Elia Locardi is Back

The Power of a Little Surprise in Photography

The Power of a Little Surprise in Photography

It's hard to make your images stand out from the crowd. Here is a method which might help you catch the attention of your audience.

Apart from composition, light, color, and edit, there are many ways to make an interesting image. One method is including a little surprise for your audience.

Images That Catch Attention

It’s common sense that the world of images is gaining more and more importance. A few decades back, people only had a handful of photographs of their own and commercials were mostly seen on billboards or inside of magazines. Today, we witness images as soon as we turn on our smartphone or laptop. The circulation of images is high and the number of photographs we see each day is incredible.

Consequently, we struggle to thrill friends and family with images of our holidays or family events. Everything has been seen before. A mountain at sunrise? Open a travel magazine or social media account. The Taj Mahal? A few pages behind that. A cool wooden watch? Instagram sends me adverts all day.

Storytelling and How It Works

To make an image interesting, it is helpful to add a story to it. Stories need some form of interpretation by the viewer. This forces him or her to interact with the photograph and your storytelling photograph stands out from the mass of genuine images. People might ask themselves: “What’s going on here?”. They decipher the story you try to tell them.

A lot of articles and even books have been written on the topic of storytelling. Do you know that person in the yellow jacket waving her arms in the air while she enjoys an amazing vista? That’s a story. The vista alone isn’t. Even though we have seen her thousand times, the person with the yellow jacket still adds a story to an image. It doesn’t even need to be unique, even though that’s appreciable.

I don't have a yellow jacket, but I had a dog with me on that trek.

Especially in fast media like Instagram, your work has only seconds to stand up against the endless flood of competitive images. When I swipe through my apps, I realize that I often engage with images that contain a little surprise. What do I mean by “surprise”? Let’s go step by step.

Put a Subject Into Your Scene

A surprise is a subject that we don’t expect. Let’s first take a view at subjects in general. We have already talked about the person with the yellow jacket, but you don’t even need a yellow jacket. A subject can be anything that separates from the scene in general. It’s what you want your audience to focus at. In landscape photography, this could be a pretty tree, a glowing mountain, or rocks in the water. In wedding photography, it’ll be a ring, the cake, or the kissing couple.

The picture below shows a person at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India. If you search for images online, you'll find thousands of oversaturated photographs of the beautiful golden building. Among them, there are only few which catch my attention.

A man at the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

Adding a subject will help out. In this case, I didn’t even need to “add” something. The person was already there. Including this man in the image, I might engage the viewer to deal with the image a little longer. He or she needs to think about its content and the relation of the foreground and background.

The golden temple is really pretty. Yet, I don't give photographs like this too much attention. I have seen thousands.

Make It Small, but Visible

Good storytelling doesn’t only engage your audience to interact with the image. It also adds some value to it. Besides the aesthetics of the image which simply add to its beauty, the content makes it become an image of something abstract. Often, we use a wide lens to capture a subject in the front of an image and mark it as the content of the story. Sometimes, though, it might be smarter to make the subject appear small.

The image below shows a garbage collector at a large garbage dump close to Kolkata, India. As I was in direct contact to many of the people there, I also took closer images of them. In this image, however, I used a long lens from far away to make the person disappear.

If you quickly pass this image, you won't realize what's going on. You've got to give it a second look.

I aimed at demonstrating the scale of the mountains of trash but also hoped for the “wait what?” effect. Making the subject almost invisible, I hoped that people would realize that there was something wrong in this image, just the moment they swipe away or pass on.

Bigger isn’t always better. Sometimes a small hidden message works fine. Do you remember “Where Is Waldo”? How amazing was it to discover all those little secrets within the images? Most human beings are curious. If you lay out the bait, they'll take it. Place a little surprise that adds to the story and you’ll be surprised be the feedback.

"Wait... Was there a camel in this image?"

I, too, love clean images. I love them printed and hanging somewhere. To me, they are visually most appealing. Your surprise doesn’t need to be hidden like Waldo. In fact, it should be noticeable, just the moment when people lose their attention.

The image below is another example. At first sight, it’s quite clear: A man relaxing under his makeshift tent. But if I got a Euro for every time someone asked me “Is that a goat?”, it would have been a quite profitable photograph.

What is this goat actually doing there?

Use Juxtapositions as a Surprise in Your Photographs

Another way to include a little surprise is the use of juxtapositions. This is a very tricky one, though. As said before, we're used to look at images. The Mesa Arch, the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, and the Kirkjufell in Iceland have been photographed many times We have an idea of the subject, the moment we look at it.

Managing to break the expectations and associations will make your image special. In the image below, I tried to use a common way of composition to make a normal image of the Taj Mahal: Leading lines, sunset, and a beautiful, pink light were my friends.

Typical, heavily edited image... but something is different.

After a first look however, you might get that “wait, what?” effect. Something about the image is irritating and you might give it a second look. Yes, it’s trash. A lot of trash, because even though the Taj Mahal is clean and pretty, it’s surrounding isn’t. Surprise!

Treat With Caution

Adding a surprise is just one of many ways to make your image stand out. Sometimes, it's counterproductive, because you want the story of the photograph hit a person into the face. That's fine, too. It always depends on the subject and the story you want to tell. Every now and then, little surprises will give your photographs something special. Always make sure that they are noticeable, though.

Nils Heininger's picture

Nils Heininger is a photographer on the road. He loves long rides on motorbikes, camels and old trains. While discovering the world, he uses his camera to share stories from people across the globe. With a Micro-four thirds in his pocket and a full-frame in his bag, he's always ready for new adventures.

Log in or register to post comments

Interesting article!
Here's a picture I posted two days ago on my Instagram. Can you spot Waldo? The funny thing is, I didn't even notice him (her?) when I took the shot...

Hi Adriano. Great image! Waldo is quite prominent in here and really adds a nice surprise. Love the image. Cheers!

Oh yeah....I can definitely relate. Most unusual one was while I was in Ekaterinburg, Russia......I was taking some photos across the river where there was a park. Several people were in the park and an older gentleman near a fountain (which was not working). When I got the shots back (this was before digital) there was a crystal globe or orb surrounding the man, as if he was in the middle of this orb. Never saw it while I was photographing it, so......have no fricking idea how the hell that happened or what it was. Turned out to be a real interesting photo though.