3 Elements of Impactful Images with Michael Anthony
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We have many decisions to make during client sessions. Many of us tend to overuse clichés in our storytelling. If we’re going to call ourselves storytellers, we should be able to come up with an original vision and execute it in a way that best helps tell the story.
Whether you are a wedding or portrait photographer, you have the ability to influence the mood of viewers of your work, which is the first step in creating a lasting connection with the viewer.
There are three elements that are essential to creating this connection: light, composition and story.
Lighting is the first ingredient that a storyteller uses to make an image. Without light, it is impossible to create a photograph. Our options for creating amazing imagery are expanding at a rate we never would have thought possible 10 years ago. Technology is changing and making our job easier, and education has never been so abundant, with amazing free resources like Shutter Magazine, YouTube and CreativeLive.
But just because you have the tools at your disposal and you have read all the lighting books doesn’t mean you can create lighting setups that tell the story you are envisioning. For that, you need to have vision and practice executing that vision in a variety of situations.
Light is the easiest of the elements to understand because it is the most well-documented and least subjective of the elements.
Our style of lighting is romantic and edgy, so we accentuate highlights and shadows, and use short lighting on both of our subjects. Short lighting, which comes from the side, adds definition to subjects. When correct light is used with correct posing, the effect can be slimming and flattering on all body types.
When getting into light ratios, we keep our subject brighter than our backgrounds. That adds to our edgy style. But if your style is lighter and more airy, you can use flat lighting with an even light ratio between your subject and background.
The trick to being a good storyteller is knowing when you need to alter your typical vision to best suit the needs of the story. See the images below from a recent wedding. You can see that when we are photographing the couple, we switch between more dramatic images and ones that are lighter and more airy, depending on what is needed on the clients’ album spreads.
Light can be used to add drama or romance, or influence the overall mood of your images. That is why light is the main ingredient in creating a lasting image that your clients will remember.
The composition is the overall setting in which your image takes place. Composition is completely subjective, but the overall rule is that it should never distract or overpower your main subjects; it should guide the viewer into the story of the image (more on that in a minute). Composition goes beyond the rule of thirds, which is the first rule many of us learn when beginning photography. Using the rule of thirds combined with triangles and circles, leading lines, negative space, framing and the more advanced “golden ratio,” you can drive your viewer where they need to go in an image.
Look at the image below. This is a simple silhouette, but we are using leading lines, triangles, circles and negative space to lead our viewers where they need to go. The image is simple but romantic, and uses the colors of the client’s wedding to help bring the album together. We are also framing the couple inside the circle we created with light.
Compositions get more advanced when you are not working with silhouettes. In this image, we are using the triangle ceiling, circular floor and framing to bring our viewers to our subjects.
Compositions can be tough to practice because what looks good to the eye is so subjective. But what doesn’t look good is very easy to spot. We want to make sure that our compositions are clutter free and lend to the overall story. An image that appears choppy or off balance can detract from an image.
Check Your Composition
With complex compositions, one trick I like is to draw an imaginary vertical line through half the image. Assign all elements of the image an equal weight, and if the image were to theoretically “tip” to one side or the other, then there is a good chance your image is off balance.
Another trick I do is to bring an image into Lightroom’s library module and close my eyes. I press Command (Control for PC users) and the semicolon key twice, which flips the image vertically. Then I open my eyes and note where my eyes go first. If my eyes don’t go immediately to my subjects, then something is likely off with my lighting or composition, and it should be easy to tell which one is causing the problem.
If you have the first two of the three elements in check, then congrats—you probably have a solid image. These are the images that should make up the majority of your client’s album or print order. They are the ones that will define your style. The tipping point in an image that goes from good to great will always be in the final element: the story.
The story is the most crucial element in making an everlasting image. Story is the one thing that drives the emotional connection from your image to your viewer. Images that invoke an emotional response from a person are the ones that remain longest in our memory. These emotions can be love, happiness, sadness, anger, empathy. The message you want to convey is dependent on the story you are trying to tell.
I have been entering image competitions since 2013, and I want to be very clear: I don’t enter with the intent of winning first place. Do I want that? Sure, but the real reason you should enter competitions is to grow as an artist. It’s not the winning that I learn the most from. It’s the 79’s. Let me explain.
Over the past few years, I have learned that to capture an impactful image, I need to do more than take a photo of a pretty subject in a pretty place. You have to give that pretty subject a reason for being in that pretty place if you want the judges to connect with your images. If a panel of judges connects with your image, your clients are likely to as well.
I will never forget the moment that put me on this path last year. I had an image come up of Jen in front of the Eiffel Tower before a panel at WPPI. The panel convened and came back with a score of, you guessed it, 79. The chairman is an extremely talented photographer, so I took his advice to heart. He said, “The lighting, posing and composition are all very well done, but we have seen many images of a bride in front of the Eiffel Tower. We need to be challenged more.”
Note taken and game on. I had an epiphany. I needed to look past what I considered good and figure out what my clients considered great. Instead of challenging the judges, I would be challenging myself.
Trust me: Just because an image has 500 likes on Instagram doesn’t mean it will have everlasting impact on a client. Image competition is the Oscars. What movies win at the Oscars? Those with the best storylines that navigate viewers through the complex emotions of the film.
Conversely, the films that sell the best are often the big franchise blockbusters like the Transformers and Marvel series. These popcorn flicks are like your epic bread-and-butter images.
Once in a while, an epic blockbuster is able to win over the hearts of critics, and that is where you need to play when developing the stories in your final images.
This year, we have made an effort to develop the stories of our clients’ creatives during their wedding day. Mostly we are looking for a reason to have them posing where they are posing, and in the way they are posing. The goal is to have a concise vision before you press the shutter button.
We as aspiring storytellers have to nail the lighting, posing and post-production to capture the story of the image. What story do you see in this image? What is the bride doing? Where is she going? Once you start to think about it, you start seeing the story develop.
Now it’s time to put this into practice. Create an image with a solid story to be told. Before you press the shutter, ask yourself, “What is the message I am conveying to my viewer?”
Challenge yourself to become a better storyteller, and you will see amazing results.