Less Like a Snapshot, More Like a Poem

Image for post
Image for post

When I teach photography classes, I notice that there are two basic types of students. The first has an observant eye and a knack for composition, but isn’t as strong with technical details such as exposure and white balance.

The second can tell you every specification about their camera and lens, but struggles to find an interesting composition that tells a story.

For one, seeing is easy. For the other, it is not.

If I had to decide which to be born with, I would choose to be the visually perceptive person who is technically challenged. My reasoning would be that such details as aperture and shutter speed can be learned. Vision, on the other hand, is more difficult to develop. And in the end, if the picture looks good, who cares about the settings?

But that’s only half the story for me. The real hope is that my pictures would work on two levels. First, compositionally, they need to be interesting. And second, the subject of the photograph should elicit emotions from the viewer. That second part is fascinating to me because as creators we rarely have control over the interpretation of our work. We have to let go and allow the viewers decide for themselves what the photo is about.

It’s like raising children. You only have control in the beginning.

Here’s an example.

A dog in the park is eyeing a man who is holding the lunch he brought from home. The man is in a suit. Maybe he works in an office nearby. The dog is skinny but looks otherwise OK.

On the first level, this is a photo opportunity. The park is pretty, the lighting is good, and I have an excellent angle. I want to compose the shot so that it’s as interesting to others as it is to me.

Now that I’ve grabbed the viewer’s attention, I want them to wonder what’s going to happen next. The way the dog is looking at the man, unafraid, and at the same time the man’s body language in response to the attention. This is the second part: emotional engagement.

Is this a mean dog who is ready to attack a stranger in the park? Or is he just hungry and looking to share a meal? Maybe nothing will happen at all.

When viewers ask these questions, they are hooked. This pleases me on all levels. I’ve identified an interesting situation, and have begun a story that only the viewer can finish.

Creating these images requires practice. One technique that I teach at photography workshops is to have the student find an interesting street corner and just stand there. Start observing without taking pictures. In time, the stories begin to reveal themselves, and once they do, the photographer can capture them.

In my story, I care about both the dog and the man. I don’t want the dog to starve, and I do want the man to escape unharmed, albeit without part of his lunch. But most of all, I want to create a picture that makes others as curious as I am.

My favorite photos are like poems. They work on different levels at the same time. And finding these stories among the noise of daily life is challenging, but worth every ounce of effort.

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