“Develop your concept further.” This feedback is commonly given to photographers seeking to improve their work and create images with greater impact. What that comment often means is that your image needs to connect with the audience both visually and emotionally. That may require greater visual impact, or a developed narrative, or both.
Images with Impact
In a photography awards scenario in particular, you need immediate impact to grab the judge’s attention in a split second. But to keep their attention you need to offer them something more… such as a narrative they can be drawn into and explore; a story or character they can connect with emotionally. Your image will also need to be technically flawless, as obvious flaws will often disrupt the flow of an image, causing the viewer to disengage from the narrative.
Concepts don’t have to be overly complicated – it’s more important that they are well developed and communicated. The points in this article can be applied whether you are creating an elaborate conceptual portrait, or preparing to photograph a person in their everyday environment for an editorial piece. Knowing and understanding your subject is key to telling their story.
Storytelling In Photography
Whether you are photographing your kids in your back yard, a standard client session, or a creative concept, YOU ARE A STORYTELLER.
Storytelling can be simple or complex; fact or fiction. Clever use of the elements and principles of art & design can elevate the narrative, conveying relationships, mood, time & motion, and more. Understanding these principles plays a big role in creating images with impact.
Developing Your Concept
Whether the concept you want to photograph is a story or an idea, you MUST take the time to determine what it is that you want to communicate. Brainstorm to explore the message or story you want to convey. Explore your subject/s’ character and “plot”, just as an author would.
Who are they? Which chapter of their story are you telling? What are they feeling? Is time and place relevant? Describe any relevant relationships. Explore any strengths, weaknesses, fears, motivations, dreams and goals relevant to the story.
After your brainstorm, highlight the essential “plot points”. How much does the viewer need to know to connect or relate? Don’t overwhelm them and confuse the narrative.
Then, begin work on how you will convey the story visually, in a single still image. And again, this process is applicable to your every day client work, as well as your conceptual work. The difference is just how far you want to explore and take the narrative.
Symbols allow the viewer to go beyond what is presented to them and read further into a story. Examples of a few well-known symbols are the colour blue (calm), storms (turmoil), circle (completion or eternity). Note, effective use of symbolism assumes the viewer and author have the same understanding of a symbol, or that it’s globally easy to interpret, which may not always be the case depending on age group or cultural experience. So keep your audience in mind.
Greater Visual Impact
Elements of Art: line, colour, shape, form, texture, value, space
Principles of Design: balance, movement, pattern, repetition, rhythm, proportion, variety, emphasis, contrast
The Elements of Art, such as line and colour, are your tools. They are quite literally the elements which make up images. When we style, light and compose an image, we use the Principles of Design, such as balance and emphasis, to arrange our elements. Used well, we can create extremely powerful pieces of visual communication and strong narratives.
(As you research the Elements and Principles you will notice there are some differences in the names and number in different schools of thought. Embrace it!)
Using the Elements of Art & Principles of Design
Consider how you can use the Elements and Principles of Art & Design to help communicate. Here are some examples:
LINE: Conveys direction, movement, shape. Lines can lead the viewer’s eye through a scene. Read more about line.
COLOUR: Conveys mood, atmosphere, season, or status. As an element of art, colour refers to hue (colour family), saturation (vibrancy), and value (brightness).
SPACE: The area around an object/subject. eg. Does your subject have enough space to sit comfortably in the frame, or have you cropped too tight and changed the message by adding unnecessary tension? Space also relates to the use of light and shadow, as well as composition, to create the illusion of depth.
PROPORTION: The size and weight of elements within the frame. Proportion helps to convey relationships between subjects and/or objects.
BALANCE: Every object, colour, or texture in your image has visual “weight”. An unbalanced image feels heavy on one side and empty on the other. Think of a set of balancing scales. Place a large rock on one side, and the scale drops. It’s heavy. But add 2 medium rocks to the opposite side, and it balances out.
EMPHASIS: Draws the viewer’s attention to a specific element (eg colour, texture, line) within the frame, by having that element stand out. For example, using complementary colours, a subject wearing yellow would be emphasised against a blue background.
CONTRAST: The difference between elements (colour, size, shape, texture) in the frame. For example, how and where (size and space) you place elements in relation to each other communicates hierarchy. Colour/brightness contrasts can also be used to convey that something has more/less importance in the frame. Texture stands out against a smooth surface. And negative space around a subject emphasises the subject.
ACTION: How many of the elements and principles that we’ve covered in this article you can identify in Kelly’s image above of the twins? What is their role and effect within the frame? Processing and articulating how the elements and principles are used in photography, film, or graphic design, will help you become more familiar with the role they play in communication. This in turn will help you in your own process.
Focus on Creating Images with Impact
These are a few examples of the principles we use every day, perhaps without even knowing it, when we place a subject in front of the camera to record their story. Research and use these principles in your composition, colour choices, styling, lighting design, to strengthen your stories and develop your concepts further. They can be applied to the simplest of newborn portraits or to conceptual art pieces, and they will help you create images with impact.
This is not about saying you have to create a piece of graphic design to win an award. It’s about being a storyteller, through a visual medium, and striving to create images which connect with the viewer and have great impact. It’s what we do every day as photographers.
ACTION: If you don’t already have a visual diary (blank notebook) to scribble and collect inspiration, get one to develop your ideas in.
Other terms you might like to research include: visual communication, communication design, principles of design, elements of art.
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[…] art theory, the Principles of Design represent how we use the Elements of Art (our tools: line, colour, shape, form, texture, value and […]