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Many people think vision and style are the same. They’re not. What’s the difference? Vision is what you have to say; style is how you say it.

Confusing one for the other or focusing on one and not the other can be disastrous.

Just because your images look different doesn’t mean you’ve said anything or said it well. No matter how dazzling something may look, when style becomes a substitute for vision ultimately the viewer leaves unsatisfied – though they don’t always know why. If you confuse style for vision it confuses your viewers. And when you use a style that’s inappropriate for your vision it distorts the way your work is seen and it’s likely that you’ll be misunderstood.

You don’t have to make your images look different to say meaningful things and say them in your own authentic way. Sometimes less is more. Less style, more vision. Stronger styles make the viewer work harder to see past the surface of an image and find the deeper meaning within it. Strong styles work only if they complement a vision – then both become stronger.

Vision and style are related. Hopefully, vision drives style. Vision gives style meaning and purpose. When style reflects purpose it deepens the whole experience, making statements more deeply felt. Style can create meaningful connections between the subject and the way an image looks and even between multiple images. Subtle shifts in style throughout a body of work and even an artist’s lifetime have the potential to communicate even more meaning.

Style is easy to identify because all you need to do is make formal statements about what you see. You simply describe how the things in an image look. When describing style you focus less on the things you see and more on how they look. You state what your eyes actually see, the visual building blocks of an image not the content those elements are used to represent. To do this well, you need to learn a little vocabulary to formally describe images in ways that others will understand, but there’s an added benefit, learning that vocabulary will help you look more carefully and see more things and relationships between them. Line, shape, volume, color, texture, scale, range, and compositional patterns are the fundamentals; you can make finer distinctions in each of these categories. Some aspects of style describe relationships that are visible between multiple images such as the number of images used, their sequence, its pace and rhythm. Style can be extended to anything you do in a particular way, not your actual practice (she used a camera) but the way you practice it (she always moved in close). The ways you do things communicate your attitudes and so imbues what you make with meaning.

Vision is harder to identify than style. This is where you move from taking pictures of things and start making pictures about things.

It’s part plot; your subject, events that happen to it, actions it takes, reactions, and consequences.

It’s part theme. The theme is the big (or main) idea and subthemes are smaller (or subordinate) related ideas. It’s what the work says about a subject. It’s the overall message and the underlying messages. This is the least literal often least visible aspect of work and it’s often where the most soul can be found.

It’s part you … the patterns you see and create, your relationship to your subject and the images you create of and possibly about it, all the associations and connections you make between it and other things, the things you choose to show and not to show, your emotional reactions to things and events and even their appearances, the reasons why you care and why we should care.

If the style of your images is appropriate it will help us see your vision … in a very particular meaningful way.

You don’t have to figure out your vision or your style before you start making meaningful images. Whether you start with no idea or a good idea, it’s likely that you won’t know the full meaning of your work until you make it. An essential part of the process of creating images is figuring things out. Show your process, not all of it, just the interesting parts, the ones you decide are meaningful. What you finally make doesn’t have to be perfect, finished, or even fully resolved; you just have to do it well enough to create a compelling experience. And to do that, you have to figure out a few things, perhaps only the most important things, about your vision (what you have to say) and style (how you say it). Then make more images and figure out a little more. Keep repeating this process enough times and you’ll find your way, your vision and your style, If you hold nothing back and give it everything you’ve got, you will be amazed by what you discover.

Read more in my Creativity resources.

Learn more in my Creativity workshops.

 

PhotoEssayPDF

Every picture tells a story. Combine pictures to form an essay and your storytelling options expand. This is one way to tell a more complete story, add depth, complexity, counterpoint, nuance, show change over time, and so much more. A photo essay transcends a single lucky shot. It demonstrates committment, focus, versatility, and skills of another order. Photo essays have more definite structures, with a clear beginning, middle, and end – often with standard components that flesh out and advance a story in critical ways.

Identifying the necessary components of an essay is the first step. Once you know the types of images you need to tell your story, you’ll know what to shoot while you’re on location and maybe even when you need to be there. If you don’t identify these elements beforehand and make sure you come back with each of them, you may find you lack critical pieces. There will be holes in your story. And you may have to return to finish it – if you can.

Here’s are the classic shots used to structure a photo essay.

1            Introduction

2            Set the Stage

3            Identify the Main Character

4            Significant Detail

5            Human Interest

6            Decisive Moment

7            Outcome

8            Conclusion

You could say all other images included in an essay are just variations of these few types of images. I’d be surprised if exceptions couldn’t be found, but they would be exceptions.

Learn more about each shot in this free PDF.

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Sizzles & Fizzles

While color immediately grabs attention, other aspects of this image could be stronger and clearer, making its impact less durable than others.

Sleeper

Subtlety makes this image easily overlooked at first but its appeal grows stronger over time and in context with other images.

Keeper

Our strongest images combine immediate impact and staying power.

It happens to me all the time. I’m excited by what I see on location and hopeful about the images I’m making. Afterwards the final results aren’t as exciting as I had hoped they would be. I rarely leave a location with confidence that I have truly excellent images. I can phone in competent and even good most of the time, but getting to great is another matter entirely.

It’s important to know the difference between good and great. I measure my current successes against my past success – I’m always trying to raise the bar. If the images you’re making aren’t making the cut for you, I’d take that as a sign that you’re being more discriminating and based on that I would bet that means you’ve got many more images in your portfolio that are better. That’s excellent! Plus, the world doesn’t need more mediocre images, but it does need more discerning eyes.

While this syndrome of “sizzling and then fizzling” is common. The opposite dynamic is often at work too. You’ll make images that don’t catch your attention immediately but you find yourself doing a double or triple take and your appreciation of these images grows with each viewing. These “sleepers” are very interesting; they tend to be smarter and/or more deeply felt. Because they don’t grab your attention quickly, it’s easy to pass these types of images by. That’s one of the reasons it’s important to look back through your images again, often after some time has passed, so that you can see them from a refreshed perspective.

Sometimes when you present the two together, one type of image makes the other type of image more interesting. The attention getter does just that – it gets attention. It can draw viewers in to seeing related work that might not be as eye catching but has more substance and depth. Similarly, if it’s related to the attention getter, in some way beyond proximity, the strong silent type can reveal hidden depths within its flashier counterpart and even transfer some of its own depth. Both can “rub off” on each other in a beneficial way. Their relationship can be mutualistic.

When you find the rare few images that achieve both immediate high impact and extended durability you’ve got real “keepers”. These are the images that should be celebrated most. These images set the course for many others, both current and future works. All the other images, the ones that come close but fall short, which are collected with the great images, should in some way support, amplify, and expand that greatness. Keep these fires burning and fan the flames. Carry this vital energy forward. Keep this energy flowing with new moves. Find out how long you can stay in the zone or what it takes to return to it or something similar. See how far you can run with it and where it will lead you. Work of this quality often gets beyond you; which doesn’t mean you can’t sustain it, or return to it, but instead means you probably won’t fully understand it until long after you’ve done it – if ever. Work like this expands you. It raises your bar and calls you to new heights. Answer these calls.

Read more in my storytelling resources.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

Every voyage I’ve made to Antarctica has revealed new dimensions in the subject – weather, light, seasonal changes, annual variations, and my growing understanding of the region have all contributed to this.

With so many wonderful places to go, why would you return to the same location more than once?

Let me count the ways.

1    You’ll see more of and learn more about a place.
Increase your understanding of the places you photograph and your photographs will become more interesting.

2    You’ll have an opportunity to get the images you missed.
Try making a short list of the shots you missed when you shoot. Even if you never return this activity will prompt you to be clearer about why you missed the shots and you can take steps towards remedying this in the future. If you do return, you’ll have the beginnings of a working plan that will greatly increase your productivity and success rate.

3    You’ll have an opportunity to refine the images you made.
You may have made images that barely made the cut but would shine if they were reframed or made with different equipment or in different conditions. For this reason I recommend you review not only the images that worked on your previous trip(s) but also the ones that didn’t asking yourself why they didn’t and what you could do differently.

4    You’ll see new things as your vision matures.
Having first found the images that come to you more naturally, you’ll later find yourself challenged to look for other kinds of images, which will stimulate your creativity and increase your visual versatility.

5    You’ll see changes in the place.
Time reveals. Weather, time of day, seasons, and the accumulation of years change a place. They change us too. These changes can become a wellspring for many images.

6    You’ll learn more about yourself.
While it’s true that you can learn more about yourself when you experience new things, it’s equally true that you’ll learn more about yourself when you re-experience them. You’ll find that your relationship with a location will change over time, as you experience more and mature. You’ll see not only how a place has changed but also how you’ve changed – and how the place has contributed to your growth. These types of insights are harder to achieve in new locations. Because the perspective with which you look at thing is different, the types of things you learn are different.

7    You’ll get to spend more time in your favorite places.
Just as you can’t go everywhere, you can’t return to every place. Return to the places that call you. Passion kindles the fires within, which will be visible in your images. Passion energizes and recharges us. A large part of the reason we do the things we do is because we enjoy them.

Unfamiliar locations challenge you to see new things in new ways, familiar locations challenge you to see the same things in new ways.
Just because we see new things doesn’t mean we will see in new ways, in fact the times when we are grappling with so many new variables are often the times when we fall back on our habits. When we see the same things again we are forced to see in new ways and/or deepen the ways we see them.

Even with a lifetime of adventuring, you can’t see it all. Your question is do you want to see a lot or do you want to see deeply? You’ll want to strike a balance between the two, surveying the many opportunities before you and choosing to return to one or a few of the places that call you the most. Exactly what balance you strike at any given moment is up to you.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

Find out about my next digital photography workshop in Antarctica.

How I Title My Images

July 7, 2012 | 1 Comment |

Illumination I, 2000 

Titles have always been challenging for me. While I always use a working title for a developing series, often, I don’t know what to title the works until I truly understand them – and that can be long after they’ve been created. Sometimes I change the titles of a few of my images after I’ve released them.

Most of my images, being a combination of at least two images from different times and places, don’t fit the typical place date format. To date, I’ve only used this type of title for one series, Antarctica, because I want that work to be seen as more editorial in nature.

Because I want to leave plenty of room for the viewer, I avoid titles that impose a single interpretation on a work of art – Exhibit A : Evidence Of My Failed Relationships. I also don’t want a title to make up for what’s not already strongly felt in an image – Unimaginable Grace.

Initially, I grouped work according to the dominant natural element in it, using a set of six series, interlocking because many images can fit into more than one series, under one larger title – Elemental: Dreaming In Stone; Waterway; Fire Within; Aerial Boundaries; Songs From Wood; and Animalia.

Later, I came to understand there was a further reason I didn’t use standard place/date titles. I want my images to be seen not as records of things (a materialistic viewpoint) but as traces of processes (a wholistic viewpoint).

I’d like to use an active verb for my titles, but the image isn’t the active process itself, it’s some thing made from observing processes. So instead of the word Illuminating, I use the word Illumination.

I use a number to indicate the order of creation in a series.

The date attributed is the date of release, not the date of exposure.

Read How To Title Your Images here.

Read more about how writing can help stimulate your creativity.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

Neko Harbor, Antarctica, 2007

(Watch how focus and content shifts when these alternate titles are used – Freezing Point, Glacial Retreat, Blue, Constellation.)

When in doubt, when selecting titles for your images keep them simple and neutral. Less is more, more or less.

Good titles complement works by giving viewers more relevant information that makes their experience richer, indicating it’s creator’s relationship towards a subject and medium and audience, suggesting but not limiting attention to dimensions of a work that might otherwise remain overlooked, all the while leaving room for viewer’s extended interpretation.

Bad titles dominate or subvert works by attempting to make up for what’s missing, focus attention on one aspect of work and deflect attention from others, add heavy-handed interpretation leaving less room for viewer participation, or tell viewers rather than show them.

To avoid bad titles, rather than becoming a master of language, keep it simple. While there are notable examples where this maxim has been defied with success ­– singer/songwriter Fiona Apple titled one of her albums with a complete poem containing over four hundred characters causing a buzz-worthy stir which reinforced her reputation for being both poetic and eccentric ­– at a minimum it takes a significant flair for style or even genius to pull a stunt like this off.

You might be tempted to keep it really simple. Remember, Untitled is still a title. It’s the most neutral to the point of being non-descript and almost uninformative. Sometimes it works – well. Many times, it’s not enough. But eliminating it altogether and simply stating the medium used is almost always never enough.

In a majority of cases, just a little more will do just fine. The classic convention for titling an image is to identify the subject (name the person, place or thing) and add the date of creation: if it’s a photograph use the date of exposure; if it’s a painting use the date of completion; if it’s a composite photograph default to the latter; if it’s an image of an historic event add the date of the event in the first part of the title and add the date of completion of the image.

It’s the times when this convention doesn’t fit that more creativity is warranted.

Use this list as a springboard for exploring your options.

1     List the subject and date, Neko Harbor, Antarctica, 2007 for instance.

2     State a relationship to the subject, yours or someone else’s; i.e. My Mother or Her Home.

3     Use a general category for the subject rather than an individual one, such as Slave or Statistic.

4     Name a formal element in the work – number, shape, color, size, etc.

5     Refer to another medium, such as poetic or musical form.

6     Loosely interpret the subject subjectively; similes and metaphors often work well here, such as Smells Like Teen Spirit.

7     Use a technical term, related to either the subject or the creation of the work, in a way that furthers more inquiry, Ascent or Descent for example.

8     State what the subject is not – Is Not Untitled.

9      Create a contradiction ­– think of Magritte’s famous painting of a pipe entitled This Is Not A Pipe.

You’ll no doubt find ways to expand this list.

It’s interesting to note that when you keep it simple and conventional, specificity works in your favor, yet the more creative and unconventional you get the more ambiguity, sometimes coupled with a dose of irony or contradiction, works in your favor

You may hit upon one ingenious title. If you should be so lucky quickly ask yourself, “Can you repeat it?” One genius title amid a cluster of duds will stand out like a sore thumb. Bodies of work beg some consistency. That said, you may find that varying your titling conventions between different projects is an effective way to further differentiate them.

Consider creating a standard for your titles, after giving considerable thought to both its short and long-term effects on the way audiences will respond to you work. There are many benefits to creating a consistent practice, including the creation and fulfillment of expectations and the reduction of the time and energy you put into resolving new terms. This will also call more attention to the times when you deviate from your standards, which can be advantageous if used strategically.

Like your art, titles are all about communication. Titles become a part of your art. Make sure your titles make a contribution to effectively communicating what you want to communicate. It’s worth the time you invest to put some thought into how you title your work.

How do you title your work?

Read more about how writing can help stimulate your creativity.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.


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