What message do you want to get across with your photography? Are you using it to create something beautiful, or do you want to make a statement? For me, it’s usually a little bit of both. I’ve seen tons and tons images of places or things that are supposed to be meaningful, but they just lack that punch. You can have a great subject, great 'skill', perfect lighting, and so on. It doesn’t matter. Your images can still fall flat on your viewers eyes.
Meaning can come from a lot places. It’s in the mood lighting, the expressions on your subjects faces, the decision to use human subjects or not, and so much more. Can you manufacture meaning? You can try, and I’m not saying you can’t be successful at it. The problem is that the most meaningful images don’t happen when you’re trying to convey a specific point. They happen because you’ve set everything up to allow meaning to happen.
The above image is trying to convey enthusiasm for sports, but you can tell it was overdone. Just look at the expressions on these peoples’ faces. They’re about the most lifeless (yet excited) people I’ve ever seen. You just have to love the guy in the back, staring blankly into the camera and posing like he’s in a beer commercial. Is this a meaningful photo? It’s obviously intended for some purpose, but it’s so overdone that it loses my (and probably most peoples’) interest.
The photographer was aiming for a certain kind of meaning with this image. It just went too far.
Conveying meaning by setting up the shot
Like many things in life, most of the work is done in the approach. Instead of intentionally going out there and attempting to create a certain kind of meaning, think of ways to allow meaning to happen. One of those ways is through creative lighting and composition.
Instead of using a bright flash to illuminate your friend’s face at night, consider doing the shot under candle light with no flash. It creates an entirely different meaning, one with so much more emotion than what you’d get from an ordinary snapshot.
Also consider where you’re placing your subject’s face within the frame. Is it in the center? Center composed images tend to be less meaningful because they provide no interesting entry or exit point for your eyes. There’s no geometry or space for your eyes to move through, so they don’t fixate on the image. Understanding this is the first step toward taking more meaningful photos.
Working with human subjects
There’s another thing you’ll notice about the first shot. It lacks any sense of sincerity. The subjects are models who were hired to do the shoot. They aren’t really tailgating. They’re in a tailgating simulation. They don’t have real enthusiasm for the game. They’re just being paid to pretend that they do. People are smart. They pick up on that kind of stuff.
When you’re shooting people, you need to create a certain look and feel, but you also need to allow them to be who they are. The above shot fails because the photographer was too much of a micro-manager. He or she literally posed the subjects and then took the picture. They needed a football in there, so they had the guy in the back put it at such-and-such an angle, and so it goes.
When I’m with my subjects, I give them much more freedom to move around and explore the characters they’re playing (if they’re playing any at all). Sometimes I’ll quickly remind them of who they are and what they’re about. If I were taking this picture I might say something like “They just threw some hot dogs on the grill, and you can smell them.” I would never tell my subjects they have to pose in a certain way. It just sucks the life right out of the shot.
You should also consider doing more candid photography. Don’t always tell your subjects when you’re taking the photo. Make them guess. Hold the camera to your hip, use a wideangle lens, and fire off a few shots when nobody is looking. Show them to your subjects later to make sure they’re okay with you using them. Most people will be. They might even like what you’ve done.
Let the scene dictate the meaning
Want to create a creepy photo? Go to a creepy old house. Want to create something dramatic? Go to the mountains just before sunset. Your shooting location determines most of the meaning of the pictures you take. This is something that requires planning and foresight. You need to get a sense of what a place looks like at a certain time of day. Having a few go-to locations in your local area is a huge help when you want to create more meaningful photos.
Dramatic scenes, interesting lighting (like the light of early evening), and placing your subjects in an interesting part of the frame all add meaning to a photo. Do these things, and meaning will happen in its own interesting way. After all, meaning is in the eye of the beholder. Create something visually appealing using real emotions, and your viewers will make their own meaning out of it.
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