Getting the viewer’s attention without them knowing how?

From time to time I deliver seminars to fellow photographers and I give lectures to students, PR people and just about anyone who will listen. If I get long enough, there is a central theme to what I try to say. It really amounts to defining the difference between a photographer and somebody with a camera. It’s about how we see the world and how we show others that world.

Professor Heinz Wolff. ©Neil Turner/TSL, May 2005

Photographers do more than push that button. We bring creativity, experience and thought to the process to give our images something that “just push the button” photographs would rarely ever have. At this point in a live lecture there are usually a few worried faces, a few that are toying with calling out b***s*** and a majority that are just puzzled. Let me explain.

What a successful photograph has is a view of the world or of people that the viewer instantly recognises but will give them an interpretation that they would not see with either the naked eye or their own pictures. Successful pictures contain the information that the photographer wanted to include but exclude all sorts of stuff that doesn’t need to be there. Good photographers use a whole bunch of techniques to deliver a view that is familiar but sufficiently different to make the viewer look again. By now the audience members who will benefit from the lecture are trying to work out what I mean by techniques. A two dimensional image of three dimensional reality frozen in time is what still photography will always give – that’s “just” physics. We can do so much more.

In days gone by photographs were always an interpretation of the world because they contained no colour. The vast majority of the population see in colour and so delivering them a picture in tones of black, white and grey has always been the simplest way to make the real unreal but recognisable. Make the black and white print properly and you are really starting to produce the kind of pictures that I am talking about.

Converting an image to monochrome is the oldest and simplest technique but we have so many others. Shooting from different angles lets the photographer show their vision. I wrote an essay many years ago called “six feet up is bad” which basically said that photographs taken from a normal adult standing height had a much harder time of making the viewer see something in a scene that they wouldn’t have seen themselves. Take the picture from below two feet or above eight feet and your perspective shifts and the photograph stands a better chance of catching the viewer’s subconscious eye. Similarly, using longer or wider lenses than the human eye would relate to gives the photographer a way to pass on their vision. Using shallow depths of field or interesting light, having saturated colours or leaving colour casts normally corrected by the human eye all give us extra tools and techniques for making our images far more interesting.

Of course you can go too far – but that’s all part of what makes photography so interesting. Use too many tricks in the same image and you just end up with a statement about how you took a picture rather than having a great picture.

On almost every assignment I shoot wide and I shoot tight. I shoot from low angles and from height. I light a lot more of my work than most photographers but I try to give my clients choice between obviously and subtly lit images. If I do shoot a picture at f5.6 in average light on a 50mm lens from five feet ten inches of of the ground with the subject ten feet away it’s quite a shock to me!

The most successful images are those that get the viewer’s attention without them knowing why.

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