How to Communicate Powerfully through Your Photographs

By Zach McCabe in Art Tutorials > Photography Tips

“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept,” said Ansel Adams—making a salient and rather grumpy sounding point.

I wonder what Adams (who wrestled massive view cameras and other gear out into the wilderness) would be like today if he were handed a digital camera, terabyte hard drive and Twitter feed?

Many photographers tend to work with a “shoot first, figure it out in Photoshop later” mindset. And why (many of us would ask) is this a bad concept? After all, with our delightfully fast flash memory and copiously large hard drives we can afford to take a ton of photos of the entire experience, in order to get that one great shot.

After all, we’re no longer constrained by a 20-pound camera and a single exposure. . . right?

Sure. But the old adage about quantity and quality still apply!

Think about what you want to say, FIRST

It’s easy enough to get lost in an experience, excitedly shoot a flash card full of images, and only later realize that none of the images are what you thought they’d be. Enjoying the moment is great; getting distracted by the energy of a scene’s photographic potential is not.

You need to hone your mental concepts until your photographic response is razor-sharp.

A good photo has a message. This is true whether the photo is hanging luxuriously in a gallery or squeezed onto the screen of a smartphone. Good images always have something to say. This idea is communicated visual language and not words, of course, but it is still a message.

Learn the language of images

Photographs, like their older cousins drawing and painting, rely on well-defined aesthetic concepts, composition and yes, also symbolism. This visual language is common, everyday, and all around us, not just in textbooks (I’ve witnessed too many clever, and lewd, iPhone portraits involving the Pearl Tower, the Eiffel Tower, and too many other towers and garden fountains to believe otherwise.)

So learn a bit of color theory. Learn a bit of composition. Look at some good pictures. Learn to read art.

A good photo can be funny, wise, coy, smart or somber. Images communicate, and good images use their language as well as Dostoevsky used the novel and Jimmy Hendrix used the guitar.

Everybody uses visual language in their pictures—even if it’s sometimes unintended. The problem with unconsciously using that language is that it stops short of true creativity. Creativity requires invention and understanding. Push yourself to know why you like what you like and to understand what is being said in the images you like.

Good photos are made by photographers who learn the concepts, employ the language and also know when to break the rules to great effect.

And remember, good pictures still take time

Pictures can be “read” very quickly. And many effective photos look as if they are spontaneous creations. . . so it’s easy to assume a great photo is just a click away.

However, behind every split-second photograph there is a well thought out idea and a lot of practice. Most of the time, many other logistical and aesthetic preparations are behind a good photo, too.

Even if you’ve never met an editor or art director, even if you’ve “only” got Flickr, Instagram, etc, your photos deserve your creative attention. Good pictures take time.

I’ll leave you with a less grumpy, if no less dramatic, thought from another master photographer.

Irving Penn said the camera is “part Stradivarius, part scalpel.” That’s one hell of a creative instrument, isn’t it? Imagine what you can do with something like that.

So think about your message—before you snap the photo. Your work will improve greatly when you do.


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