What you feel, not what you see

I’ve often wondered what truly is a “memorable image”. Is it merely adherence to the rules? Understanding the Golden Mean? Getting the horizon straight? Capturing a child’s innocence? That glorious sunset? Sure it is most of this, and yet more. Now this may seem familiar: you’re with a great subject, you photograph it, but when you look at the picture later on, it has nowhere near the impact the actual scene had.

That’s because many things have happened between “composition and click”. Our brain tends to focus on only the parts we want to see. Selective retention, psychologists call this. It sees that evocative portrait imagining it in high-key B&W, yet disregards the clutter at the top of the frame and the rubbish piled up at the bottom. Having been there, done that, I am now more conscious of not only what I see around me, but also what I see through the lens. I slow down when I photograph. Later I put aside time to see my own pictures critically, without the benefit of post-processing. I see a brilliant photograph, but for the fact that I got my subject’s left hand only till the wrist and missed the fingers. This helps me the next time.

Another reason for the less-than-ideal transition from “reality to roll” is that mak­ing a photograph (I prefer the term “make a photograph” to “take a photograph” because it better reflects the creative process of photography) means going from three dimensions (width, height, and depth) to two, eliminating depth. There are a number of techniques to improve “spatial” dynamism in pictures, i.e. better manage the loss of depth. These include working with leading lines, incorporating di­agonals in images, framing with the rule of thirds in mind, using shallow depth of field to isolate foreground from background, wide-angle lenses, etc. Therefore, a big part of creating compelling photographs is trying to translate or even exaggerate that feeling of depth into my final, two-dimensional image.

There’s yet one more reason, and another important dynamic in photog­raphy: when I’m making a photograph, I’m actually not only cut­ting out the third dimension of depth, but also the fourth: a photograph is not only a spatial crop (a frame from a bigger scene), but also crop in time. The best way to translate a feeling of time (or timelessness), and there­fore dynamism, into a picture is to work with the shutter speed.

But this is not about the technicalities of making an image. To answer the question that I started from, I need to figure out why is it that of the thousands of pictures I’ve seen and studied, a few instantly come to mind, and why is it that those photographs of mine that I find best, people don’t quite appreciate, or perhaps understand. A simple answer is association. We are all comfortable in our zones, and so for example a “great” photograph with a deliberate blur might not catch the fancy of many. But in itself the feeling of time induced by that blur tells a story. The complex answer lies within me. The problem is in my vision, intent, expression and finally interpretation. More on this in my next post.

What I do need to do is capture that moment within the frame, and to create an image that stands alone and tells a whole story in a single frame, is challenging. It requires a different approach than a photo essay or telling a story over several images. Capturing a moment requires the viewer to have instant recognition and, perhaps also, instant surprise. A momentary image tells a universal story. I made this photograph of a child of maybe 5 or 6 years in mid-step as he was walking towards me carrying his load of plastic and glass bottles, and empty cans, quite obviously from a garbage dump. Even from about 30 feet or so, his eyes told a story…but in that 1/200th of a second, I couldn’t know the story; maybe even in a lifetime, I’ll never know it. All I knew instinctively was there was a story, maybe of unfulfilled desires and broken dreams, but surely of hardship and pain.

And this rickshaw-wallah at Amritsar, just outside the Jallianwala Bagh. I watched this man for a few minutes, and then went up to him to see if he’d agree for me to make a few images with him. He smiled this most beautiful smile and said “yes”. I often wonder when I make photographs of people, why is it that I’m fascinated with people who have so little (as we know it), yet smile from their hearts? Every time this happens, it gives me great belief in the resilience of the indomitable human spirit, the inner strength we all possess but fail to recognize. It gives me hope. It gives me faith. Maybe that is why I see these images over, and yet over again.

These are stories in a universal language, no translation needed.

For these moments to be recognized (as opposed to predicted), I need to be aware, I need to feel. Photographers, as in any other creative, literary or artistic pursuit have a signature style. I am figuring mine out, and as I evolve I have slowly started using the litmus test of “capturing my emotion”, vs. “capturing my sight”. From simply saying “I was here”, I now want my photographs to say “I felt this”. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery said, “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret; it is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye”.

So photograph what you feel, not what you see.

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14 Comments

  1. Rama Sohonee April 15, 2012 at 12:21 pm #

    And how right you are Debesh-the expression for taking photographs in Russian is ‘sdelat’ fotografii’-to make photographs…More-I want more.

  2. Rita April 15, 2012 at 12:22 pm #

    Just what Sensei Daisaku Ikeda said.

  3. Eric April 28, 2012 at 12:15 am #

    I’m going to disagree with part of what you’ve said; I think you’ve missed the relationship between composition and story-telling — both of which are important.

    Composition is the organization of elements within a photograph. There are lots of ways to provide good composition, whether by the imposition of rules or by the intuitive use of light and shadow to guide the viewer’s eye. Good composition builds good spatial (and even temporal) connections (or contrasts) among the elements of the scene.

    Story-telling, on the other hand, results from composition (and other elements). Story-telling is the result of the instant recognition (or anticipation) of the action in the photograph to which you refer.

    Stories don’t always involve people, though for the most part they do. Nor are stories always literal; suspense, anticipation, and irony IMPLY a story about to happen, or happening unawares to the subject of the photo.

    Your pictures are really good story-telling photos. You have used compositional elements to support the stories, and that’s good. But don’t confuse composition with what you feel. Composition is technical, and some of us are really good at finding composition to bring our images to life. We may arrive at the solution intuitively, but the elements and tools of composition are there — or the picture and it’s story won’t succeed.

    So, to sum up, I propose two questions: 1. What’s the story in this picture?
    2. How does composition work to tell the story?

    If the answers are “none” and “I don’t know,” the picture has failed and the photographer needs to take a longer, harder look.

    My forthcoming book for advanced amateur photos, titled “Explorations in Photography” has separate chapters on composition and story-telling — and a whole lot more. My blog, http://hatchphotoartistry.blogspot.com , has my thoughts on these and other related topics.

  4. Debesh April 28, 2012 at 12:25 am #

    Thanks a lot Eric. Appreciate your reading my blog, and writing a comment. I agree with what you have to say, though I have deliberately kept outside technicalities here. I’ll certainly read your thoughts on this for sure. Gracias.

  5. Neil Speers April 30, 2012 at 10:26 pm #

    One of the best reasons to learn classic composition techniques and ‘rules’ such as Rule of Thirds, Golden Mean, symmetry, asymmetry, etc is to break a photographer of the habit of putting the subject dead centre in the photo. You know the shot – someones face in the middle of the photo with tons of space above but the feet cut off below?

    Composition is not just where you place the subject in the photo but also how the background and foreground relates to the subject. Many photographers don’t spend much time ‘composing’ the photo as they should, and by learning the basics they easily create a much more engaging photo – even if it is ‘just a snapshot.’

    Once you’ve learned composition techniques its easy to go by feel and find the right ‘look.’ By STARTING with just the feel, its really easy to overshoot the subject to get the right photo, and not know why that was the right photo.

  6. Greg Buck May 1, 2012 at 11:28 am #

    Interesting subject debated here. The one thing I would like to ask is, “What is Composition?”

    For me personally composition is how you compose your image before taking the photo. Taking everything into account and making sure you are taking the best image possible of that subject.

    Many photographers talk a lot about things that for me send me into boredom.
    Composition should be a simple plan in how you compose your images. No more, no less.

    If I enter an area I want to photograph I will walk all around the whole area and study every angle taking into account the light and where it is coming from.

    I would love to hear what you describe, in basic terms, without getting technical, what you describe as composition.

    Great debate, thank you.
    Greg

  7. Dave Poindexter May 1, 2012 at 7:24 pm #

    Reposted on request from the LinkedIn Art Photography forum: Hi Debesh, as a photographic educator, I have to generally agree with Tim here and Eric in your blog comments that the formal “rules” of composition (in Western Art), are separate from the meaning of the image; either quite separate or perhaps not so much after all. That depends on what you want to express with the image.

    Western compositional aesthetics have been developed and refined since the early Renaissance and the primary rules like the “Golden Mean” go back to Classical Western civilizations. To have a photograph “speak” to someone who is a descendant or serious student of that tradition, you need to have a good understanding of that tradition. (Note: you can successfully break one or more of these “rules” and still make an image with great impact, but you need to know the “rules” and how they may be broken without damaging the impact.)

    In the blog comments, Eric uses the term story-telling for the aspect of the photograph which conveys the meaning of the image. I prefer the broader term ‘communicate’ for this aspect. Story-telling implies a conscious and linear organization of information which is not present in every photograph that has impact. Some are much more emotive or lyrical or in some other way affecting the viewer in a largely unconscious way.

    All of these modes of communication can be effective, but your subject and just what you, the photographer, want to convey will hopefully guide you in how the best use the formal organization of the subject. That, plus intelligently using/controlling the lighting, camera control settings and image processing (film or digital), makes the photograph a vehicle for your expression.

    As Tim and Eric said, this is a challenging subject and certainly worthy of life-long study if one is a serious photographer. Best of luck on your explorations and discoveries.

  8. Prolook Studio May 1, 2012 at 7:30 pm #

    First you must compose what you see. How you compose what you see (expression, pose, lighting, camera angles, bckgrnd, etc.) is what will determine the mood of the image. There are no specifics as to what one considers a “memorable image” as that can only be determined by each individual and how they relate a particular image to their lifestyle and life experiences.

    In composition there are no “set” rules… only guidlines. One guidline for example is the “Rule of thirds”. Granted , it is rare to use the “Rule of thirds” for portraiture, but there are instances that it is. (more for full or half body shots and not so much head & shoulders) The norm is to center the head or body but this depends on the type of pose, props used, type of wardrobe, type of bckgrnd (studio or outdoor) and number of subjects, etc.

    There are too many variables that can determine the “greatness” of an image. The lines of the hair curving, an arm or leg bent at an angle, may look fantastic in one certain shot and one minor movement or bend in a different direction or one thing subtracted out or added in can easily change the overall impact of that image. (decreasing or increasing the impact) One perfect example of this is an image that I created of a model when I worked at John Casablancas. The image holds impact (I think) and if one certain element is removed or changed the strong impact would be lost. Here is the link to that image:

    Any guesses as to what compositional element I’m referring to?

    How you compose ALL the elements is detrimental in “leading” the viewers eye into the image and holding it there. For ANY image that a photographer creates, it’s sole purpose is to be viewed. The longer you hold the viewers eye in the image, the more they will remember it and possile share it or point it out to a friend. Compositional elements are what I refer to as the “control panel” for creating any image. If the compsitional elements aren’t used in, at least, close proximity with the guidlines, the image could easily have the reverse effect and lead the viewers eye out or away from the image.

    Considering the number of things a person views through out each and every day, a photographic image must have strong enough impact as to “catch” or “grab” the viewers eye in just a split second glimpse. (I love creating images that make people do a double-take) It is the composition’s job to achieve this. Otherwise, the “would-be” viewer will just skim right over the image and look at the next item in their line-of sight and not thinking a 2nd thought of that image. This is my 2 cents… :-)

  9. Brian Hopps May 1, 2012 at 8:53 pm #

    A fascinating read Debesh, there are not many blogs that I feel are worth noting for a re-visit but I have bookmarked this one.

  10. Geoff Dunlop May 2, 2012 at 12:56 am #

    Every day now I spend some time with Tumblr. Too much time, I fear. I now have three blogs on the go – one focussing on my photography, one of my art. The main reason I do this is to closely examine, from the inside, what the difference could possibly be. I am coming up with some interesting answers … answers of relevance to me alone, I must say, not intended as part of a public discourse.

    For the outsider these blogs must seem very perfunctory, because there is very little work to see. This is because most of my Tumblr time is spent on what I call my conversation blog, in which I jumble some of my own images with images snatched out the Amazonian stream of consciousness that internet has become. This blog is intended, as I assume most other Tumblr blogs are, as both public discourse and private musing.

    Some Tumblrs use words as their principal means of communication but most of us don’t. If the images I choose to reblog onto my site have words attached I mostly strip them away – because I am concentrating on looking, looking, looking. And then making, taking, making, taking photographs.

    I happen to be a very verbal person, who often talks too much and who has written professionally since I was in my teens. I even make the occasional radio programme, and have made a whole lot of films. But now I wish for the words to float and bob and dip in the stream, not come out in neat lines.

    As it happens the word Composition doesn’t come in to my mind very often in this process – Intensity, Concentration, Engagement, Effect, Grip, Meaning, Ambivalence, Complexity, Simplicity, Animation, Energy are some of the words that keep coming up for air. I don’t make any particular claim for them. They are just the words in my mind. At the moment. There’s no reason at all why they should be in yours.

    Looking is the thing for me. Looking and making and/or taking. And asking Why? Why this image and not that one? Why this way and not that way? And why does a picture from 40, 60, 100 years ago so often have a freshness and originality that continues to amaze, when an image taken yesterday might struggle for my attention.

    One thing I am pretty sure of is that the golden mean or rules of thirds or the number of diagonals is only a fragment of the answer. Bach or Debussy or Cage or Reich or Hendrix or Muse had a compositional system to absorb incomparably more complex than anyone of us using a camera – but I’m pretty darn sure that they had internalised their rules, deep into their being, before they got down to the real business of making music that touches the soul, or the mind.

    The is not a anti-intellectual diatribe by the way. Ideas are vital. But in proportion and well composed, you could say.

  11. JC Jones May 3, 2012 at 7:03 pm #

    When I initially point the camera at a subject, the rules are going thru my thoughts: thirds, balance, vanishing point…then exposure, focus, what I want to show. Then the emotions take over, and I decide what I like and don’t like about what I am looking at–my movements alter the cropping in the viewfinder until the point when I commit and trip the shutter. All this happens very quickly.

    Surprisingly, after I trip the shutter, my mind instantly deletes that image, and I start the process all over again for the next image. It may sound kind of stupid, but I don’t really know what I have captured until I review the image either on the back of the camera or later on the computer. It works for me.

    One thing that I have learned about myself, and it doesn’t happen often (maybe a dozen times in the last 40 years) when I get this feeling in the pit of my gut, I am shooting something very appealing, but only my subconscious recognizes it. I have to make myself keep shooting; there is something there in the composition that I am not seeing consciously. When I review, that is when I figure it out, and it surprises me everytime.

    One further comment: I find most people looking at photographs in general (not really anyone who is in this discussion group, but laymen if you will, look only at subject matter, and don’t have the ablity to appreciate composition anyway. They see a beautifully composed piece and like it, but they don’t really know why. I think we as professionals grow thru colaboration on the “why it is good” or bad, and articulate the reasons. This opens our minds to the possibilities in our own work having said it out loud, and understanding it, instead of leaving it as an impression of “nice shot”.

    I look at thousands of photographs, and the more I look at good photographers work, I believe it makes an impression on me that carries thru to my work.

  12. Katherine May 5, 2012 at 11:09 pm #

    As an art student at college I learnt about the “rules” of good composition. These are scientific reasons why a piece of artwork looks good, just like scientists can find the mathematical reasons why a human face is more good-looking than another. But I think that if you’re “arty” you have a natural talent for creating a good picture. You don’t literally think about those rules. Your eye just judges it. Cameras are more portable now than they have ever been and can be transported around anywhere to capture a moment. With digital you can take lots of photos from different angles before settling on the right one.

  13. WB May 6, 2012 at 9:39 pm #

    Congratulations on having hands down the most sophisticated blogs Ive come throughout in many time! Its just incredible how much you can remove from a thing as a result of how visually beautiful it’s. Youve put collectively an excellent blog space -great graphics, videos, layout. This is certainly undoubtedly a must-see weblog!

  14. Debesh May 6, 2012 at 10:42 pm #

    @ Neil: When I reach a place that I want to photograph, and if time permits (that’s a big if there), I first do nothing at all with my camera, I just observe and slowly try and figure out what is it that is really engaging me, in other words how does that place me feel and what about that place makes me feel the way I do (or did) e.g. once I went an photographed a factory just for the experience, and what engaged me there were the noises and the sounds; now it’s impossible to capture those in an image, so the closest I could get was to “fill the frame” with images I made of machinery, all shot close and with the lens open wide for that great “wide angle” distortion (just as an illustrative example). That was what I significantly felt, I saw much more. I do agree with you that we need to know rules first, then get to the “feel” bit; no debate on that score at all.

    @ Greg, Dave, Prolook Studio and Geoff: Thank you for reading my blog, and for posting your comments. I really appreciate it.

    @Brian: Many thanks for your kind words – most grateful. There are many more posts in the pipeline which ought to be seeing the light of day very soon.

    @ JC Jones: That’s really fascinating as to how you manage to delete the prior image after tripping the shutter! I must see if I can do that the next time I am out. I couldn’t agree with you more on what you’ve said about “our” general inability to describe an image – coincidentally I’ve written about this in my post “Who am I?” Here is the link: http://debeshsharma.com/2012/04/who-am-i/

    @ Katherine: I do agree with you, and of course, our discussions on composition are still ongoing!

    @ WCB: Many, many thanks. That is really gracious of you. It means a lot to me.

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