Images with Meaning

It seems right that the first entry on my upgraded web site should address my version of what makes a great image.

If you are a real photographer each week you look at hundreds, maybe thousands,  of images taken by someone else. You soon realize that only a few capture your interest. I estimate that I see only ten to twenty images in a week that I feel are truly great images. Once I started to recognize these standout images, I began to look closer to figure out why these images captured my imagination. What made these images different? 

There are two, sequential levels of "interests" that i use when I evaluate an image. The first level is a technical evaluation. Does the image meet certain technical standards that are widely recognized as the necessary foundation of a good image.

My eye starts with looking at the overall exposure of an image. A good image uses light to draw the attention to the subject of the image. More importantly, a good image doesn't have areas that pull my eye away from the subject. Too often I see large bright areas in poorly exposed images that demand my visual attention without adding anything to the image. I have ruined many of my images by including a brightly lit window in the background.

Focus is equally important. Is the subject of the image in focus? That seems simple but it takes thought and planning to get the focus on an image correct. Seldom is the subject of a photograph in the center of an image where most cameras capture most of the focus information. Grabbing the focus and then composing the image takes practice. 

Just as significantly, what is out of focus is just as important as what is in focus. Great images use the blurry bokeh (the quality of the out of focus area) to draw the attention to the subject. A photographer spends as much time thinking about the background as he/she does thinking about the main subject. Sometimes backgrounds are significantly blurred to provide a smooth, colored, non-distracting layer. Just as frequently a crisp, in focus background gives context to the images meaning.

The third technical evaluation I use is composition. If exposure and focus are acceptable, then I look at the composition of an image. There are rules. The rule of thirds is important. It is rare that a good image has the subject at its center. It does happen. There are great images with the subject centered but there is usually some other aspect of the image that dictates this departure from the "rules." 

Apparent horizons should be either high or low in an image and not cut the image in the middle. Horizons also need to be level. An un-level horizon is incredibly distracting. 

Rules are made to be broken. True. But the rules of composition come from an understanding how people respond to the visual stimulation. Breaking the rules of composition seldom leads to a great image. Creating a great image is accomplished by using the rules to make an image that makes the viewer respond.

Once I am satisfied that an image passes a review of these technical standards (exposure, focus and composition), i look for a very subjective component that I like to call the "story." The image has to suggest a story to me. It has to capture an instant in some scene that I can create in my mind. The story is dramatically different for everyone who views the image. But great images catalyze the imagination. Great images pull me into a story that I make up about what happened before or what will happen after the shutter closes. Simple, well-crafted images that suggest long stories or several stories are always the ones that cause me to take more than just a cursory glance.

I have lots of images in my portfolio and some are presented here on my site. But only a few of my images meet the standards i have set for myself. I am proud of my images but my goal is to replace those that don't appeal to the eye and suggest a meaningful story.