The Secret Sauce to More Effective Photographs

The Secret Sauce to More Effective Photographs

Have you ever experienced being delighted about the outcome of your photographs but ended up getting a different reaction from your audience? Here’s a step that might help you curate your images better.

Doing photography with the intention of catering to an audience, making visual impact, and/or serving the needs of a client goes way beyond just taking an aesthetically pleasing photograph. While it is safe to say that people are generally attracted to beautiful images, it may not always be synonymous with having images that create impact and provoke thought. Whether in person or on social media, the availability of cameras and the ease of being able to distribute images have made the aspect of effectiveness or impact even more crucial.

Beautiful Images Aren’t Automatically Effective

No matter how technical photography can be, how people see our images will always be enveloped by subjectivity. Beauty itself is subjective, which is why it is impossible to get the same reaction and opinion from every single viewer of an image. Effective images have an unquantifiable aspect to them that don’t just make the viewer look at the image longer, but more importantly, somehow leave an imprint in their minds.

Whether it is the actual beauty of the image, the visual storytelling, the content itself, effective images don’t just inspire awe but create chain reactions in the minds of the viewers. For images that are particularly intended to connect to an audience either for social or commercial purposes, such reactions are what we should aim for. The question is, how do we objectively approach such a subjective result?

Assuming a Neutral Perspective

The only way to objectively approach making and taking more effective images is by making sure that as many viewers as possible would have similar reactions to our images. It is virtually impossible to achieve 100% in this, but aiming for the closest possible would always be good.

I photographed these hidden waterfalls standing on a rock that was about just as wide as my two feet are and had a bit of room for my tripod in front. I always thought loved this image because of the thrill, but the image fails to tell that story, which made it quite underwhelming.

To do this, this aspect of curating your images would not only involve making sure that the image is the best aesthetically and compositionally, but more importantly, the photographer would have to shed all personal subjective aspects of the image. There are a number of factors that may make us biased, sentimental, or emotionally attached to an image, and those might cause us to overestimate the effectiveness of the photographs to a wide audience. The goal is not to get rid of such aspects that would make us biased towards the images but simply to make sure that even if the viewer’s perspective is not affected by all these factors, the overall viewer experience would leave the necessary impact.

First, it is important to identify all the reasons why you personally like or maybe even are excited about the photograph. List down all the reasons why you, at this time, think that it is a good image to use or put out and identify which among them might not be applicable to a random passerby. We can often have emotional attachments to the subject of the photograph itself, possibly a model that you know personally if you are a portrait photographer, a favorite place (or favorite kind of place) if you are a landscape photographer, or a memorable travel experience that isn’t necessarily fully represented in a single image. These factors, while related to the photograph by context, might not be entirely transmitted to the viewer.

Second is to simply consider the visual experience. Once you have set aside the subjective factors, you can then objectively examine the image in terms of balance, flow, harmony, and all other visual design aspects that would dictate the experience of looking at the photograph. While style and taste will ultimately differ among different people, how you create and design your images through exposure, composition, and everything in between also represents the viewers that you aim to cater to. You definitely can not please everybody, but aiming to connect to a particular audience that prefers certain styles is a valid strategy towards having more effective images.

This image could have been taken with multiple exposures, with some of them taking a while. It could’ve also been edited for hours to get a clean, minimalist feel. However, when curating for a wide audience, technical appreciation should be factored out to better gauge the visual experience.

Our technical appreciation of a photograph that we took can also be an aspect that would not be transmitted significantly to the viewer of the image unless they are also familiar and can understand how a certain visual effect is achieved. Unless all the viewers of your images are also photographers, you might be overestimating the impact that the photo would make, which would cause you not to get the response that you are expecting. An environmental portrait could have been lit by 10 different lights to achieve a dynamic result, but a viewer who does not have a background in portrait lighting would only perceive the image as “nice.” A minimalist long exposure landscape photograph that was shot for 10 minutes will have a huge impact on how landscape photographers would see it, but a regular person unaware of how such an effect is achieved would ultimately just see it as smooth or clean.

This image got me excited because it was the first ever time that I saw such a scene in my home city. Ironically, this was caused by a fire a few hours earlier, with the smoke trapped by cold air. Nonetheless, it was a first for me but ultimately nothing new for many audiences outside my area.

The process leading up to pressing the shutter button, or maybe even the “save” button, can also have such a huge impact on our perception of a photograph. As a landscape photographer, it is often true that the journey to simply get to the vantage point is much more challenging than taking the photo itself. In terms of post-production, achieving the most subtle treatment of an image can be exponentially more complicated than how it seems. While these stories behind the images are definitely worth telling, we have to see the image without the backstories when we curate them in hopes of being more effective.

3 Steps to Refine and Curate for More Impact

1. Let Your Photos Simmer

If you have the luxury of time, spend a few days or even weeks to get rid of any overwhelming emotions you may have for a particular image or set of images from a shoot, travel, or project. These emotions that stem from the factors mentioned above can obviously distort how you see your output. Taking some time to recover or even get over the source of those emotions, whether positive or negative, will definitely help you see the images from a more neutral perspective as the emotions tone or die down. At the same time, this buys you some time to identify aspects that can still be improved in the image and make choices about how you would treat and render the output if you end up selecting the image.

One of my most effective cityscape images. I can tell because this has a couple hundred active theft cases. This was shot through glass windows of a hotel room that slightly spoiled the experience for me, but ultimately turned out to be a productive shooting experience.

2. Practice Mindfulness

As an alternative to the first option when you can’t afford to wait, being mindful of all your emotions throughout the creative process can be very helpful. By being mindful, you are able to identify and label the subjective aspects of how you see the image and filter them out better. Again, the goal is not to get rid of such subjective aspects, but to simply see past them as you aim to make visual impact regardless of them.

3. Test Your Audience

You can test your audience in various ways depending on where your final output is going. If it is as simple as putting an image up on your social media accounts or digital portfolio, asking random people for their opinion and reactions can be a good way to test the waters before posting online. On the other hand, if your images are to be printed, exhibited, or used on mass media, using social media or private groups can be a good way to see the initial audience response, but remember not to do this if any non-disclosure agreements are involved. Doing this lets you reach a well-sampled test audience, especially if you have a lot of contacts on a certain platform.

The secret sauce to getting more impactful images is basically curating your work in such a way that the image or collection of images that you are putting out will maximize the overall visual impact and make significant connections with your audience. Doing this involves shedding out any factors that are not applicable to random audiences and achieving good impact even when you look past such factors will increase your chances of turning more heads and catching more attention no matter what the purpose of the photographs are.

Nicco Valenzuela's picture

Nicco Valenzuela is a photographer from Quezon City, Philippines. Nicco shoots skyscrapers and cityscapes professionally as an architectural photographer and Landscape and travel photographs as a hobby.

Log in or register to post comments

Despite knowing all this in my head, it's always a good time for a reminder. Thanks for this timeless sage advice!

Glad you like it, James! :)

Great advice!

I'd like to make a suggestion for the front end, the pre-capture stage: Don't shoot.

If you have the luxury of time to do so, just observe the scene for a while. Analyse what draws your eye to the scene, what makes you want to photograph it.

That applies more to landscape (incl cityscapes) than other genres of course, but even with wildlife photography it's valuable - Is the animal acting naturally, what message are you trying to convey?

Great point, Jon!