Refocus on elements of photographic vision and form your own conceptual framework
By JR Geoffrion
Are you sometimes uninspired and wanting to get your groove back? Are you trying to develop your very own photographic style? Or are you simply looking for a fresh and new approach to creativity?
Whether you are an amateur or seasoned professional, all can benefit from using a conceptual framework to improve your photography.
Unlike a signature style, a conceptual framework has no rigid rules or recipes. Instead, it is a set of broad and free-flowing concepts open to your own interpretation, based on your unique experiences and journey through life. As such, a conceptual framework allows you to leave your mark on the images without having to fall into a mold that would inhibit creativity. The framework is ever evolving and changing, ensuring endless possibilities.
Defining your conceptual framework
As a wedding photographer, clients often ask me about my approach to photography. Rather than having a checklist of images I must capture, I shoot each wedding very differently by drawing inspiration from its unique elements, details, and from the personality of the couple. In other words, I react to my environment. Though the images I capture look very different from wedding to wedding, something below the surface ties them together. What is this invisible theme linking my images?
To identify what it was that linked my images, I selected more than 100 of my favorite photographs and looked for common recurring themes. How could these images be related to one another? What are the common threads? Why did I capture them the way I did and not another way? Why do I find these images appealing?
What emerged from this study were six distinct elements that are at the foundation of photogaphic style and vision. They are always at the basis of my images but in different proportion. Drawing a parallel to cooking, I didn’t have a recipe but rather signature ingredients on which I based my dishes.
These elements are shapes, colors, lighting, textures and patterns, movement, and point of view.
Using the conceptual framework in the field These elements are certainly not revolutionary in any way, but by consciously using them as a framework to conceive new possibilities, you can revolutionized your work, breaking away from patterns and habits that my be limiting you. It's not only simple, but very effective.
When trying to create an image, simply go through each of the elements (shapes, colors, lighting, textures and patterns, movement, and point of view) and see how you can combine or isolate them to conceive a new image. Because of your own experiences and personal taste, how you bring the elements together in your on conception and apply and assemble them will be entirely different from everyone else, resulting in radically different images. Not only this, but you can repeat the process several times in the same photographic situation to yield different images based on a different combination or mixture of the elements.
As I mentioned, these elements are the ingredients I identified when I analyzed my own style. You may find additional ingredients or different ways to label them when you look though your own favorite images. The recipe is left entirely up to you.
If you wish to understand or emulate a style, repeat the discovery process on the body of work of a photographer you admire. Look for the underlying concepts that tie his or her images together. Once identified, repeat the process to bring the concepts to your own photography.
Below, you will find images strongly influenced by a single element. Ultimately, the goal is to use one or more of the elements and blend them together.
The most predominant concept (a recurring theme) in my photography is that of creating simple shapes within the image. As an engineer, I like clean and simple shapes, which is exactly what I try to create when capturing images. When composing images, I think about the potential shapes I could create within the frame to accentuate the message or emotion. Quite often, creating a shape requires selecting the right lens and point of view.
Ask Yourself: Can I create simple basic shapes such as triangles, squares, rectangles, and circles by using elements of the composition? Can I change my point of view to create or incorporate these shapes? Can I use a different lens to emphasize the shapes? Here are a few examples.
Image 1 uses the barn, grass, window, and door to create a series of four simple rectangles that balance each other.
Image 2 uses the collar, necktie, lapel, flower, shoulder, and point of view to create a series of triangles adjacent to each other.
Image 3 uses the two circular balconies and railings to create a series of diminishing and concentric circles.
Image 4 uses the spiral staircase accentuated by the distortion of a fisheye lens to create a spiral shape.
Color (or lack of) can be used as a compositional element. I subconsciously look for: high vibrancy, monochromatic elements, a limited color palette, or high contrasting and competing colors and shades. For a more subdued or relaxed look, use a monochromatic or limited palette.
Ask Yourself: Can isolate a unique color or shade? Can I bring in new elements that would contrast with the existing one? Can I balance a composition by adding a colorful element in periphery? Here are a few examples.
Image 5 isolates the unique pink flower on a bed of red, green, and yellow flowers. The high vibrancy of the scene (background and foreground) contribute to the overall overwhelming feeling of colors in this image.
Image 6 uses the complementary color palette of this unique flower to eliminate any distracting element and draw the viewer in.
Image 7 was enhanced in post-processing to leave only a limited color palette of red and gold, reminiscent of a Renaissance painting.
Image 8 focuses on the hand by drawing attention to them via the vivid contrast of the dress with the groom’s dark clothing.
Basic but quite often overlooked in the heat of the moment, lighting can drastically affect the mood and outcome of an image. Thinking and seeing out of the box is critical to creating images that will stand out. Don’t necessary take the easy way out and look for the best light. In some instances, the worse light is the best light. Ask Yourself: How can I use light to create a unique image? Can I light the elements in transparency, either from the rear or from the inside? Can I use flare to my advantage? Can I use a particularly difficult lighting situation and turn it to my advantage? Can I use shadows as a compositional element? Here are a few examples.
Image 9 brings emphasis to each of the color through transparency lighting.
In image 10, the flash was placed inside the wedding dress to bring out the lace details in relief.
Image 11 uses the lens flare – usually seen as a defect or unwanted element – to add a romantic and soft feeling to the image.
Image 12 uses the high contrast and long shadows created by the backlit scene to emphasize the group and the cityscape.
Patterns and Textures
Patterns and textures are a spin on the shape category. Quite often, patterns and textures can be found by getting really close or getting quite far. The repeating patterns provide a canvas on which elements can be placed. In addition the patterns and textures themselves can be the focus of attention. Ask Yourself: Can I identify a pattern or uncover a texture? Can I get down to the micro level and see unusual details? Can I abstractly shrink the subject to create a pattern? Can I elevate my vantage point to see what I’m missing? Here are a few examples.
In image 13, the low light on the long grass creates a fine texture on which the gentleman can rest as if floating in the field.
In image 14, the tractor tracks left on this baseball field are quite interesting from this elevated vantage point.
Movement and Motion
Movement, both of the subject and of the camera, can add feeling and provide context to an image.
Ask Yourself: How can movement and motion add to the image? If movement is not present, can I add it via longer exposure or camera motion? Can I combine ambient and flash lighting to both feel and freeze motion? Here are a few examples.
In Image 15 a slow shutter speed was used to provide ample time to spin the camera around its optical axis.
A slow shutter speed captures fireworks in Image 16.
Image 17 combines the a slow shutter to blur the city outside the limo windows and a short and light flash exposure to freeze the bride and groom.
Point of View
Point of view is often confused with perspective, which is the way objects appear to the eye. The point of view is what dictates the perspective. Most photographers will think of moving left or right and zooming in and out. Physically moving forward or backward will change the image. Even better, changing your point of view up or down could bring the feeling of a bird's eye view or a child’s vantage point.
Ask Yourself: Can I move back and forth to create a different image? Which detail have I missed by not looking up or down as a tourist in a new city would? Can I add a foreground element to create the illusion of being there? From the same vantage point, can changing my lens give a new perspective? Here are a few examples.
The elevated vantage point of image 18 provides an intimate view of this small church while making it appear larger than it is.
Image 19 uses one of my favorite techniques of looking over the shoulder of the main subject to give the feeling of being there and looking through their own point of view.
Image 20 shows the often overlooked ceiling detail. To capture this image, the camera was pointed straight up to the ceiling.
Find your conceptual framework and use it to expand photographic possibilities. Because it is left to your own interpretation, it is limitless in its potential.
About the Author
JR Geoffrion is an award-winning photographer specializing in wedding reportage (www.JRGeoffrion.com). Based in Chicago, he is a university lecturer, as well as consultant. His images have appeared in Grace Ormonde Wedding Style, Modern Bride Chicago, Modern Bride Florida, Modern Bride SoCal, NBC5, USA Today, Chicago Social, Photo Sélection, and TV Guide. In addition, JR's work has been featured on several photo industry Web sites including PhaseOne, DxO Image Masters, Lexar, Lowepro, Luminous-Landscape and Studio Photography.
The images and text are copyrighted 2007 and may not be copied, republished, redistributed, or exploited in any manner without the express written permission of the author.