What is the distinction between an excellent and a bad photograph, even of the same subject? It’s a difficult question. I’d never have to delete a photo again if I knew for sure. However, there is one notion that has helped me answer the question: unity.
The goal of unity is to get the entire photo “on the same page,” so to speak. As much as feasible, the emotions in the photo are in sync.
It’s similar to the principle of simplicity in photography, when you remove anything in the image that distracts from your message. However, in this situation, you’re not looking for specific distracting objects, such as an unsightly piece of trash in the middle of your landscape photograph. Instead, you’re seeking for feelings that contradict one another and rearranging them such that they complement one another.
Examples make it easy to visualise.
I’ve asked several photographers which one they like, and everyone has answered the first one. I concur.
But why is this so? It’s not as if a high-contrast, black monochromatic edit is necessarily a negative choice. I’d even say it’s one of my favourite post-processing approaches, both in my own photographs and in those of other photographers I admire.
However, it does not work in this case. I suppose the reason is that it disrupts the emotional cohesiveness of the image. The aspen trees in front of me were bright, yellow (perhaps the most cheerful and sunny colour), and appealing in the real world. In comparison, the monochrome edit attempts to convey feelings of intensity and mystery. Those aren’t always bad emotions in photography, but in this case, they diverge completely from the subject’s emotions!
How can you manipulate emotions in photography to your liking? There are numerous options. You might experiment with different lighting, post-processing, subjects, and compositions. Camera settings and equipment also play an impact.
One of the best methods to produce a strong photograph, in my opinion, is to ensure that these feelings are harmonised. A mild, low-contrast light, for example, complements a tranquil and peaceful topic; a balanced composition of the same image extends the mood even further. If you execute all of that, the end effect will be far more powerful than a photo with a haphazard sprinkling of different emotions.
Here is an incomplete list of emotive decisions in photography:
Light quality: High contrast vs. low contrast. Dark versus light. Colours vs. monochromatic, and which ones? Whichever light you choose (or wait for if it’s natural light) has a huge impact on the emotions in a photograph.
Consider the differences between a rugged, jagged mountain and a pleasant grassy hill. Determine the words you would use to characterise each one; these are the emotions that the subject will express in your photograph. (In portrait or wildlife photography, the subject’s personal emotions, such as whether he or she appears pleased or sad, play an important part here.)
A balanced photograph is calm, deliberate, and unmoving. A photo that is out of balance is tense, chaotic, and energetic.
Space: A photograph with a lot of positive space appears crowded and active. A photograph with a lot of negative space appears lonely and empty.
Consider three people crowded together against the same three people spread out, versus two people together and one alone. Each arrangement evokes different feelings. The same is true for more general compositional shapes and structures, such as a circle vs a triangle.
peaceful texture equals peaceful emotions; harsh texture equals harsh emotions. The feelings conveyed by a texture in a photograph are almost usually identical to the adjectives used to describe that texture (as is also true for your subject).
Other Post-Processing, Camera, and Compositional Options: There are plenty other ways to alter the feelings of a photograph. You can dodge and burn specific sections of the image in post-processing to emphasise or de-emphasize them. To vary the character of your subject (for example, fuzzy versus tack-sharp), you can utilise a long exposure or a fast exposure in your camera settings. Even camera equipment, such as using a soft-focus filter on your lens, can help.
The important thing is that as many of these factors as possible tell the same story. All of these elements can be shifted to create a snappy shot, a sombre photo, an etherial photo, an organic photo, or practically any other feeling you can think of. The more united these aspects are, the clearer and more effective the emotional statement in your shot will be.
It’s almost as if there’s a checklist you can go through in the field to alter a photo’s emotions in the appropriate direction. Is there a lot of contrast? Check. Is there a dim light? Check. Imbalance? Check. Is this a difficult subject? Check. Is the texture jagged? Check. Everything is in agreement.
Of course, I don’t carry a physical checklist with me in the field, but I do consider these items before taking a photograph. I try to think about factors like light, balance, space, and texture to ensure that they all push the photo’s emotions in the right direction. If I notice that the feelings aren’t unified, I try to adjust things like the composition or the theme to ensure that they are.
All of this may appear to take a long time, but it is still feasible to unify a photo’s emotions even in fast-paced circumstances like sports and wildlife photography.
One potential solution may involve adjusting one’s position in order to align the colours in the background with the narrative conveyed by the subject. The potential motivation for zooming in could be attributed to a desire to increase the presence of positive space within the composition, potentially stemming from a sense of weariness towards the emotionally vacant negative space prevalent in the zoomed-out perspective.
One can argue that while the aforementioned approach is
. That, however, is not the case. You can always walk around to get a new perspective, wait for the light to change, look behind you, zoom in or out, and do a variety of other things. Although physically moving a mountain is not conceivable, it may as well be considering how many various methods there are to change how the mountain appears in a photograph.
“Emotional unification” does not have to be a deliberate process. While I’ve discovered that making these intentional judgements improves my images significantly, I know some photographers who prefer their outcomes when they don’t overthink things. If you’re not sure which strategy is best for you, you might find my post on the brain versus the heart in photography useful.
Whether you’re a spontaneous or strategic photographer, the reality is that images are almost always stronger when they contain a consistent emotional meaning. Look through your greatest images, and I’m sure you’ll see that this rings true even if you didn’t do anything deliberately at the time; the light, composition, subject, and post-processing all contribute to the photo rather than diverging in opposing ways.
Of course, unity in your emotional message isn’t the only element that creates a fantastic shot. There must still be a cause for the shot to exist in the first place, such as an interesting topic or moment. However, after you’ve done that, you’ll discover that having everyone else in the photo “on the same page” is a terrific way to make it stronger and more effective.
The more difficulties you can eliminate in a shot, as with the fundamental notion of simplicity in photography, the better it will be. While these issues can manifest as discrete distracting aspects in your composition, the larger issues are probably emotional distractions – elements that do not reflect the tale you want to tell. Fix them by moving your light, composition, and subject in a more unified direction, and you’ll notice an improvement in the quality of your images.