On composition, part 28: The story

It’s been a while since the last composition post – I think I’ve covered nearly everything now ;-). But at the risk of talking out of my ass, I’m going to tackle an aspect of composition that’s often very important to get a good feel for, and I say this because I’m not as accomplished at it as I should be, and nowhere near as accomplished as many others. There are definitely some genres of photography that benefit more from having a story within the image itself (rather than, as my weekly posts have it, a backstory told orally,) but almost every genre can benefit from the ability to express one – it feeds that thing inside us that’s interpreting the image, not as a collection of colors and contrast, but as a scene, or idea, or yes indeed, a story. Yet, in many cases, it can be exceptionally tricky to pull off.

staged photojournalist illustrationThe first part that I’ll talk about is perhaps the easiest, which is illustration. Just about every photographer ends up tackling such a thing at one time or another; some of us do it routinely. But even product photography requires a certain skill to portray the product in the best manner possible – sometimes this is angle and lighting, sometimes this is the right setting or background, and sometimes this is elaborate staging. When we’re trying to show something in particular, it’s important to give the correct impression to the viewer, and the first step is knowing what this should be in the first place. Following close behind is detaching ourselves from the sense of place that we have, just being there, and recognizing whether or not the viewer can get the same sense (or, even better, an entirely different one that we nonetheless express, falsely as it were.) That might be a bit confusing in the abstract, so let me provide an example. We know, from simply being there, that we’re at the beach, or someplace late at night, or whatever, but the image doesn’t necessarily express this unless we include the necessary details therein. Conversely, many of my macro shots, while done in broad daylight, still look like they were done at night, because the aperture and shutter speed reduce the ambient light so far that it doesn’t expose the image very well, while the flash unit provides the main lighting for the subject, yet fails to reach the background. But even showing someone at their profession or hobby takes having an adequate representation of those within the frame. For an artist, it’s not enough to show them drawing on a canvas; we should have a variety of artistic tools visible as well. If we think of an image illustrating a pilot, we ask, what kind of pilot? Commercial, military, bush, glider? Only the knowledgeable viewer would be able to tell these from a glimpse of controls and gauges, so we need to provide more details to inform all of the viewers of what they need to know. Even the subject’s basic appearance and expression counts for a lot – a portrait of a nurse is likely to require an entirely different expression from a portrait of a judge, to give the impression that we want to give. And of course, knowing how to evoke these from a subject, especially so they look natural and not forced, is a huge skillset all its own.

black ant pyrrhic victory
[By the way, there are a couple of websites dedicated to bad stock photos, where the photographer put together several elements that they thought would express a particular idea while having no clue themselves how these elements were actually used – labware for scientists, for instance. Some kind of blue water always appears in a beaker or testtube somewhere, because chemicals are blue, right? There’s this curious balance point in such instances, because the photographer wants to adequately express the idea of the laboratory scientist, even to the uninitiated, while the reality isn’t very expressive in itself – yet if the sale is aimed at anything actually scientific, like a journal or textbook, the image becomes ludicrous. And we really want to see people’s eyes – it’s just our nature – but they’re not visible when a microscope is being used correctly, and that image probably wouldn’t sell. It’s fun.]

tourists trapped by snoozing Amercian alligator Alligator mississippiensisMuch harder is the genre of photojournalism, which is what most people think of when we talk about an image with a story. In most cases, we have no ability to stage any portion of the shot, or even mess with lighting, so we have to take it as it is and still get the message across. This means framing and timing become the most important aspects to control, sometimes the only things we have control over. Many times, it means anticipating some particular aspect – action or expression, mostly – and firing off the shutter the moment it happens. An acute awareness of everything in the photo is often necessary. I often tell my students about my wedding photography days, when I was after the ‘first dance’ of the newlyweds. There is actually a very narrow timeframe when the elements tend to come together, because if the guests are in the shot, you want them all looking at the happy couple with delight or warm expressions – one guest looking away, or bored, or eating, is going to spoil the mood of the shot, and this becomes more likely as the seconds pass. Meanwhile, try to find a shooting angle which shows both faces of a couple that are facing one another. And a decent background. And good lighting. These are the kind of things that beginning wedding photographers rarely realize are the skills they never thought to develop. Which is why I say that you save money on a photographer at your own risk.

[If you’re noticing that I’m not illustrating this post with many people shots, the primary reason is that I don’t post people without express permission, unless they’re unrecognizable or in a public place – but I also don’t photograph many people anyway.]

ruby-throated hummingbirds Archilochus colubris squabblingWe read the expressions of any given animate subject (and some inanimate ones,) and nearly every photo can benefit from having something more expressive, more emotional, than simply a straightforward shot. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of observation, and finding the right angle, but most often it takes timing and anticipation. It’s easier with people of course, because they express the emotions that we’re familiar with and we often know when they’re due to arrive. With animals it’s usually very different – most times it doesn’t occur unless the animal is relaxed and acting normally, which is much trickier for wildlife, but can even be a chore when the family pet knows we’re up to something. But for most species, they don’t actually express the emotions we recognize, and when we get something that appears expressive, this is more often than not simply a mistaken impression – which still works just fine, we just can’t anticipate or even provoke it.

And then there’s the scenes, the happy accidents that tell us something just from the details, the items in the image that have their own meaning or mood. A flower lying on the concrete can be simply trash, or it can have its own story (strictly imaginary, but that’s okay too,) depending on how we approach it – angle, lighting, and surroundings. We might wait for someone to walk past the flower, and shoot them receding in the middle distance from a low angle – in reality, the factors are unrelated, but the viewer puts them together and forms the story of the rejected lover or whatever. In such cases, we need to be alert for the possibilities and the moods that any given element might provide, and exploit them as needed. Remember that lighting plays an important role here, setting mood or even hiding distracting details, so knowing how to manipulate this to our advantage is a useful skill. Referring back to the macro comments above, know that you can underexpose an image intentionally and use a flash unit to provide specific light onto a subject or portion of the frame, rendering the whole thing shadowed with attention (the brighter light) drawn to just one region; the same thing in reverse can be done by strategically blocking the ambient light where needed.

The more of an emotional response we can provoke from the viewer, the more memorable our photos will be – for good or bad, it must be noted. Being able to evoke those ‘thousand words’ from our images can add a lot to the impact that we have.

The author's promotional self-portrait - now you know why he's not doing as well as he'd like
I’m throwing this in here, even though it falls more into the line of ‘career portraiture’ than ‘story,’ but as I said, I don’t do enough stories myself. Realizing about ten years ago that I had no images of myself that I wanted to use on the site, I set about to take one. The setting was pretty carefully chosen to reflect ‘nature photographer,’ using the little splash of fall colors that I had available. The light was muted, which kept the shadows under control, and from the right angle to do just enough shaping of my lumpy forehead. The branch in the foreground conveys a sense of discretion, of hiding in the foliage a little, as does the color of my shirt; the leaves actually fall into good positions for framing without blocking or interfering with anything. And while I liked this pose and used it, my arm is actually blocking the camera itself – that could be a spotting scope on the tripod. It would also have worked better to have a little light hitting the lens to give a bit of color in there. Had I been viewing this as the photographer, however (you know what I mean,) I would have changed some aspects: how the shirt was hanging, chin higher, left arm, things like that. But for this version I at least dubbed out the damned pine straw hanging on the foreground branch…

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