When reading about photography, being of the moment or capturing the moment is a recurring theme. By it’s very nature photography allows you to stop time and hold it in your hand but capturing the moment hints at more than just taking a picture. When we say “You captured the moment really well there!” we are normally implying that the image conveys an emotion or an idea which is evident in it’s viewing. So what makes an image of the moment and how can we capture it and hold it within two dimensions? I’m afraid like many things there is no magic formula but I have been investigating the practical things you can do which help to define and convey an idea in a photograph.
In a recent post I spoke about how I have started to understand what it means for an image to say something about me. Since writing that post I have been reading Dan Winters Road to Seeing. The subtitle of Dan’s book is Voices That Matter and in his book he writes about the importance of having a voice in the photographs you take. Dan explains that photography is a form of visual communication and if you are conscious of this fact you can use it as you would a spoken or written language.
With a spoken or written language, culture has a part to play in how it is understood and with a visual language there is no difference. Essentially visual culture is built on a set of conventions which hold meaning to those who are a part of that culture. These conventions are part of our everyday lives and are used by advertising companies, designers, artists and many other to convey a visual message. These ideas of visual culture are so prevalent that most of the time we don’t even notice they are there or that they are shaping the way we think or feel about something.
So if we go back to the idea of capturing the moment being about conveying an emotion or idea we can start to see why thinking about a photograph as a medium of visual communication is a useful thing to do. When you also combine this with the idea of a visual culture we can try and understand how how these conventions play a part in that communication.
This is all easily said but like many things it is not necessarily straightforward to do. Most of us are well practiced in speaking or writing to communicate and we can see how someone is feeling by picking up on visual cues but communicating a complex idea in a photograph can be a daunting task. The world of portrait photography has a good example of this. Quite often you will hear people say that a portrait captures the soul of the individual who is in the picture. Photographing a smile is easy but how on earth do you photograph somebodies soul!?
What happens if we dissect the idea of capturing somebodies soul in a photograph? For the sake of my own sanity and yours, I’m going to define the soul as the facets which make a person who they are. This could include whether they are a serious person, a happy person, a friendly person, a creative person, a workaholic etc. If we go back to our idea of a photograph as a form of visual communication which is based on a visual culture we can use cultural conventions to communicate the facets of a person along with their smile.
You can of course take a picture of your creative, animal loving friend holding a paintbrush and hugging a cat but you might find that you have neither captured their soul or the moment. There is also a good chance that it won’t feel like it is your voice which is speaking through the photograph you have created. Sometimes cliches are useful in photography but one of the most beautiful and engaging aspects of the medium is that there are numerous techniques which help you to convey an idea in a subtle way. Many of these techniques rely very little on the subject itself. For example; the way in which you use expose can radically change the way the final image makes you feel. Again this relies on our visual culture to communicate the idea the same way a paintbrush conveys creativity.
I have found that in order to capture the moment I need stop looking at the dials on my camera and start looking around me. I try to make a connection with the place or person I am photographing and convey the way I feel in my composition. I have also found that trying too hard to make this connection can be just as bad as not trying at all. Personally I find the photographs which give me the most satisfaction are created when I have the time to walk around a place with my camera at my side or still in bag. This helps me to soak up the atmosphere and find my voice. I have now started to see images out of the corner of my eye, sometimes almost as I am about to walk away.
So now I can see my voice I am hoping to try and nurture it by the way I approach my photography and the way I edit and review my work. Like many of my posts it has helped me to write this down in black and white. I wonder how I would convey this in a photography!?