Anyone can buy expensive cameras. And anyone can buy even more expensive lenses. But not everyone can create images that evoke emotion in viewers and really make you think about what's going on in them.
Telling stories through your images took me a long time to understand fully. On the surface, it's a pretty simple concept: take an image that tells a story. But doing so isn't as easy as it sounds; at least, it wasn't for me over the course of several years. Like many, I fell into the trap of placing far too much importance on gear. Bodies, lenses, filters, gadgets, tripods: I wanted the best, and I wanted them all. The problem, ironically, is that gear is simply so good these days. I don't care if you're a Nikon person or Canon loyalist or a Sony ambassador, nor if you're a DSLR guy or a film girl or a mirrorless newcomer; the simple fact is that gear these days across the board is so phenomenally good. Producing images that are technically incredible has never been so easy. Get decent light, point your camera, focus your lens, push the button. Voila! The camera even processes a JPEG for you, so you don't have to do a thing. Upload to Instagram, add a couple hashtags, revel in the glory. How easy is that?
For a long time, that was pretty much my modus operandi (though I always shoot in raw). I would find beautiful locations, then wait for good light, think about my composition, then let the gear create its magic. Sure, I'd put years into understanding color theory and rules of composition and how to use dynamic range efficiently, but I got to a point where I was really jaded with photography. How many sunsets can I shoot? How many long exposures of water around piers can I capture? Sure, if it was a paid assignment, then I'd do it with as much love as ever, but for my own pursuits and personal endeavors, I'd hit the proverbial brick wall, mostly because beyond the beautiful colors and the gorgeous shades of light, none of the photos were speaking to me for much more than the few seconds I'd look at them after post-production.
So, I made a pact with myself to try to capture stories with my images that created discussion, confusion, deeper thought, and that engendered more and more questions. Naturally, I'm not always successful, and often, my ideas fall very flat, but when I do get it right, I find the satisfaction far, far greater. But more importantly, I can keep going back to those images long after they've first been produced. So, I'd like to share some of those with you and tell you my thought processes behind them.
At first glance of the photo above, most people are taken aback by the giant wall of water smashing the rocks. But there is much more to this than just that apocalyptic wave. You start asking things like "are they actually going surfing out there?", "are they insane?", "how do they get into the water from that position?", "is that some kind of island they're standing on?", "how did they get there?""where is the photographer standing to get this?" These are all questions I am regularly asked when people look at this. And often, parents ask about the lack of responsibility shown by lifeguards and so forth. The point is: this creates a lot of thought and discussion, but without those two surfers, it would simply be a ferocious display by Mother Nature. Interesting, sure, but nothing that's never been seen before. By capturing these two surfers in this moment, it becomes so much more.
I love this photo above for so many reasons. It's my eldest daughter running through some shrine gates in Japan as her grandparents chase her. I have this photo up in my office, and it is incredible how much inquisitive conversation it generates, both from Japanese people and westerners. Obviously, the setting is an Asian country, but this is unique particularly because of my daughter's hair color. Typically, most mixed Japanese/western kids tend to have much darker hair. Indeed, my youngest daughter's hair is dark brown, but for whatever genetic reason my eldest daughter got my hair color. So, when you look at this photo, there's an instant type of confusion, because you have a fair-haired, rather Western-looking girl running through some shrine gates with smiling, Asian-faced people behind her.
For many visitors in my office, they usually ask about my daughter, then ask who the people behind are. When I explain that they are my wife's parents, many people (who don't know me well) are surprised I'm married to a Japanese woman, because of my daughter's fair hair. Then they tend to comment on my wife's parents' smiling faces and are happy that there seems to be a good relationship between us all. Indeed, when I first met them, I was terrified, as they are from the south islands of Japan, which are typically very conservative. But they took me in and have always been incredibly hospitable and loving. So, this image captures everything that's good about my family and my parents-in-law and the place I call home. And it's far more evocative than if I'd taken a stock-standard shot of just the shrine gates without anyone in the shot.
I think every parent (and non-parent) can feel something with this: the love between a mother and baby and also the complete, utter reliance of a newborn on its parents. What I also love about this shot is the purity of my daughter's soft, white, porcelain skin juxtaposed with the rougher edges of my wife's fingers. Sure, I could have smoothed those imperfections out, but I think I would have lost some of the impact of how age takes its toll on our bodies and how the young are so perfectly untainted. The most certain thing about this image is that no one gives two hoots about my focal point or the camera body I used: it's all about how the image resonates with them.
Of course, not every single image you take has to tell a story. This is a photo I took for a client who wanted something moody from a particular location on Australia's east coast. It had to be certain colors, it had to have water, and it had to have some drama. That was my remit, so this is what I came up with, and the client was ecstatic with the result. I also enjoyed the process, because I had to use my imagination and my knowledge of the ocean, the tides and the sun, and also use my gear efficiently. But if I'm perfectly honest, once I'd given the client the big, printed frame of this shot, I seldom revisited it again on my computer, nor printed it out for hanging in my home. But I do look at it now and wonder how much more powerful it might be if I'd placed a silhouette of a surfer somewhere in the frame.
Perhaps that's just where I am with my photography and scenes like these. While undoubtedly stunning, they don't really put too much fire in my creative belly. What do you think? I'd love to hear your views on the importance of storytelling in your photography and how you go about evoking more thought in your audience. Please leave your ideas in the comments below.