David Osborn Photography, London, England
How To Make Your Photography Connect With Viewers
‘Emotion’ – The Bridge Between Viewer And Photograph
‘The Artistic Principles’ – Critical For Creating Quality Photography
A photograph must reward the viewer. We create photographs for ourselves, our reward is the enjoyment of photography. The viewer can only see your photograph. – You must look at your photography from the viewers’ perspective and understand your photography must reward the viewer. A common mistake is letting the memory of your experience cloud your judgment of the photograph in its own right. The ability to detach yourself from the photograph makes you a better photographer, it forces you to concentrate on the ‘product’; creating high-quality photographs. It’s not only ‘What you show,’ but ‘How you show it.’
Good photographs express an idea, evoke emotion, and reward the viewer. The nucleus of all good photography is ‘Emotion.’ – The photographers’ ability to push the viewers’ emotional buttons, appeal to the viewers’ senses, and trigger their emotions. Often, photographers are so concerned with just taking the photograph and the equipment, that the photographs they produce have little to ‘say.’ By ‘say’ I mean provide mental stimulation, express an idea, and evoke emotion. Viewers do expect a reward, and the reward is hearing what you have to ‘say,’ more than what you have to ‘show.’ A problem further compounded by photographers often rejecting quality post-production; the one area which allows you to create the critical emotional reward that viewers demand. To be creatively successful and create emotion, you need guidelines. ‘The Artistic Principles’ are those guidelines drawn from the wider world of art. Fundamental principles that apply to all pictures regardless of media or subject matter. Photographers must know how to control the visual structure, emphasis, and design of the photograph to successfully express an idea and trigger emotion in the viewer; which in turn provides their reward. The definition of a bad photograph is simply: ‘A photograph you learn nothing from and feel nothing about.’ For many photographers just applying ‘The Artistic Principles’ is the one missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle they need; the lack of artistic knowledge that prevents them from being good photographers.
Your Photography Must Reward The Viewer
Emotion is ‘what we add to the photograph as a viewer.’ The photograph must evoke something more within our imagination than what we just ‘see’ in the photograph. It must take us beyond ‘what we see’ and trigger ‘what we feel.’ Interest, curiosity, thoughts, feelings, and energy. We buy a book for the story, not the book itself. The story, emotion, and ‘world we imagine,’ are the purpose and reward of the book. Emotion gives the photograph energy, life, purpose, and rewards the viewer who has no personal relationship with the subject shown in the photograph. Emotion changes us from detached, looking ‘at’ the photograph to an emotional investment ‘in’ the photograph. All successful photographs mentally stimulate and connect with the viewer on an emotional level.
If you feel merely showing a beautiful location in a purely descriptive way is sufficient then look at it this way. What do you care about in your life that you have no emotional connection with, and which serves no purpose? You may have a beautiful watch that doesn’t tell the time or a car that doesn’t work, they may be beautiful objects but their core function has been removed, making them pointless for the purpose they were created. The descriptive value of a photograph is not the photograph’s primary function unless it is a documentary or product photograph.
Why Photographs Fail – Let’s Understand The Problem First
1. Only Descriptive – ‘The photograph is boring and uninteresting.’ – Let’s translate this comment: ‘I’ve seen it many times before, it doesn’t trigger my curiosity or imagination. I don’t learn anything new or see anything different and I gain no reward by staying, so I’m leaving.’ Nobody finds ‘obvious’ interesting, it’s a contradiction. If you only show ‘what the landscape looks like,’ it’s very unlikely it’s interesting enough to provide the viewer enough reward these days, especially as they have no personal relationship with the subject. You can’t show a familiar subject in a literal way and expect it to trigger enough curiosity and imagination to reward the viewer. It won’t. Today everyone has seen everything, everything’s been photographed, we’ve all become desensitized. The beautiful, colorful ‘postcard’ scene or compositional detail is just not thought-provoking enough to reward viewers anymore. The more familiar the subject, the more pressure there is to show it in a unique way to trigger the viewers’ curiosity and imagination. You can’t be unique if you don’t offer anything different or more creative than other photographers!
2. No Emotion – The photograph contains no life, mood, or atmosphere. – ‘What we see’ doesn’t trigger ‘What we feel.’ The photograph doesn’t evoke any feelings, it failed to ‘push the viewers’ emotional buttons, appeal to their senses and trigger emotion.’ You must create emotion in post-production if the subject doesn’t depict very much emotion in the photograph. A photograph of a racing car crash shows the amazing drama of the event. There’s no need to create emotion. However, the mood in a landscape may be weak and very subdued. You must intensify or even create the emotion through portraying the light, mood, drama, and atmosphere in post-production, in order to make successful ‘emotional’ content. The camera can’t do it all for you. Without emotion, it’s a case of “I can see what you’re showing me, but I can’t hear what you’re saying.” The ONLY rule is: – If there is no emotion, then your photograph will fail because it will not connect with the viewer, it feels dead. People don’t like dead photographs.
3. Poor Craftsmanship – Poor technique. The photographer may have the correct intentions to show emotion, but the photographer can’t express that emotion visually, lacking the technical skills or artistic knowledge.
You Can Only Create Three Types Of Photographs
1. Product Photograph – 100% literal. Purely descriptive visual ‘fact,’ no emotion. The viewer’s reward is information; what the product looks like. No imagination triggered. No emotion is evoked but design principles do apply.
2. Straight Photograph – More literal. The priority is showing what the subject looks like – but this is NOT a Product Photograph. It must evoke feelings about the subject and stimulate the viewer mentally and emotionally. This is the most common type of photograph taken by most photographers.
3. Artistic Photograph – Less literal. The priority is evoking feelings about the subject, more than showing what the subject looks like literally. An artistic interpretation where the imagination, mood, and emotion are the dominant qualities of the photograph.
Be very clear about which type of photograph you are creating. The lack of emotion is THE number one reason why photographs fail. Emotion brings the photograph to life, gives it energy, and makes the photograph connect with everyone, so everyone gets a reward.
The Fundamental Principle Photographers Forget
‘Everything we see visually, we translate emotionally.’ – It should be tattooed on every photographer’s arm and engraved on every camera! This fundamental principle must dictate your whole approach to photography and every step of creating the photograph from concept to print. Let’s examine this statement:
1. First you have to accept this statement is true. – Well, it’s the fundamental principle behind the global advertising industry: Why McDonald’s burger advertising is made to look so appetizing, even if reality lets us down!
2. The logical deduction of this equation then is, ‘If you control what the viewer sees, you control what the viewers feel, their emotions.’ We just need to know how to do so.
3. ‘The Artistic Principles’ are guidelines from the wider world of art that tell us how to do so; how to translate ‘What we see’ into ‘What we feel,’ emotion.
‘The Artistic Principles’– The Fundamentals Of Visual Language
Photography is linked to art by visual language. All languages have structure and logic. ‘The Artistic Principles’ is the structure and logic of visual language based on – ‘The Cognitive Science of Art’; the science of understanding how we perceive the world and how we ‘read’ visually. ‘The Artistic Principles’ is the actionable knowledge taken from that science, which artists use as guidelines when creating a work of art.
Working visually means understanding how the ‘Color, Emphasis, Variety, Contrast, Balance, Cohesion, Form, Space, and Movement, etc.’ all translate into an emotional response. Control them and you control the viewers’ emotional response. The really important fundamental quality is it’s not only ‘what subject you show,’ but ‘how you show that subject.’ How emphasis draws the eye to a particular location in the photograph. Movement controls how our eyes will move around the photograph. Variety creates visual interest, etc. These are a couple of – ‘The Artistic Principles’ and they apply to all pictures in any media, regardless of the subject. Important Key Facts:
1. Visual language is international. As humans, we are born with the ability to understand the same universal visual language, whereas we have to learn spoken language which is specific to a region. Because visual language is so universal, we can create emotion which everybody will respond to regardless of their spoken language.
2. Though all humans are born with the ability to ‘read’ visual language, we are NOT born with the ability to ‘write-in’ visual language, this requires learning ‘The Artistic Principles.’
3. Curiosity facts: A picture can be processed by the brain in as little as 50 milliseconds or less (MIT research), and we process images 60,000 times faster than text.
‘The Artistic Principles’ – How We Perceive Pictures Emotionally
If we understand how the brain perceives a photograph, we can then understand how all ‘The Artistic Principles’ affect each step; how they provide a solution for making the photograph a good photograph based on science, not luck. We can also break ‘emotion’ down into two distinct types. Let’s take the individual out of photography and understand the basic mechanics of how humans perceive pictures. Every time we look at a photograph our brain processes the image the same way: – 1. Gather the information. 2. Interpret the information. 3. Produce the response. At each step ‘The Artistic Principles’ influence the brain:
1. ‘Gather The Information’ – When looking at a photograph, the brain scans the photograph to gather information. Applying ‘The Artistic Principles’ makes scanning more efficient; the brain receives information quicker because the information is in the correct visual language. No time is wasted sorting out any confusion or conflicting logic.
2. ‘Interpret The Information’ – The brain compares the information against two ‘databases’ to create associations:
- The first database is ‘How we perceive the world.’ We’re born with this. It creates associations about perception and emotions e.g., the color red is ‘associated’ with danger. Lighter tonal values are ‘associated’ with perceiving distance, etc. We can control the associations the brain will make, and therefore emotions – by controlling what visual information we give the brain to interpret. The reason why ‘How we show the subject,’ is so important.
- The second database is our ‘Memories,’ created from birth. Memory associations. If we grew up eating apples, an image of apples will trigger childhood memories. The reason why a photograph of your children creates a strong emotional response in you, but not in other people; they do not have your personal memories.
3. ‘Produce The Response’ – The brain produces a result, a response on two levels. This is the important ‘emotion’ part for photographers to use when deciding ‘How to show the subject.’:
- ‘Perception Result’ – Concentrates only on how we ‘perceive the world.’ Applying ‘The Artistic Principles’ creates a convincing three-dimensional illusion of reality, so the landscape will ‘look’ real. Factual, not creative principles: there is no ‘artistic freedom.’ ‘The Artistic Principles’ must be applied correctly. You must never contradict – ‘How we perceive the world.’ If you do, the brain flags it as illogical and wrong.
- ‘Feelings Result’ – Concentrates on how we ‘feel about the world.’ Applying ‘The Artistic Principles’ will evoke an emotion based on the elements of the photograph and how they are structured and work together. They are all creative principles: you do have ‘artistic freedom’ allowing even radical artistic transformations which can make the picture look ‘unreal.’ The underlying ‘Perception Results’ being applied, keep the picture ‘feeling’ real though.
The ‘Feelings Result’can be further broken down into two types:
- ‘What we feel’ – Doesn’t make the brain think further. Qualities like color trigger feelings like calm, beauty, hot, cold, etc. Evoked feelings, more literal associations that don’t need any further translation, thought, or action.
- ‘What we think’ – Does make the brain think further. Creating moods and atmospheres that will trigger mental stimulation which requires further thought and action. Qualities that captivate the viewer to stay, study and ask questions, look for answers. Creating visual qualities that imply, suggest, intrigue, secretive, curiosity. These are deeper, more thought-provoking qualities that captivate and keep the viewer prisoner, always finding ‘more.’
‘The Artistic Principles’ – Applying Them To Your Photography
If we understand ‘The Artistic Principles,’ we then have the ability to manipulate the viewers’ emotions, trigger the imagination and evoke curiosity. Create more interest than just relying on what the photograph shows. – What we do is: – Choose what emotional response we want the viewer to have. Place the visual qualities associated with that emotion in the photograph and that visual quality will then trigger the emotion we want the viewer to have. – This is THE ‘Holy Grail,’ the core fundamental principle for creating the critical emotional response in viewers that must not be ignored. It’s THE fundamental principle that must dominate how you perceive photography and create every photograph, more than depicting the subject your photo shows. It sounds simple, reality though is a little bit harder but that’s the skill of a good photographer that’s overlooked nowadays!
‘The Artistic Principles’ give us logical guidelines we can follow when creating a photograph of any subject. When creating emotion, we use two approaches:
1. ‘What we feel’ – Translating the literal qualities shown, e.g., The portrait’s expression, body language, and energy of a person depicted; a portrait that captures the mind of the sitter caught in the act of thought; making sure the facial expression of a person matches the story you tell. The literal qualities like color must also match the emotion. Orange is associated with the warmth of a sunny day and friendliness. Blue is associated with the coldness of snow, winter, discomfort, etc. Drama is implied by strong diagonal lines and peace by horizontal lines.
2. ‘What we think’ – What ‘Thoughts’ do we want to trigger in the viewer. Creating the suitable light, mood, drama, and atmosphere of the landscape so it evokes a feeling of the landscape’s personality, like showing the personality of a person in a portrait. Darkness evokes a feeling of mystery, curiosity, secretive and sinister; that ‘something’ else is happening yet not shown. Whereas brightness, on the other hand, evokes a feeling of openness, honesty, peace, and tranquility. The contrast gives the photograph life and drama. Equally, it is what we don’t show but only imply; that we have to fill in and create in our imagination that makes the photograph compelling, strong, captivating and engaging, emotional, and appealing. Showing everything with too much clarity and too easily readable will actually remove the one essential ‘trigger’ that makes the photograph good; you remove the need for the viewer to do any work. You left nothing for curiosity and imagination. We must get the viewer mentally ‘involved’ in the picture.
The Actionable Takeaway
1. It’s Not About Your Reward, It’s About Your Viewers Reward
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not about YOU, it is about your VIEWER. Some quote the philosophy that there’s no good or bad photography, it’s all about the ‘enjoyment of taking photographs.’ That’s just bad photographers justifying bad photography! If your photograph is viewed by someone else, then 50 Milliseconds after being viewed, that concept goes straight out of the window. That rule changes. It must work as visual communication. That’s not your decision, the viewer takes that decision completely out of your hands. It’s a lovely and fluffy concept, but wrong. The solution is so simple – Create a good photograph and everyone is happy! – Everyone knows there are good and bad photographs, your ‘instinct’ tells you. ‘Instinct’ is your brain reading the photograph using visual language and then receiving confusing signals. A good photograph gives a clear signal, and a bad photograph gives a confusing signal. ‘The Artistic Principles’ ensures there are no confusing signals; that your brain receives the information as a pure signal in the visual language it understands. That’s what ‘Visual Communication’ is – Communicating ideas and emotion – Visually.
2. All Good Photographers Understand Visual Language
Photography is unique in that it gives us a ‘ready-made image.’ This allows us to bypass an enormous amount of artistic knowledge that working in another media, would not allow. We may not know or think about ‘The Artistic Principles,’ and digital photography is certainly not going to force us to, but that doesn’t make ‘The Artistic Principles’ not exist, they do. We all use the principles every time we look at any picture. So, it’s illogical for a photographer working in a visual language, not to learn how to speak in a visual language. A bit like living in Russia and deciding not to speak Russian. How can you communicate if you don’t speak the language? ‘The Artistic Principles’ is visual language at a fundamental level and choosing to ignore or not learn the principles is quite literally ‘choosing’ to make bad photography by default.
3. The Camera Can’t Do Everything For You
You can only apply about 20% of ’The Artistic Principles’ at the camera, the remaining 80% can only be applied in post-production. To create good photography, you have no choice but to look beyond the camera, remove the expectation of the camera doing all the work for you. You must invest in quality post-production. And yes, that means NOT lightroom! The camera simply can’t do all the work and Lightroom is far too limited. The camera can record emotion, it can’t create emotion, that is just the way life is. This over-reliance on the camera is producing sterile, clinical, mechanical, and dead photographs without any signature of human creativity or personality. A photographer who does not want to take post-production seriously is like ‘wanting to bake a cake but refusing to use an oven!’ It’s just totally illogical, absurd, and impossible if you want to create quality. Photography and post-production are the two sides of the same coin. A good photograph can’t exist without both. What limits photographers the most from ever being good photographers is the refusal to learn proper post-production, NOT so much the raw photographs they actually take. To be very clear, I am not saying every photograph needs a major artistic transformation. – It’s unsuitable for most photographs. However, EVERY photograph needs to comply with ‘The Artistic Principles.’. ‘The Artistic Principles’ are NOT just for major artistic transformations; they are for fine-tuning every photograph you create.
4. You Can’t Apply All The Principles Using Lightroom
Why do I say Lightroom is too limited? You can’t apply most of ‘The Artistic Principles’ using Lightroom because Lightroom doesn’t have the tools that allow you to apply them. Lightroom and automated sliders are pushed as being the solution for the photographer. It’s not. Your work will look generic because everyone has the same restrictions and is using the same formula solutions. Photoshop is not as intuitive at first glance, but I could have you using Adobe Photoshop in one hour! The learning curve is literally no harder or longer than Lightroom. It’s only because you are being terribly misled, deceived, and pushed into Lightroom by social media ‘experts’ that Photoshop has been labeled ‘hard,’ but you’re paying the price for Lightroom in the quality of your photography. Photoshop’s even included with Lightroom in the Adobe package, so cost is no longer an excuse!
5. Formulas Limit Your Creativity. Learn The Fundamentals Instead
Formulas produce generic images. The ‘leading lines’ principle, endlessly quoted by photographers. The limitation of only shooting at sunset and sunrise, the rule of thirds, the requirement of a foreground object every time, and so on. It’s time to think beyond generic formulas and learn the fundamentals. I watched a YouTube photography video. The subject was a castle on top of a cliff in fantastic moody weather. In the foreground is a large rock on the beach; used to create distance. There are other ways to create the feel of distance. You don’t put a large, irrelevant, distracting rock at the bottom of the picture which adds nothing to the story, indeed it detracts from the clarity of the story about the castle. The dependence on formulas propagated by YouTube ‘experts,’ compounded by Lightroom is only good as starting points for learning the basics, you must advance beyond them. These formulas are chains keeping your photographs identical to everyone else’s, literal and generic looking. You don’t need any formulas at all if you understand what you are doing at a fundamental level. Your work will be more creative, and unique if you break free from formulas and learn the fundamental picture principles instead.
6. ‘The Artistic Principles’ Gives Your Photography Quality Control Guidelines
The Artistic Principles give you a set of criteria to judge your photograph against when it’s completed, a checklist so you can judge yourself if the photograph is successful and nothing has been forgotten. Applying all ‘The Artistic Principles’ correctly means that by default, the photograph has to be a good photograph because ‘The Artistic Principles’ define all the qualities that a good photograph requires. A perfect photograph could be defined as ‘The perfect application of all ‘The Artistic Principles.’
7. The Photographer Who Understands ‘The Artistic Principles’ Will Always Win, Every Time
What I’ve covered, can never be replaced by technology. Technology will never be clever enough to replace the infinite subtleties of the human brain and individual creativity. ‘Tips tricks and presets’ totally miss the whole point of what photography is about – ‘expressing an idea and creating emotion.’ ‘Quick automation and instant gratification,’ only produces soulless images. The photographer who understands ‘The Artistic Principles’ and knows how to apply them, always wins, every time, with every picture because they understand how to bridge the emotional gap between photograph and viewer on a fundamentally human level that tools and technology can’t do alone.
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