Simplify, simplify! Pictures with impact

I used to dream, during interminable journeys up and down the motorway,  of having a miniature camera surgically inserted into my eyes. You would look at something, blink and the scene would be recorded to look at later on, all without taking your hands off the steering wheel.

Of course, Google’s Glass project comes pretty close to achieving this dream, but sadly things don’t work quite like this. Eyes and camera lenses, although looking superficially similar, work quite differently. And the difference is what makes taking photographs with impact so difficult to learn to do.

One of the hardest lessons to learn when starting with photography is not how to fit everything relevant in your pictures, but how to leave nearly everything else out, or, at the very least, how to minimise the impact of distracting elements. Working out how to focus our viewer’s attention is crucial to developing images that first grab and then hold their interest.


When we first see the church our eyes light on the gothic ivy and the stone work. We tend to edit out the expanse of uninteresting grass, and the things in the periphery.

It takes a while to learn because our eyes work differently from our camera lens. For example, when we look at a landscape, the scene we perceive is made up of snapshots processed in our brains as our eyes automatically flicker round the scene. We tend to hold more information about things in the middle of our vision, and less about things in our peripheral vision.  Crucially there is no frame other than the decreasing detail of our peripheral vision.

As a result things we are interested in appear to stand out, and they do, but that’s just because we are looking at them! But when we photograph them, we’re sometimes surprised to see all sorts of other things in the picture.

Compare that with a photograph: it’s presented within a frame (even if that’s only the edge of the print) which immediately changes the dynamic by constraining where our eyes move. Everything is on the same plane and unless the photograph is physically large enough to force you to move your head to take it all in, the experience of viewing the scene is quite unlike real life. You can take in much more in what feels like a single glance. Replicating the effect of an object seen inside a ring of peripheral vision can only be simulated with the blurring effects of depth of field.

The thing that stood out so much when we were looking at it is now just one of many things in a photograph.

As a result of all this, the photographer has to help the viewer make sense of the scene in the picture. Over time, we have come to recognise a number of conventions when looking at images, and over time as photographers we have developed a number of typical strategies for working with these conventions. Working digitally of course makes many of them more accessible than they used to be when film was the only medium.

The challenge for the photographer is simply this: how to replicate the mental image of a scene on paper with a camera? How do we get from seeing a 3 dimensional scene with all the dynamic tricks our eyesight can bring to bear through to translating it into a 2 dimensional, static, framed image?

Here are three steps which might help, and that apply at any stage of the process: from investigating a potential picture all the way through to showing it off to your excited audience.

Express your intention

Why, specifically, are you taking this photograph? What is it about the scene before you that has motivated you to take action? Say it out loud. Explain it to someone else. It’s not easy! But the more specific you can force yourself to be, the more likely you are to be able to achieve your objective of creating a great photograph.

So, with the church and ivy, I wanted to emphasise the broken down, slightly spooky feeling of the old building, and highlight the aging process. I wanted the ivy and the stonework to feature heavily since that was what drew my attention in the first place.

Focus your composition

Now you’ve decided what your picture’s about, make sure you are grabbing and holding our attention by framing and composing in a way designed to emphasise your intentions. For instance you might choose to move the camera or angle it differently.

Back to our church: I had to get rid of the grass in front of the building, the gap in the trees above and the other photographer’s leg! I tried a number of possibilities by reframing with the camera but quickly realised I would have to crop the image later. While I was actually cropping the picture in Lightroom I realised I could easily include the gravestones on either side to provide a frame for the building.

We added the light at the window to add a little ambiguity to the image – what’s a light doing in an old church like that? It also balances the light and dark sides of the church.

Remove distractions

Then as a refinement, improve the composition by getting rid of things that don’t contribute to your intentions. You might use lighting techniques while taking the picture or vignetting techniques while processing it afterwards.

And again with our church, the colours (green grass, yellow light) I felt were such a distraction so I converted the picture into black and white. I probably had that in mind when I took the picture anyway but it was interesting seeing the effect it had when I tried it.

The three steps can be carried out before you press the shutter release. They can also be carried out again, and continuously, after you have pressed the button. You might have got it right first time, or you might have decided that some elements of the process are better dealt with when working on the image later.

Bear in mind these are just the headlines. In the next few articles, I plan to work through each of these steps in turn, highlighting how each contributes to the creation of pictures with impact, and providing some practical tips to get you on the way.

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