Quick, think back on all the photos you've seen in your life. What, you can't remember them all? You can't even remember most of them? So which ones do you remember? Chances are, there are a few that immediately come to mind. How about Raising the flag on Iwo Jima, by Joe Rosenthal? Or Afghan Girl by Steve McCurry, or Lunch Atop a Skyscraper by Charles C. Ebbets? And now that you can name a handful of unforgettable images, can you put your finger on what it is that makes them so unforgettable?
Not all photos are memorable. In fact, most photos aren't memorable. Just cruise through Flickr or some other photo sharing service and then quiz yourself 15 minutes later about what you saw. How many photos do you think you'll be able to describe from memory? One or two? Any at all?
As a photographer, you want your photos to be memorable. It's probably the main reason why you take photos in the first place - either because you want to preserve your own memories, or because you want to create art that someone else will remember. So creating images that will remain in your viewer's mind long after he looks the other way is quite possibly the most important photography challenge you face. Let's see how...
What makes a memorable photo: The Research
A couple of years ago, MIT completed a study that asked this very question. Researchers gathered a collection about 10,000 images, ranging in genre from landscapes to candid shots of people. The study's subjects were shown a series of these images and were then asked to indicate which of the photos they saw more than once.
What they learned was that images featuring people were the most remembered, followed by photos of building interiors and macro shots of static objects. And if you're a landscape photographer, I have bad news, landscapes ranked dead-last in terms of memorability.
That is not to say that you have to focus on people shots if you want to create memorable photos, but you may need to work a little harder if you're shooting empty landscapes or other scenes devoid of humans. And remember too that this was a dry, academic research study that didn't necessarily include only those photos that met high quality standards, so the results really only hint at the answer to the larger question.
How to make your photos memorable
There are a few factors that can almost guarantee a memorable photo, and they all boil down to one thing: emotion. Which is probably why it is so tough to create a memorable landscape photo; while landscapes can certainly evoke feelings of peace and awe, they don't often have that same raw, intense emotion that a photo of a person can have. Let's look back at those three famous photos I mentioned earlier: first, Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima (at top), the iconic photograph that was the inspiration for the The U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. This photo is memorable because it depicts an emotional moment during one of the most important battles of World War II. The image of six men struggling to raise a flag inspires us because it is a symbol of the war itself. It is memorable because we can look at it and imagine what those soldiers must have experienced during that moment and during those moments before and after the flag was raised. In short, there is a ton of emotion in that image, which is part of why it is so unforgettable.
Afghan Girl is similarly memorable, though the emotion is less definable. This image (which first appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1985) is both beautiful and haunting. The emotion can be read in the girl's face, which is full of fear, anger, uncertainty and courage, all at the same time. The remarkable color of the girl's eyes draws the viewer in and provides the seat for all that emotion. The result is an image that is both captivating and dramatic.
Lunch Atop a Skyscraper is perhaps most memorable for the emotion it evokes within the viewer--a great sense that the men sitting on that beam casually enjoying an afternoon meal are in great peril and could fall to their deaths at any moment. The image creates a sense of anxiety in the viewer, which in turn makes the photograph memorable.
So now let's talk about how you can apply that sense of drama and emotion to your own work.
People are full of drama and emotion, from the subtle to the not-so-subtle. Think about all those photographs you took at Disneyland or some other famous family attraction--which ones do you like the best? Chances are, you won't praise the image of your kids standing in front of the sign at the park entrance. Instead, you'll choose the image of your four-year-old staring in wonder at the fireworks.
Capturing emotion in people is pretty simple if you remember two loose rules: 1) posing is (mostly) bad and 2) spontaneous is good. When you're photographing a person, you want your image to give viewers a glimpse into that person's personality. What is more memorable, a photo of your child posing with her favorite teacher or a photo of her and her favorite teacher pouring over a book or studying a cage full of crickets? For the most part, images of people who are doing something are going to be remembered, much more so than images of people who are, well, not really doing anything. People who are engaged in some activity are going to be expressing more emotion (or will just be more interesting in general) than those who are just standing around--hence, a more memorable photograph.
Architecture is a tricky one, because great architectural creations are some of the most often-photographed subjects. People photos are often instantly unique because people are always creating interesting situations and interacting with each other in interesting ways. But buildings are the same on Monday as they are on Friday. So how do you capture a beautiful piece of architecture in a memorable way? Well, one trick is to add people. I know, you spend so much of your time waiting around for unwanted tourists to actually exit the frame so you can get a photo sans-people - why would you want to change that now? Well the short answer is, because people can help provide perspective, both literally and figuratively. Including a person next to a large structure can give your viewer a sense of scale, and a person or group of people can also help provide context. Businessmen filing their way into an office building will give a different sense of what that building is for than a group of tourists hanging around outside might.
You can also help make your architectural subjects memorable by choosing odd angles and/or focusing on line. When choosing your vantage point, ask yourself how many shots you've seen of this building or similar ones taken from this particular vantage point. If you think the angle might be unique, use it. Uniqueness = memorability.
These two photos show the same public square in Copenhagen, Denmark. The first one is an ordinary, shot of the two buildings at midday. The second is much more memorable because of the slightly distorted wide angle, the evening lights and the brilliant blue sky.
Remember light when shooting buildings, too. Sometimes a building just looks dull no matter how you shoot it - but if you wait until nightfall and use a tripod to capture it with a long exposure, it attains a beauty it didn't possess during the day. Artificial and natural light during those hours after sunset can add a sense of drama and mystery that you can't find just by changing perspective.
Of course, for drama nothing compares to those Wild Kingdom shots of a lion taking down a wildebeest, but if you don't happen to be on a safari in Africa with National Geographic you may have a difficult time capturing those life and death situations. You can still get memorable nature photos if you remember to choose scenes and situations that tell a story. A photograph of a deer standing still in a meadow is going to be a lot less memorable than a photograph of a deer standing on its hind legs to reach food in the branches above its head, or looking intently over its shoulder towards something it perceives as a threat. Like people, animals need to be doing something, or the images you capture of them - no matter how beautiful - will be forgettable.
Taking Memorable Macro Photos
Macro images are memorable for this simple reason: the viewer gets to see something from a perspective that he or she isn't accustomed to. How often do you lean in and really study the petals, leaves and stamens of a flower? OK, if you're a botanist you probably do that all the time. But if you're a lay person, your answer is most likely "not very often". Like most people, you put your flowers in some water in a vase, or you admire them from afar, but you don't really get up close and personal.
Macro photography brings parts of the world into focus that most people are only aware of on a subconscious level. And while you can't really capture the emotions of a flower (because they don't have any), you can definitely create drama with the way you choose to portray the flower. The first thing you can do to create drama in a macro image is also the easiest, especially when it comes to flowers: choose bold colors. Color evokes emotion, and bold color is particularly effective at doing this. The second thing you can do is to pay attention to the light. Flat light makes for a flat image. It's two dimensional, and images that appear two dimensional seem less real than those that don't. Soft, diffused light that falls on your subject from the side and a good tonal range from shadow to highlight help create drama in any image, not just those macro shots.
Making Those Landscapes Memorable
Landscapes, according to the MIT study, are the most forgettable of all images. Of course the study fails to distinguish between the quality of landscape scenes, and this can be important because a lot of landscapes truly are boring. The reason is because of that age-old problem with this medium: we photographers are trying to capture a little piece of the three dimensional world and recreate it on a completely flat surface. And landscapes are, in large part, beautiful because of their three-dimensional qualities. So if a landscape has nothing in it to provide perspective, even the world's most beautiful vista is going to seem utterly lacking in depth. The first step, then, is to include something in the foreground - rocks, a tree, a fencepost - anything that will make the viewer aware of the scene's depth.
Secondly, a landscape needs drama, and a lot of landscapes just don't have that - even those that are taken in an otherwise amazing setting. One obvious culprit is, of course, light. Photos shot in the early morning or late afternoon - that often-lauded "magic hour," will almost always give you the most interesting light. You will get softer, longer shadows that flatter your setting and make it look three dimensional. By contrast, when you shoot during that "ugly hour" (which is most of the rest of the time), you will get washed-out skies and shadows and highlights that contain no detail.
Another way to add drama to a landscape is by darkening the sky, which can be done with a neutral density or polarizing filter, or after the fact in post-processing. An image with a dramatic sky is always going to be more memorable than the exact same scene shot at mid-day.
OK, now get your record player out and find the album entitled "David reminds me to shoot from unusual perspectives." Is it broken? Good. Let's play it, because I like being a broken record:
Memorable photos come from vantage points that we are not used to seeing in our everyday lives. We see the world from whatever height our eyes happen to be at, and that really doesn't change a whole lot throughout the day. That's why the world seen at eye level is boring, because we see it that way all the time. So regardless of what those neuroscientists at MIT concluded about what makes a memorable photo, remember that a good photographer can make any scene memorable, whether it's full of people, wildlife, flowers or mountains. Just look for unique perspectives, because unique perspectives are the basis for unique photographs, and unique photographs are the ones that people are going to remember.
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