When analyzing a photo, do you care more about how a photo was taken, or why the elements in the photo are there? If you’re trying to grow as a photographer, you might need to stop asking how things are done, and why they are done.
In art, there are a lot of questions we ask when looking at a photo. To a lot of people, the most important is how. How did they do this, how long did it take, how difficult was the process. The history of the photo adds to the meaning for people. But if you take away the history, is it still a good photo? The story of Ansel Adams may be interesting, but if you stripped the story away, they are still powerful images.
Can you say the same about every photo you find good? There are a lot of photos out there that rely on complicated lighting setups and interesting backstories with no real substance to the images. They’re great for teaching how to light with complicated techniques, but that doesn’t mean they are good photos.
At the end of the day, no one cares how long it took to edit a photo. A 5-hour edit doesn’t make a good photo, it makes it a good story. You can do a 5-light setup and edit that takes all day, but if your reason it’s a great photo is because it was done with 5 lights then it’s not a great photo.
There are so many photos out there that just don’t make any sense. There’s no context to them, everything is just thrown together. Models in lingerie in the woods or classic business headshots with a random blue gelled light on one side and green on the other. What do the lights signify? Are the colors a branding thing? In most cases they’re there just because. And that’s not what makes a good photo.
When you start asking yourself why every aspect to a photo is there, you start to change how you create. You change your perspective on how things are done. Why did the model pose this way, why did you move the camera while taking the photo, why did you choose the makeup you chose? The “why” is what makes the photo, not the how.
Here’s a photo I took for a creative beauty look. Let’s ask some questions about them. How did you do this? We used black holi powder and coconut oil cut with water mixed together to create the oil. How long did it take you to edit? About 2 hours. How did you light this? 1 key light 28” beauty dish camera right, one reflector for fill camera left.
Now let’s ask the why’s. Why did you do this? I was inspired by Mad Max and loved Furiosa’s look. I wanted to do something that was like a beauty editorial in the Mad Max universe. Why was it lit this way? I wanted it to have an older, film look. I used a larger beauty dish to get more fill, but with a more classic modifier. Why the bullet in the ear? The model has large gauges and they looked out of place. The bullet fit and makes sense with the concept. Why the greasy eyebrow? The image was weighted towards the bottom because of the neck grease and it looked uneven. This added interest that balanced the photo.
Which set of questioning, as a photographer helped you understand the point of this photo? If done correctly, one set of questioning should’ve given you context and the other taught you how to recreate it.
You Can Be Different, but Still Make Sense
I’m not trying to say you need to be normal in your photos and everything must look like it’s part of a lifestyle photo. I’m saying every element in a photo has a reason to be there and “just because” isn’t a good reason.
All I’m trying to say is everything you do has a reason to be there. Be conscious about the decisions you’re making. Do they contextually make sense with the rest of the elements?
Bonus: Studying Material
Here's a YouTube video that can help you learn more about context and the why. Lindsay Adler recently started deconstructing her photos where she explains everything from process to editing a little more in-depth. These are perfect for learning her thought process around creation and what goes into her work. You can see from this example that every element has a reason for existing.