Repost: The idea of a ‘5’, or that extra element

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Stairway to heaven. In the larger version it’s clear the solitary figure is elderly; we’ve got the manmade foreground/environment to emerge from, and the metaphorical representation of utopia in blue sky/perfect clouds…

After the last few posts on ideas, projects and distillation, I thought it’d be a good idea to revisit this earlier article around how to take things further: finding that extra something to elevate an image into something really memorable. Of course there are no rules, because if there were, an image be easily repeatable and at odds with the very nature of an outstanding image being exceptional. But perhaps we can learn to recognise and use this…

Most of the regular readers here will be familiar with the concept of ‘the four things’ – this is to say that there are a few elements that are independent of content that every image must have in order for it to leave some sort of impression on its audience. The framework is both a useful checklist and teaching tool to get a photographer to a certain level of proficiency; however, it can be restrictive in the sense that it is still somewhat formulaic. And that’s half the challenge here: if you can fulfil a list of objectives to make an outstanding image, then what is the function of the photographer? Surely these things could be programmed into an algorithm and left to its own devices to make the next hundred great photographs of the century? Wrong. There’s still one last element which will never foreseeably be automated or predicted or planned.

Let’s recap the four things first:
1. Good quality of light – i.e. appropriate for the subject
2. A defined subject; what is the photograph about?
3. A balanced and dynamic composition – something that both attracts the eye to the subject and is aesthetically pleasing
4. A clear idea.

Note carefully that none of these are technical qualities and all are independent of the camera used. Nor are they hard rules in the sense that they are formulaic; they are guidelines based on the way our visual cortex processes information and the way our brains interpret it.

The final item is both first and last: without knowing what you’re trying to communicate, it’s impossible to define what the subject(s) should be or how they should be composed so the image is ‘read’ in a certain order. But without the other intervening three things, there’s no way you can communicate any idea at all. It is of course possible to interpret these things in a very simplistic way – take a simple still life, for instance:

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1. The quality of light is directional to both show the curvature and texture of the subjects, and focused to render the already dark background completely black and mysterious – there is nothing visible here which I do not want to be; the fruit could be a very realistic painting, or a very controlled image. There is some ambiguity in interpretation here;
2. Our subject separates from a plain background by contrast, color, texture (spatial frequency of detail), and depth of field. Short of adding motion, that’s as good as it gets.
3. The most prominent part of the composition – the bright centre – is filled with our subject. There are some hints of low contrast ares to the bottom and right to suggest the continuation of the table, and the weight/mass of the table is further reinforced by putting the subject towards the top of the frame and draping the maroon napkin downwards to partially fill that space.
4. You still know you’re looking at fruit on a platter; the subject is literal.

This is clearly not a very complicated photograph in concept, though of course there is some subtlety in the execution – how exactly do we set up the light – direction, intensity and diffusion? At what color temperature? Do we need a reflector to suggest the continuation of curvature on the rear surfaces facing away, or does showing only one curve actually work better since it continues to suggest the 2D/3D abstraction? Is the photograph left- or right- facing? (Hint: left, because most Western audiences read and interpret information left to right; an Asian audience would have meant setting up the reverse because we read right to left. I bet many of you might have missed that one – nothing should be an accident in the studio!) It has all of the four things, so by my scoring system it would justify a ‘4’, and be a solid image by any standards* – but it is not exceptional, and here we get to the beginning of defining what that fifth element might be.

*For reference, an average photograph is usually a 1 or 2 at best. Most of my workshop/masterclass students come in at the ~2 level; i.e. they’re often missing compositional balance and a clear idea. They go out at 3-4, which means just a little further refinement is required to translate their vision clearly. I don’t assign these scores; they’re voted by the group in the collective portfolio review.

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Overpass, Hong Kong. Here, the poor weather actually worked in my favour: the clouds both add drama and add a soft background form to mirror the harder rock and dirt in the foreground. There is a sense of scale is a consequence of both perspective and the visible humans in the full size version; we have the feeling of conquering and building (perfect for the aim of the image, i.e. documenting construction). Without the very heavy background clouds, and the hole in them opening up to give a little directionality from the upper left – the scene wouldn’t be the same at all. Nor would it be the same if I didn’t have a convenient foreground pile of tailings to give the impression of rising from nothing; the nature of rocks and dirt means that there’s no sense of scale: you could be building on a mountain or a sand heap.

It is very possible to make a boring image that rates a score of ‘4’; I do realise we are getting dangerously close to the realm of personal biases here, but there are also some images that are almost universally accepted as being really outstanding – the 5s. Perhaps it is a question of historical impact and standing the test of time (to be the subject of a future article) – or perhaps it is something else.

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Emergence from shadows

My hypothesis is that the fifth element is really the unexpected: definitely from the perspective of the audience, and often partially from that of the photographer. It is the surprise that makes the difference between craftsmanship and art; or entertainment and boredom, much like how we got Milla Jovovich’s character instead of another rock in the Luc Besson movie of the same name**. The surprise is both the hook that draws us in, as well as the one that keeps us asking questions. And asking questions means that the image has stuck in our minds and certainly has a higher chance of being remembered than one that was simply passed over and ‘consumed’ in an instant. It is a almost a question of subconscious obsession rather than fleeting interest.

On top of that, there’s the element of personal emotional investment: an image may well speak to us because it has personal significance or context (or its subject does) rather than any other more ‘logical’ reason. Perhaps this is treading very close to the question of ‘what is soul?’ in an image: to trigger recognition and appreciation, there has to be something of the viewer being self-aware and seeing something of themselves or their personality in the work. As one of the commenters on the earlier article pointed out: for all intents and purposes, the photographer might as well be dead; by the time an image is seen, they’ve had the opportunity to say all they’ve had all the chances they’re going to get to say what thy want to say.

**One of my favourite films of all time, incidentally – the somewhat dysfunctional but kooky interpretation of the future – much like Futurama, too – is probably far closer to the truth than either the Utopia of Star Trek or the dystopia of The Matrix.

Look closer.

Although ‘the surprise’ can be planned, I would say that 99% of the time it is reactive – an element that the curve ball of fate throws at you. The question then becomes whether one is ready/ prepared to use it as a photographer, and more importantly, how that element is used. Can you change the idea in your own mind quickly enough to incorporate it? Or in the case of the dog/boy above, can you reset your camera and compose fast enough to catch the moment if you were shooting architecture on the other side of the street a few moments before but happened to turn and notice something a little odd? My personal suspicion is that half of what makes ‘the surprise’ work is our own unexpected reaction to it – we often do not have time to think (or think much, at any rate) without running the risk of losing the moment. We therefore react on an instinctive basis, making the image one that is a result of feel and subconscious intuition rather than planning.

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The smoking gun.

A planned image is possible, but difficult: that surprise is gone, and it may be too finely engineered for the intuitiveness and universal impact of the whole situation to come through. There is an exception, however: the first image in this post was planned. The scene was one that was chanced – specifically the light shining upwards and cutting hard through the trees – but the gunslinger and camera composition were both carefully coordinated; it’s actually a stitch of two images with a PC lens because there was no other way to execute it. Here, the unexpected was a repeatable element we could use but something we hadn’t seen before (or easily repeat without a castle, trees, and enormous quartz-halogen spotlights).

5s are far and few between. But once you recognise ‘the unexpected’, and have made a few, then anything less feels like a compromise. But personally, I don’t mind making fewer but better images; as ever, it’s time to level up. MT

Master the first four things with the Making Outstanding Images series of workshop videos, available here.


Ultraprints from this series are available on request here


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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