In the coming weeks I’m going to be talking a lot about making images with soul, and being the source of that spark in our images. More than ever I believe, in our enthusiasm about the astonishing marvels our cameras can be, we’ve forgotten that in photography, to quote Eve Arnold “it’s the photographer, not the camera, that is the instrument.” We are the soul of the camera, if it’s to have one at all. When I think about defining what I mean when I talk about creating images with soul, I think it’s about a couple things: depth and connection. On a bigger scale I think it’s about humanity, but that doesn’t mean it has to be about humans – landscapes can be very soulful. It’s about making photographs that connect deeply, that resonate. Here are 5 ways that I think we can increase our chances of making images with soul, or spark. Images that connect.
Go Deep and Take Time
The longer you take with a subject, whether that’s a person or a landscape, the deeper you will be able to understand them, and with that understanding the more you will be aware of the possibilities. You will also have more possibilities because you’ve taken the time for them to happen. The more time you spend, the deeper you can go. If you can spend 5 minutes, you can probably spend 10. If you can spend 20 minutes you can probably spend 40. If you’re traveling, forget doing ten cities in ten days. See two cities for 5 days each. The time spent will allow you to see better, will allow you to get past the easy and the obvious, and in the case of human subjects, will give them time to get used to you, and drop their guard. More time allows you to see more and that’s the first task of the photographer who would make deeper images.
Express Stronger Mood and Emotion
With time comes increased perceptiveness on our parts, and increased vulnerability on the part of the people we photograph. This leads, potentially, to stronger mood and emotion in the images, but that also comes from our choice of composition, of light, of POV (point of view), and of which story we choose to tell. Importantly, our choice of moment will make or brake a photograph, either bringing deep emotion or none at all. Which specific moment you choose, and being able to anticipate it and capture it is everything. A laugh has an apex, so does a pensive look, a romantic glance, or the welling of a tear. Wait for those deeper expressions. Something more vulnerable, less guarded. Steve McCurry put it beautifully when he said we wait “until the soul drifts into view.”
Embrace the Mystery
Leave room for the imagination to fill in some of the blanks. Let me process a little ambiguity in your image. My imagination is stronger than anything you can put into the photograph, but if you don’t give it a little mystery, something to chew on, it won’t engage. Deeper images are OK with some of the mess and ambiguity of life. Questions will always connect better, and for longer, than simple answers will. Make me think. Don’t give it all away.
Be Clearer on Subject
Making sure your images are about something, not merely of something, will give our minds and hearts a handle on to which we can hold. And then, whatever that image is about – make sure it’s really about that. Don’t make me guess, this is not the place for mystery. Learn to isolate, to exclude the unnecessary. Sometimes including more information, more details, only lessens the impact. If I’m asking what it is you want to show me in this image, I’m asking the wrong questions. Be really clear with yourself about which emotion you want to show or evoke, or which story you want to tell, and then use your visual language tools – aperture, shutter speed, optics, POV, composition, etc – to focus my attention and emotion. Images that try to do too much end up being spread too thin and lose the power they might otherwise have had if they were more specific about their subject.
If you don’t care, why bother? Don’t mail it in. Don’t waste your time or mine on something you aren’t invested in. Show me something true. Show me something heartbreaking or laugh-provoking. Show me something that angers me. Just don’t show me something that bores either of us. Dig deep. And if you don’t really care about it, don’t put it out there. The big struggle for photographers right now is the sheer volume of visual noise out there. We will gain attention not by producing more images, but fewer images with greater depth and soul. Life is too short to photograph everything we love with any amount of insight or passion, why turn your lens on anything else but that which stirs something in you?
I’m thrilled to tell you that my new book, The Soul of the Camera, The Photographer’s Place in Picture-Making is beginning to ship. If you know how to focus your camera and make a decent exposure, and want your images to provoke more than likes and the odd “Great capture, man!” then this book will change the way you make photographs. Take a moment to visit SoulofTheCamera.com – there’s a short video, downloadable sample chapters, a new one-hour interview with me about the topics discussed in the book, as well as links to get your own copy.
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Yes it does, thanks.
This issue bothered me the other day when I went to mount Grizim above Nablus to take photos at a holy ceremony held by the Samaritans. There are less than 400 Samaritan men in the world which attended the ceremony, and about the same number of photographers!
Some of them were very cooperative and enjoyed being photographed, while others were quite intimidated by the big lens being poked in their face while trying to pray !
How do you overcome the inherent tension between capturing truly natural expressions of mood and emotion and the requirement you always advocate for of approaching your subjects and getting their consent ?
For instance, I would bet that most of the strong emotional expressive images by Barry Talis you introduced in the latest C&V contact sheet were taken without initially getting consent from the subjects!
Would be glad to hear your thoughts,
David, that’s a great question and you used exactly the right word. I think there are different kinds of consent. For example, I often show up at a scene and am there long enough and acknowledge enough people that consent is more implied, or has happened in the past – perhaps an hour ago – and frees me up to photograph much more naturally without interupting moments. I’m guessing Barry Talis has an “in” with the people he photographs, especially the Hasids, and consent happened naturally because of his inclusion in that community. Of course it’s just a guess but I think this is a good argument for going deeper – for being in a place long enough to get this consent, both from the community and from individuals, in a more organic way, or in a way that allows you to acquire it and then let the dust settle, for conditions to go back to normal, and for people to stop being camera-aware. Does that help?
Good read, David! People forget that photography and storytelling are forms of art – it takes time to craft meaningful work – I constantly see folks who are snapping pictures left and right and don’t understand why theirs don’t look like the pros who put hours of planning and studying the weather / waiting for the perfect light. Patience, planning and passion are crucial
I think much of this can come naturally with enough time, as we live and learn and grow as both photographers and as people.. As you said, “with time comes increased perceptiveness on our parts.” But I don’t think it’s guaranteed to come with time, I think it’s something we need to work at, to develop. I certainly need to. Thanks for these reminders.
I might add a sixth thing: “How the image is printed”.
The lovely image accompanying this article is a great example. Had it not been printed with the deep blacks guiding the viewer’s eye where to look and in what order, it would be much less impactful.
Let me add, wonderful, but slightly scary image! Some teeth they have…..
I hadn’t heard Eve Arnold’s comment before but it is so true! You embrace this concept perfectly.
I’m not even going to read this post… because I can’t wait to get my book in the mail 🙂 🙂 🙂
I like your optimism, Mat!
“Fewer images with greater debth…” Great concept. When I first went digital I remember thinking, wow, I can take as many images as I want without having to pay for the film, processing, etc. The interesting thing was that after so many years with a camera and in the arts in general I found myself taking less, but better images. I no longer was just shooting willy-nilly, I was more able to “see” the “wheat from the chaff.”
I think the gift of digital is exactly that – and for the learners (aren’t we all?) it’s such a benefit to be able to create as many sketch images as we need to. We just have to remember that we don’t have to show all those images to the world. That we can still slow down, go deeper. Always good to hear from you Tom. I hope you’re well!