Take better photos: Understanding Impact

If you look up “impact” in the dictionary you’ll likely find a definition like this: “have a strong effect on someone or something” (Copyright © 2005–2015 Apple Inc.).

When you think about photography, isn’t that what you want? A photography that has a strong impact on the viewer?  Even if it’s a photo that I’m taking for myself simply to remember a moment in my life, I want the photo to have the greatest amount of impact possible.

You may be thinking, “yeah! I want greater impact in my photos! But how? How do I create photos with great impact? Is understanding how to create an image with impact a special gift some people are born with or is this something you can learn?”

I hope you will be encouraged to know that regardless of what your skill as a photographer currently is, you can learn how to create images with greater impact! Let’s take a look at some simple elements that you can incorporate to begin creating greater impact in your own photographs.

ELEMENTS THAT HELP CREATE IMPACT

Selective focus

The images below have used a narrow depth of field to really focus the viewers eye on the elements that are most important. In this first image it's obviously the little girl hanging out in the UW Botanic Gardens.

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In the next image, it was a beautiful fall day, but I realized the element that created the highest impact was the father's joy as he looked upon his son. The proud papa and son were the highlight of the image. So instead of using color and a wide depth of field to capture all the fall colors, I simplified the image with a narrow depth of field that focused in on the dad and son and I converted the color image to black and white. Do you see how this all created a very selective focus for the image?

The next image was of Matt Williams, a country musician. I was shooting images of him in the London Bridge Studio. I narrowed the depth of field to show his earphones and silhouette, while slowly blurring out the other elements. This selective focus provided a subtle story that someone was recording music but the emphasis was on the studio and work of creating art. Not on a person. And that was my goal in the image. I wanted to remember the experience of seeing music being created. I wasn't so worried in that moment at Matt Williams and what he was doing (though trust me - I worked hard to create other images that did capture Matt as he was working to create songs for release).

Counterpoint

Counterpoint refers to having a primary focus point with some other element in the photo that helps tell the story. The fist image has a sharp focus on the big green leafy plant in the foreground a a less sharp focus on the backpacker in the background. This helps tell the story and of the beautiful forest while giving a nod to the fact that there's a trail running through that forest that people can enjoy.

In this next example there is a sharp focus on the cairn (rock pile that is used to mark the trail) with a secondary (or "counterpoint") focus on the hikers in the background. It allowed me to focus on the beauty of the trail and natural markers that guided the way with a secondary focus on the hikers that are guided by the cairn which took front stage.

Gesture/Emotion

This is one of my favorite elements to use when trying to capture special moment with my children. In the first photo (one of my favorite photos of my oldest boy when he was a little tyke) I happened to capture a strong emotion as he flipped out in envy over the big breakfast plate that my wife was served.

In the next photo you see the energy that shapes the image when you capture a big gesture like a little tyke throwing a rock into the Puget Sound. Bonus points that we captured the ferry in the background which helped expand the story from a boy throwing a rock in the water to a boy throwing a rock into the Puget Sound which was marked by the cool ferry in the background.

What's great about using gesture is that unlike "beauty photography" a good gesture can work even when it's awkward as all get out! The photo below shows my oldest boy jamming out to his new mini-guitar while wearing his rain boots (on a sunny day in the spring mind-you) on the wrong feet. His hair is messy and the lines are all wrong (did you notice the lines in the house siding are running at an angle and the lines in the floor boards are also running at an angle?). Yet, this photo is one of my favorites and has received so many great comments from others because of the way it captures genuine gestures and emotion.

Whenever I think about photos with emotion I think about the next image where I captured my brother's little boy after I caught him sneaking a finger (ok - a handful) of grandma's cake! I simple called his name before I pointed the camera at him. I wasn't even getting on to him. I just was hoping for eye contact as he dove into the cake. But he knew he was diving in before he was supposed to. And his tender little heart just broke. Thus the big lip that poked out before he broke down crying. It broke my heart. But it also made for a great photo with high impact because it captured this precious little boys broken heart as he sat before this amazing birthday cake he wasn't allowed to devour. At least, not quite yet.

Remove visual clutter

I've talked about visual clutter in previous blogs so I'll be brief. Look at the first photo below and then the second photo below. Clearly the second has greater impact because it has much less visual clutter (you don't see the outline of the father or his shirt).

Include elements that tell a story

For this fist photo, I could have easily zoomed/cropped in on the little boy (my oldest son) in the fireman outfit. But as I was about to do that, I realized the looks on the fireman as they were carefully watching Gideon to ensure he wasn't knocked off balance or pummeled by the heavy fireman suit was all part of the story. The image below was all the better because I included the firemen and their expressions.

The next photo tells a fun story of a mother and her son enjoying a stroll through the pumpkin patch. While I'm a big fan of removing visual clutter, I actually liked the elements that were in the background (which could be considered visual clutter) for this image because they showed that this mother/child were at a big pumpkin patch. It is as if the other elements prime the pump to get you thinking about all the things that would draw people to a pumpkin patch. You realize that there are lots of folks there having fun. So it's not just a mother and child walking through a small personal patch of land with pumpkins on it. No, it's a mother and child enjoying a big pumpkin patch with lots of people there living it up and making the most of all that the fall season has to offer.

This one may be a bit over the top. But you have to admit, it tells a story! There's a boy at the beach. But this is clearly not a beach in Florida or Hawaii.

Shape

Using strong shapes in your images can help shape impact. I shot a picture of my wife when pregnant with our first son that was identical to this, but pointing the other direction. I loved the shape of her beautiful pregnant belly and the clean lines of her shirt draping over it. So when she got pregnant the second time, I decided to recreate the photo, facing the other way, to commemorate her pregnancy with our second child

Pattern (and breaking the pattern)

Patterns can create a STRONG impact in your image. But so can breaking the patterns. For example; in the image below there is a strong pattern of little bubble gum spots all over the wall. There is also a notable pattern formed by the window lines. But then you have the fun break in the pattern formed by the couple blowing bubbles at each other. If you placed that couple blowing bubbles in front of a blank backdrop it would not have had as much impact. If you had photographed the wall without the couple to break up the pattern, it would not have had as much impact. Do you see how patterns, and breaking the patterns, helps create impact in your images?

Leading the eye

A key element in creating impact in your photographs is learning how to lead a viewers eye through your photo to ensure they see the subject you want them to focus on. In the image below you will notice that nearly every important line leads your focus back to the boy climbing the tree.

Change your angle

An often overlooked element that helps dramatically improve the impact of your images is changing your angle. For example, in the photo below I wanted to highlight the unusual bear walk my son used to get around. Most kids bear crawl with knees on the ground. But not my Denver. He hated having his knees on the ground. He would put his hands on the ground and keep his knees locked so that his butt was in the air and knees where off the ground! I tried so many photos to show the unique and funny mode of mobility that my son chose. But it was this photo, when I finally laid down on the wet back deck that I captured an image that really captured the impact and humor of my little dude's unique approach to getting around.

I shot a ton of shots of the Watson Lake Sign Forest on the Alaskan Canadian Highway. But my favorite was the one below which features my buddy Carder navigating through a host of sign posts planted in this unique landscape. I had others with him roaming about but the unique view of me being up high, above him and shooting down on the sign posts, made for a much more dynamic view.

Shoot from a high vantage point

Similar to the image above, the next image benefited from a change of angle. In this case it was positioned dramatically above the subjects. I was literally sticking my hand in the air and shooting shots with no idea of what the camera was seeing. I would shoot a few shots then bring it down to look at the replay images. Then I would stick the camera in the air and try again. This went back and forth till I captured a few images that nailed the scene I wanted.

The fun of the image below is that it has a unique, and high, vantage point. Something about looking down on the kids as they day dream in under the cherry blossoms, is what makes this photo carry the impact that it does.

In the image below you probably notice that the camera is shooting slightly down on the band and even more so on the audience in the back ground. Similar to above, I grabbed hold of my camera and stuck it way up in the air so that I could gain a unique vantage point of the band and audience. It created an image with far greater impact than other photos that I shot at eye level.

PUTTING IT INTO PRACTICE

Reading this will do very little to help you improve the power and impact of your own photographs unless you go and put this to practice!

Let me give you one simple assignment to try to begin to understand how you can create greater impact in your own photographs. Pick several of the elements listed above that can help create greater impact and go create scenes that apply those principles. For example, …

By understanding the elements that help create impact, and learning how to craft a scene that includes one or more of those elements, you are on your way to creating photos with greater impact! Couple that by learning how your camera’s features such as the Aperture Value, Shutter Value, and ISO affect the impact of your images you and you definitely on your way to crafting images that will have great impact!

If you have moments you want to capture now but you aren't quite confident in your own ability to capture them with the impact you desire, contact me. I would love to help you capture a special moment!

Happy shooting!

ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS

Lindsay Adler

I had the pleasure of being part of the studio audience that watched Lindsay Adler teach at Creative Live during Photoshop Week 2016. I was familiar with her work and can attest that she's a fantastic photographer and a great teacher! Her images definitely have strong impact! I would highly encourage you to check out some of her teaching resources which can be found on CreativeLive or at her own website.

Sari Murray

When researching for this blog I came across a really helpful video and article from Sari titled “Tips for Creating Dynamic, High-Impact Photographs” on PictureCorrect. It's a long video (2+ hours) that looks at a TON of examples showing you how to create greater impact in your photos. If you want to gain insight on other elements that help create impact then I encourage you to make time and take a look at her video.

There are a ton of other amazing photographers that teach about how to create high impact photos. Do some research and see what you find! I'm sure it will help expand your own ability and the depth of impact your images have!