the scene in front of us, we encouraged everyone to take a moment and feel the scene. What we saw was not the photographs we had pre-visualized. What we saw was the living, breathing organism of the local fishing industry in Vietnam. 

By observing and trying to understand what was happening around us, we were able to approach the photography without trying to simply take a pretty picture of the surface of what was going on. We could ask ourselves how we felt about this scene. We could consider what it made us feel rather than what we wanted to feel about it. We were able to make images that got a little deeper into what we were witnessing. 

This is the key to making more meaningful images. You must first consider what it is that you’re seeing. Before you get excited and put the camera to your eye, take a moment to observe. By doing this, you will give yourself time to understand and see beyond the surface.

Interpret

After taking a moment to understand what was in front of us, we then set out to make a series of photographs to describe that and hopefully get to the bottom of it. By choosing a theme or story within the chaos, we were able to filter out all the noise and focus on making images that represented the story we wanted to tell. For Bill Schaefer and I, that story was the chaos. Both of us wanted you to feel what we were feeling: overwhelmed and deafened. 

We were both focusing on the chaos of the day but came out with striking different images. What makes them interesting is how we chose to express that chaos. The two images above and below are a sample of our results. I chose to go with a slower shutter speed and attempt to demonstrate the constant movement of the people. I wanted you to understand just how much motion there was overall. In contrast to this, Schaefer’s photo demonstrates this chaos up close and personal with one of the fish sellers. 

Photo used courtesy of Bill Schaefer.

Both of these images give you a sense of what it was like there that day. Neither is the wrong interpretation of the scene and both will resonate with a different audience. The important thing here is that we took our time to understand the scene in front of us and decide what aspect of it we wanted to express.

Be Open to Change

As the morning went on, I realized that I wasn't seeing so much chaos any more. The market had calmed down and most were all-but-done with their morning work. It was at this point that I started searching for something that would express that. I ended up settling on this lonely boat floating in the calm waters. Remember that this is a cycle. We want to observe, interpret, photograph, rinse, and repeat. 

Apply to Your Own Work

Although my example here is of a scene we walked into during a travel photography expedition and we were thwarted by the weather, the principles here apply to any photography where we are making photographs of the world as it is. We need to be observant and flexible in this art. 

As a wedding photographer or family photographer, you can practice being observant of the emotions and relationships of the people around you. As you observe and make your photographs, consider if there is another way to make these photographs. Could you tell this story in a different way? Remember, a photograph cannot say everything, but the one thing it is saying can be expressed in different ways. This will help you to create stronger images that truly represent the people you work with. 

In Conclusion

Although this is just a simple example, I do hope that this has got you thinking about potential ways in which you can improve your ability to observe and express the scenes in front of you. Next time you begin making photographs, consider spending a moment examining the way a scene makes you feel before you start. You might just find you create something more meaningful.

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