It’s supposed to move you; to generate an emotional response. It’s about how it makes you feel, not just about how it looks. Anything from a single plain colour to highly complex dendritic patterns will have an effect of some kind. As photographers our judgement is sometimes so clouded by adherence to the strict parameters of good composition that we forget to see the subject and think about why we shot it. Was it really just about neatly filling a frame and fitting golden proportions? Or maybe something or someone intrigued us in that moment?
I often make prints and photobooks as gifts for friends and family, and occasionally someone’s choice of image to print will surprise me. The details would be out of perfect focus at 100% and there’d be blown highlights and a horrible background. Are you sure you want this one? I’d ask. It’s not perfectly sharp and the background is a bit of a mess. It may not print that well. Yes, they’d say. They don’t care about those details. They see the image as a whole and they like it. For them it’s a piece of art, not a piece of furniture.
The image as a whole. Sometimes we look so hard that we forget to actually see.
Much of my photography has been shot or edited to fit a pleasing composition. Even if the shot is opportunistic or impulsive, I try to get myself into a favourable position to take it so that at least the framing is half decent. I might think they look nice, but after a while the orderliness of them becomes uninteresting, and I’ll need a something new to look at, perhaps something imperfect.
I realised that many of the photographs I’d seen in exhibitions and galleries, by photographers old and new, were out of perfect focus with wonky horizons, poor lighting and cropped off details. But they were on those walls because they made someone feel something. Today people are selling their instagram selfies and grab shots to advertising companies because they convey a sentiment rather than a science of imagery. No one is analysing the exposure, noise content or focus accuracy.
The images in this article could easily be rejected on technical grounds; soft focus, poor exposure, lots of noise, cluttered backgrounds, poor framing; the list goes on. But while nailing perfect focus, framing and composition may be the ideal, failure to achieve it shouldn’t dissuade us from considering the merits of an image.
It’s always worth learning what makes a good image in the academic sense. If not from copious practice then from a book or online resource, or even paintings in art galleries. It’s better to have knowledge that you can let go of rather than not have it at all. You don’t have to be an art critic and explain the brush strokes or choice of oils. Just look at how light was observed and rendered on the canvas, notice where the elements are on the picture and how they guide your eye around it; the relationship between the light and shadow areas; the proportions of the image given to various elements; whether the spaces are purposefully spared or cluttered.
But we do not have to be a slave to these compositional ideas. As much as our brains enjoy regularity and compartmentalisation, our hearts often find great beauty and freedom in the imperfection of a photographic image. As soon as you visit an exhibition of photographs you’ll see that there is beauty in the randomness and imperfection captured in many of them. Of course, what resonates with me may completely differ with what affects someone else.
Like many photographers I do tend to walk around seeing things in shapes, deconstructing the picture into simple forms and elements to help me decide if I should take the shot. I’ll imagine edges of a frame around the scene and think about what to leave in and out. But then am I taking the shot simply for the sake of good composition or does it actually move me? Once I’m over the technical merits will it still be interesting to me tomorrow?
Even when taking an analytical approach to my shot, checking proportions, and backgrounds, my choices are often emotional, regardless of how good the composition may be. I’m always uttering the phrase ‘it doesn’t feel right’ or ‘it doesn’t move me‘ before rejecting the potential shot.
All subjects, from street photography to architecture can provoke an emotional response. Oftentimes it’s simply the result of opportunity, for instance, when shooting wildlife or sports or something in motion. There is no subject more or less worthy than another. I may see a great juxtaposition of architecture with leading lines and favourable negative space. But so what? If it leaves me cold then why bother?
I’d rather shoot and print a mug of steaming coffee to put on someone’s kitchen wall than a postcard scene of London at night. While the latter may impress me, the former will have a sentiment that affects someone’s mood and behaviour.
In previous articles I’ve stressed the importance of good compositional vision over the sophistication of our gear. With practice the eye for composition becomes instinctive. You just learn to see things as a picture, and often involuntarily! But one might also be willing to become untethered to strict rules and capture something for simply for the sake of impulse or memento.
I apologise that this essay is more philosophical than technical. Its premise is not to debate what is art and what isn’t. That is entirely subjective. I’m certainly not claiming my work is art nor that it should provoke an emotional response. And I’m definitely not trying to excuse my poor photography (although you may easily argue to the contrary with these examples!). It’s to remind us that not everything we capture has to fit neatly into a predetermined boundary with technical precision and nor should it. While there is value in learning what makes a good image, sometimes you just have to let go of the science and shoot from the heart.