I am a photographer who loves making photos of people and places. So every now and then I pack my bags, pick up my camera and head for some destination that I have never been to. My objective is to explore, to interact and to make photos. I am sure there are many among you who are just like me.
The fact that there is a huge deluge of photos on Flickr, Instagram and Facebook. It means more and more people are making photos of the places that they are visiting. That’s encouraging. However, there is a genuine lack of good images; images that can be termed as powerful. I am not referring to exposures or sharpness or color toning or anything like that. I am referring to genuine good images which have an underlying story to tell.
Images such as these capture not only the moment but also the context and that’s what great photos are all about. You can make sweeping seascapes at the golden hour or the blue hour of the day standing from one of the cave-hotels on Santorini. Your images will be pretty much like every other image that has ever been taken. You can make post-card perfect compositions of the Taj Mahal standing at the entrance door and at the wee hours of the morning. But your image will be like a copy of the thousands, probably hundreds of thousands of images that were shot before. What’s lacking is uniqueness.
Uniqueness is a highly underrated notion in photography. Yet somehow everybody is drawn to it. Show nine images of the same clichéd composition to someone and then show the tenth one that is unique and s/he will pick the tenth one. Yet, if you ask ten photographers to come up with a unique shot of some well photographed place they will struggle to make one. The lack of a vision, the will to see beyond the obvious, is what handicaps them and they come up with what every other photographer before them has come up with.
I titled this article as ‘great images come from great underlying stories’. The reason behind it is that I am a firm believer in an image that has an underlying story in it. Often there are more than one story in a photo, which may not be evident at the first glance. It is these little pieces of information that makes an image intriguing.
The average photographer is an impatient being. He has a digital camera in his hand, which he can put to good use. He can shoot at 7, 8 even 10 frames per second, review the images and then share the one he thinks are ‘good’ with the virtual community. He needs instant gratification and likes. He does not wait to know the things that he is photographing. If you find the traits familiar to what you have been doing, then you are a photographer who always end up with passable images; but almost never makes great images. Mind you my definition of a great image is, again, something that tells a story.
The question in your mind at this point would be “How do I make images with an underlying story?” There is no short cut method to this. It is mostly a personal thing. Photographers start by applying their intuition. They use tips that they may have learned from their peers or picked up from people they befriended. Then as they grow as a photographer they develop their own distinct style.
But one thing is given and that is you have to have the patience of a monk and the grit of a climber to be able to walk away with the photos that you want. A photographer friend of mine has this unique way of making images of complete strangers. He would approach someone and say that he is shooting on a project and he needs portraits of people walking on the streets. Now if he is allowed to take a portrait he would engage the person in words till s/he is completely relaxed. At that moment my friend would make a few quick exposures. So though the photographer and the subject are complete strangers the photos would come out very natural.
I started this discussion with travel photos because that is one area that I am very passionate about. I look at a lot of photos on Flickr and other places. Some of these are stunning examples of composition, exposure and good use of the tools of photography. But can these be referred to as great images? I doubt it. Because images of expansive skies, panoramic landscapes and empty streets don’t create emotional connections with the viewer. That is, unless the viewer is somewhat connected with the scene in real life. If you don’t have emotional connection with a photo, then you are unlikely to wait a few minutes to see it. A photo that does capture the imagination of the viewer cannot be termed as great; and to have an emotional connection you need to have an underlying story.
So we come back full circle in this discussion. The story is what makes a photo intriguing. To capture that you’ve got to interact with the subject that you are photographing. Of course that means you have to interact with the people you meet and to know them, but that’s an investment that every good photographer should be willing to make.