I look at a lot of photos. I look at a lot of great photos and also a lot of ‘so so’ images. Since I have more experience than many of my photo friends, I am often asked what I think of a specific image. Good photo or bad one, there is always room for constructive feedback.
To give the feedback, I will usually ask “What is this photo about?”. Initially this earns me a dumb stare, so let me explain – I have seen some great images that convey a specific message or feeling to me … but when I ask the photographer, I find he/she was actually trying to convey a totally different message. Okay, if that is the case, even if it is a great photo, it didn’t accomplish the photographers goal … a teaching moment emerges.
This question actually applies whether shooting wildlife or landscapes. Compositions get confused because the photographer is taking a picture of a subject rather than looking to see what the photograph is really about. Once you’ve decided your message, the challenges includes animal posture (if wildlife), light, color, focus, and angle/elevation for the composition. All of these need to support the message you are conveying in the photo.
When you shoot your image, you are in the moment. You know the time of day, the events leading to the shot, the emotions you felt as you entered the bush. Unfortunately, the viewer doesn’t have the advantage of that experience. He/She looks at your image not as you do (with your history of actually taking the photo and being with the subject), but as a unique entity that they can understand only from what is in the photograph.
If your subject is about the calm of a giraffe at sunset, but the background bush/brush are in clear focus, the composition is conflicted. In this case, a more vast or distant background would help or one could try using a more shallow depth of field to minimize the conflict. Do you want to convey peace or tension? All of the elements, including the background will impact the feel and message.
Of course ‘good accidents’ can happen also. You think your subject is an elephant crossing a stream, and you shoot that scene. When you get home and are processing your shots, you zoom in, and there in the frame you can see tiny drops of water dripping off of the subject elephants trunk as he crosses the river. Luckily, with today’s larger megapixel count cameras, you may be able to crop and create this alternative message. This is okay, because the question “What is the message?” only comes into play when you present your work to others. So what if you changed your message from when you were in the field. It happens.
Generally, one of the best ways to convey your message is by limiting the information given in the shot. Frequently, my biggest complaint on a composition it that the photo has too much stuff in a photograph. When on safari, animals often group together. This may excite you as you watch the scene. One’s mind may say “cool, in one photo I can convey the size of the herd, the cute little baby elephant with the herd and the colorful oxpecker on the one elephant”. Fight this. Each of these subjects may justify an image, but if you try and bring out that much in an image, you will confuse your viewer. Remember, light illuminates, shadows define. With this reminder and the reminder to ‘keep the composition simple”, you will be able to handle each of the above as a quality, separate composition.
If you start asking yourself regularly, “What is this photo about?”, it will become an automatic thing that you don’t have to think about. Ask this question when you compose the shot, when you review the image on the back screen and when again when you are processing the photo back at the computer.