Communicating Via PhotosOct 23, 2023
YOU DO YOU, BOO BOO
“Eh, I don’t know, I’m not exactly a model. How…how do I stand?”
Dick chuckled and made some goofy mock pose with one hand on his hips and another behind his head. He was the owner of a fine dining restaurant in the Chicago Suburbs, and we were in the middle of a photo shoot. Dick’s restaurant was being featured in a magazine as one of the most unique places to convert a church into a fine eatery, and I needed a shot to tell the story.
“Dick, don’t try to be something you’re not, you own a restaurant bro.“ I’m pretty encouraging on a shoot, aren’t I? “After all, we’re here to showcase who you are and what got you here…so don’t think you need to be any different now.”
He nodded and dropped his guarded posture a bit. “Alright, well, tell me what you need from me.”
I pointed to a table next to me and said “pretend you got some high roller regulars here, and you’re here to shoot the breeze.”
He immediately transformed back into his regular business owner mode, ready to shmooze. He leaned over to a chair to put his hand on the back, kicked one foot around the other, and gave that million dollar smile that could melt a dictators heart in the middle of war.
There’s a phrase I’m sure you’ve heard that won’t come to any surprise in this article: “Show me don’t tell me.”
This can best summarize what echoes in my head as a people photographer to best represent a brand or person in a single image. As someone who loves a good story and appreciates using my own imagination, I believe it’s the storyteller’s duty to give the viewer or audience an opportunity to come to their own conclusions based on the bread crumb clues the storyteller gives.
Cue the Backstreet Boys, chiming in with “Tell me why…”
WHY STORY IS IMPORTANT
Photographing people to share their story in one image is a thrill and a grind, all in one joyful little package. In order to share some of the hows in what it takes to communicate a story in one single image, it’s helpful to know why it’s important.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” A story can attach itself to similar experiences in our lives because of how the narrative can draw out more parallels. The more the viewer is open to exploring the story, the better it can make these connections.
The more a subject attaches to our brain, the stronger any message it bears will hold. We are more invested in a story when we’ve spent some time problem solving the answer, just like our taxes are invested when a private investigator investigates a tough crime. Once a story creates multiple neuron pathways in our brain, it takes longer for it to leave our brains compared to when we are just spoon-fed information.
Open for Creativity
When you stare at an image, you can create a “choose your own adventure” style novel to the story in front of you. You pick the voices, the context, intention, current feelings, value, and purpose. Of course, the artist will have their own reasons I’m sure, but this approach to storytelling in a single image allows you to freely draw conclusions since one isn’t fully laid out for you.
This is a single moment in time that is frozen forever. You can view it as long or as little as you like. For a scatterbrained goldfish like me, I’m grateful I have a chance to see the beginning and end of an image the same as a steady tortoise viewer. Now whether they get more out of it than me I can’t say, but at least I have a fighting chance.
Enough of the why, let’s get to the how.
HOW TO CAPTURE THE STORY
Since my background is in portrait/people photography, I’ll cater to this specific discipline in a broad approach. So just like this whole article has been about your own interpretation, so will the take aways. These mostly should seem obvious and simple, because this is me telling you, rather than showing you or forcing you to play detective.
The Background or Scene
Location location location. This is your context, the first chapter of every novel, the launch pad to any Apollo or Space X event. Be thoughtful of the foundational layer of the story you want to tell. Does it need to juxtapose the character or objects of focus? Will it compliment their story to give it even more directional energy? Does this set a time in history or simply the time of day?
Your subject has multiple ways to present themselves to the viewer; it’s up to you for deciding how it’s expressed. The humble and meek show a slight curve in the shoulders and spine suggesting a form of servanthood, while a puffed out chest and pulled back shoulders can show confidence or even pride. Hands in pockets can suggest laid back and easy going, while arms folded can be powerful or closed off for correction. Can you tell I geeked out in my communication theory classes when we studied body language?
The difference between a subject looking at the viewer versus somewhere else can suggest a “fourth wall breaking” in the story. If they are looking at you, they know you’re there. Now, they have a message you need to hear, action to take, or feeling to have. You got chills yet? Oftentimes when we feel detected, we put up our guards to keep from being easily influenced like a bright blue suit coated man in a used car lot. The advantage of averted eye contact is allowing the viewer to feel safe, like a fly on the wall. So now you can be more sneaky with your message like those hidden camera shows to show people’s true colors.
Of course, not all images are styled photo shoots where we can control things this much, but it is sometimes a good explanation WHY you might have felt something before from an image. Lighting can shape a subject’s face or scene to make you feel something. A scene in an impoverished structure with strong window light on the subject can make you feel the intensity of their tough situation. Downward light on the subject gives them power, while upward lighting can be menacing and ghoulish. Light is directional, it has the power to move us in the direction it’s going.
Color tones can be a study in itself outside of this article, I’ll keep this simple for now. Giving an image an overall bluer tone will leave the viewer feeling a bit cold and sterile, while the yellow tones will feel more warm and inviting. Most common corporate office settings give that blue tone for things being cold in its cutthroat nature, while kids playing at a park will always feel like the sun is shining non stop. Did you also notice how appetizing certain colors are? Typically those are the reds, oranges and yellows. Just ask any fast food chain with their branding.
Movement is another added element to give direction and energy in the image. Common moving objects are cars, trains, and other high powered vehicles, since they’re always moving quicker than us humans. But sometimes even a person standing still while other people walking in a blur can elude to a fast paced environment that the subject stands steady in.
As a headshot photographer, it’s especially important to pay attention to someone’s facial expressions to make sure they are giving the right impression to the viewer. There’s no official study out there yet, but I bet there’s some stat on the anxiety levels of the common person getting a headshot being the same level as visiting a dental office. So it’s important to catch people’s nerves and make sure that’s not showing in an image. Raised eyebrows show insecurity and lack of confidence, while raising the lower eyelid brings eye contact to a higher level of intensity. I know, you’re trying it now, go check out a mirror, it’s crazy.
It’s kinda fun to dissect good imagery with all these subjects in mind. Take inventory on how you feel when you first look at an image, and then use the list of topics to figure out what things line up. Going to an art museum will never be the same, and hopefully for the better.
There’s power in allowing a viewer to travel on their own journey of reading into the story in front of them.
It’s a rush to rise up to a situation where you need to do a whole lot with very little to work with. The saying “less is more” really comes into play when telling an entire story with just a single image.
By Robb Davidson - Co-Founder, Axiom Media Group
Robb is a Chicagoland Photographer since 2007, photographing weddings, portraits, events, corporate branding, and architecture. In the beginning of 2020 Robb Co-Founded Axiom Media Group that produces corporate photography, videography and graphic design.