The dog is barking. The phone is ringing. Something in the oven is burning. There's some really fast-action, colorful stuff happening on an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants on your big-screen TV, and your kids have the volume turned up all the way.
This is called sensory overload, and if you have kids you're probably intimately familiar with it. But did you know that sensory overload can also plague your photographs?
Photography may be a purely a visual medium, but that doesn't mean that photographs can't cause of sensory overload. The most obvious place where this can happen is in the visual content. Your photos may just have too much stuff in them.
Let's say you want to take a picture of your child at a carnival. There are certainly a lot of things going on at carnivals all the time. There are people standing in line, waiting to get on the rides. There are people munching on the concessions. There are bright, colorful, spinning and twisting rides pretty much everywhere you look. Unless you consciously take steps to exclude the clutter, you're probably going to end up with a photograph that has way too much visual information in it.
Carnival Ferris Wheel by Flickr user Michael Kappel
But it isn't just visual stimulus that you have to worry about. It’s true that you are only literally able to capture visual information with your camera, but don't underestimate the power of your viewer’s imagination. You may still overwhelm him with sound and smell, even though you are not technically capturing any of those things with your camera. Let's go back to the carnival example for just a second. Almost everyone has spent time at carnivals. We know that they are noisy places. If you put your child in front of one of those violently spinning rides for a photograph, it's pretty easy to imagine all of the screaming that's going to be coming from it. Now I'm not going to say that you should avoid placing your child in front of that ride, because that ride will give the viewer a very good sense of place. But you should be aware that the perceived noise is another element within the image that will stimulate your viewer’s senses. If there's too much stimulation, that's sensory overload.
The same is true for smell. If you've ever driven by a feedlot, you know how much they stink. So if you're going to shoot photographs of cows standing in that feedlot, you are going to be conveying a sense of smell to any person who is familiar with that environment. If you capture the visual details well enough, your viewer’s imagination will fill in the rest. So any setting that, in real life, contains a lot of very powerful non-visual sensory information, you should consider shooting in as simple a way as possible. That way you won't be cluttering up the image with both visual elements and those elements that you can't actually see.
The art of exclusion
You've been taking pictures long enough now that you've probably been told that simple is better. This is one of those pieces of advice that beginners will often ignore, because it's not really intuitive. To make a photograph interesting, don't you need to include a lot of different interesting elements? There are certainly some cases where this might be true, but as a general rule, think of your photograph the way you think about the shelves in the gift shop at an amusement park. If you have kids, the thought of entering one of these places is probably borderline terrifying. You know as soon as your child goes into that room, she's going to be overwhelmed with choice. Does she want a stuffed animal? Or a T-shirt? Or maybe she wants a knickknack with the name of the amusement park written on it. Unless she's reined in, she's probably going to spend half the day being indecisive about what exactly she wants to take home.
It's the same thing with your photographs. If you have too much information in your photo, your viewer isn't going to know where to look. Should he look at the subject? Or should he look at the roller coaster in the distance? Maybe he should look at the guy who’s photo-bombing the image in the left corner. Maybe he should look at all those people waiting in line for a corndog. On their own, each one of these elements might actually make for good picture. But combined, they just make for confusion.
Your job as a photographer is to take a step back and think about what you're going to put in the frame. As a general rule, you should make sure that there is only one element in the scene that immediately draws the viewer's attention. You can include supporting elements, but keep them to a minimum and make sure that they’re not competing with your subject for attention. For example, that colorful spinning ride might make for a great background (and a relevant one) when you're shooting a picture of your child at the carnival. But if you place it in the frame in such a way that it is equal in perceived importance as your subject, that creates confusion. So you need to downplay it a little bit.
How can you do that? One way is with aperture. Most people have enough experience with carnival rides that even a blurry depiction of one is still going to be completely identifiable. So use a mid range to large aperture to blur that ride out in the background, but not so much that the average person isn't going to be able to tell what it is. This takes a little bit of finesse—if your camera has depth of field preview, take advantage of it. If not, check your LCD after the first shot and make adjustments if you got too much or too little blur on that background element.
What if there are three or four background elements in that shot? In that case, simply blurring them may not be enough. It could be that you're just not close enough to your subject. If that's the case it's a pretty simple matter to zoom in, or to zoom with your feet. You can also angle those distractions out—one effective way to do this is to shoot from slightly below your subject, so that the sky becomes the background. You can take the opposite approach, too—try standing on something and shooting from slightly above, so that the ground becomes your background.
When in doubt, simplify
If there are a lot of interesting elements in a scene, it can be really tempting to just include all of them in one photo. But keep in mind that except in certain cases, simplicity is almost always the way to go. The first thing you should do is ask yourself if you’re experiencing any sensory overload before you even look through the viewfinder. The chances are pretty good that if the sights, sounds and smells of that place are overwhelming you in person, they’re going to overwhelm the image, too. So when you look through your viewfinder or LCD, try using a process of elimination to determine which elements really need to be in the shot.
First, make sure you’ve identified your subject. It’s OK if your subject is “the carnival,” but you still need to make sure that all those objects that make up the individual parts of the amusement park don’t cause sensory overload in the final photo. So it’s important to decide on one or two dominant objects that can help convey the idea of the amusement park as a whole, without contributing to a chaotic image.
If your subject is simpler—your daughter, for example—then make sure you keep in mind that the image needs to be about her, with the carnival as a secondary part of the composition. Now consider each other element in the frame individually, and ask yourself whether it should be excluded or included in the composition. Does that corndog line, for example, add to or detract from the image? If you have any doubt as to the answer, then your best bet is almost always going to be elimination. And remember that if you do decide to include a background element, not only should there be a good reason for its presence, you should also make sure that it doesn’t overwhelm your subject. That giant corndog perched on top of the corndog stand, for example, is almost certainly going to be the first thing that attracts your viewer’s attention. If you absolutely must take a photo of it, make it the subject, and then take a second shot of your daughter with the giant corndog angled out.
There are certainly occasions when you can break the simplicity rule, but for the most part simple compositions make for more compelling images. Sensory overload doesn’t make people think, it makes them want to escape. In a photo, that means that your intended viewer is likely to become a non-viewer—instead of looking at your image, he’ll just move on to the next one. On the other hand, when your viewer doesn’t have a lot of different objects competing for attention, he can focus on the subject. When that happens, he’s free to think about the image as a whole instead of spending all of his time wondering where he’s supposed to look.
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