We have all heard the phrase “A picture is worth a thousand words.” I don’t know if that is completely true, though if it is, some pictures are like the guy that never stops talking even though he has no clue what he is talking about and no point to his mindless prattle. Photography is communication. It is communication to your friends and family members. It is communication online and around the table. It is communication to your kids, grandkids and their kids and grandkids. It is communication to people who have never met you. Because photography is communication, we want to communicate clearly what captured our attention. Many photographs say nothing more than “I have kids”, “I went to the beach” or “That’s a big mountain.” Kids, beaches and mountains are great, but very rarely are those things we actually are trying to remember. We want to remember the kids excitement at the birthday party, our awe at a beautiful sunrise or our sense of littleness as we see the majesty around us. When you get ready to take a picture, think about the story you are trying to tell. Compose your shot to help later viewers hear what you are communicating. To help you do that, let me give you some quick tips on communication.
- Use the rules of composition. You can check out my article on composition for more specifics on composition. The rules of composition are there to help you tell your story. For example, if you don’t have a clear focal point, who is going to know what captured your attention? A crooked horizon will hinder your story. The rules of thirds will help you put in the best spots the things that are most important to you. Pay attention to the composition of the picture so you will tell the right story.
- Be concise. Don’t try to tell too much of the story in one shot, keep it simple and straightforward. If the kids are having a blast at the family reunion, don’t try to get in the same picture Uncle Bob’s pink van. The van is its own story, so tell it later. Also, remove the stuff the detracts from the story. The dirty room, piles of laundry or coffee creamer on the counter don’t add to the story, so take them out of the picture. Keep the point simple, straightforward and uncluttered.
- Shoot carefully. As you prepare to capture the moment, don’t just start firing off shots willy nilly. Think about what you are doing. Pay attention to the details and your story will come through.
Know what you want to communicate when you take the picture and then do the best you can to make that story clear and concise. By way of disclaimer, what works for one person, may not work for someone else. The techniques of the pros are a great place to start, but remember beauty is still in the eye of the beholder (or in this case the photographer. The things that excite one guy may bore you senseless so take the image that communicates to you. Below are a few pictures that I think communicate something, and what I did to try to capture the story.
We have always tried to have a couple bird feeders behind the house. The wife and kids like to watch the birds and try to figure out what kind they are. I like to watch the squirrels cause havoc and get in fights with one another. This particular feeder was shaped like a birdhouse and was filled up through the roof. This red squirrel figured out how to get up under the roof of the birdhouse and would just sit in there eating and chasing away anything else that came near. I wanted to capture his trouble making mischief, so instead of just taking a picture of the rodent eating a seed, or sitting on the edge of the feeder, I waited until he was up in the feeder and got a picture of him as he stuck his head out to make sure nothing was taking his food from his feeder. While the image doesn’t convey all the history, it shows that this squirrel is up to something more than just eating sunflowers seeds.
This one needs almost no explanation, it’s very obviously stating, “What kind of dummy would be out driving on a miserable day like this, much less trying to cross five miles of suspended bridge over 2 frozen lakes?” (Me for one). I really didn’t have to do much with this shot, the weather did all the hard work. All I had to do was get down close to the level of the lake by tromping out a few feet onto the ice and then try to frame the shot so that your eyes were drawn through the first tower and long the bridge fading into the snow in the background. For those that aren’t familiar with the Mackinac Bridge, there is still at least a mile of bridge that can’t be seen because of the snow.
This picture is another one that did most of the work for me. I wanted to communicate the effort of the climber as he neared the top of the ice sheet. With that in mind, I made sure at least part of the top was visible to give the right sense of perspective. It’s not much, but it makes a big difference. I also looked for the shot with him stretched out (though catching the ice pick in mid-swing is a good idea also). Otherwise, I set the ice pick on the intersection of the top and right third lines in an effort to draw the eyes towards the top and give the feel of ascending through the picture.