Bobbing in massive 14-foot swell on my first day of open-coast paddling after a long layoff, I waited for Ken to pass in front of the 1,300 cliffs of Cascade Head as the sun punched through the clouds. I timed the shot so I’d be at the top of the wave. Click.
When I looked at the images later, the shot was properly exposed. The focus was sharp. Ken was smiling. And the shot was…boring. Deadly dull. It was like a million other kayaking shots. The fact that it was my first time paddling in the sea didn’t come through. Neither did the sounds of the outer coast, the smell of the sea or our giddy joy at being part of it.
Literally billions of images are taken every year. Most of them are bad. In an era when phones and selfie sticks abound and GoPros are attached to bike handlebars, ski helmets, kayaks, and dogs, it’s hard to separate the gold from the straw. Few images actually speak to us.
The complaint that photos oversaturate our world with uninspiring images is far from new. I recently ran across someone complaining in writing that people were running around the globe photographing anything and everything without purpose. It was from 1893, when dry-plate photography was the new thing on the market.
Throughout this maelstrom of dull images, a few stand out. Say the words “Afghan Girl” and most of us will immediately remember the haunted eyes of Sharbat Gula, photographed by Steve McCurry in a refugee camp in Central Asia in 1984. What is it that makes some images unforgettable? And how can we make them ourselves? The secrets are less secret than you might think.
Evoke, Don’t Narrate
To be powerful, photographs should evoke emotions, not narrate stories. This flies in the face much of what we’ve been told about photography: that our job is to tell stories. In reality, the stories we tell are not linear stories with beginnings, middles and ends. Video is a far better tool for that kind of narrative. Photos are more like poetry—a single distilled image that links us to something larger without telling us everything. The most impactful sports photo ever made—Neil Leifer’s shot of a triumphant Ali standing over Sonny Liston—tells us nothing about the fight except who won. But it tells us everything about Ali’s brash exuberance and gives us a sense of his inevitable triumph. Forget telling a story. Share an image that communicates without needing a story.
As these examples show, your job as a photographer is to evoke the universal: not tied to time and place, or for that matter, to particular sports. It doesn’t matter that McCurry’s photograph happened to have been taken in a refugee camp from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1984; it’s an image of the collateral damage of war, all wars and the trauma it inflicts on the young.
Obviously, most of us won’t be photographing wars or culture-defining events. But the same universality applies to the outdoors, and we just need to evoke it. Dropping into a big rapid, first tracks into virgin snow or being stuck on a multi-pitch climb when a storm rolls in all speak to universal emotions. They can even be understandable to people who don’t climb, ski or paddle. Thrill, joy, fear, camaraderie, dancing with the elements and the soothing power of nature surround us all the time.
The good news is that you can actually practice tapping into these universal emotions. The first activity I do with my photography students is give them an egg and tell them to go photograph it. Eggs are full of implied meaning: whiteness, roundness, fragility, food, fertility and growth to name a few. Students have made great images of an egg on a tee about to be hit with a golf club, about to be crushed beneath a truck tire and hidden against a plain white sheet of paper. From there it’s a short jump to the meanings we find in outdoor sports and in nature.
Another way to train yourself to think in universal themes is to write down words about your subject. Taking photos of your climbing partner? Write down words that describe them, in brainstorm mode: tall, talented, steady, goofy, funny, frightened, cautious, relaxed, whatever comes to mind. Make those adjectives your story. Your photographic task is to convey them visually.
Photographs convey meaning in two ways. The first is via metaphor. In this image of a lions’ mane jelly in the Pacific Ocean, the black and white image with inky shadows creates a sense of hidden secrets. The specks of plankton become whites dots that resemble stars, implying that the mysteries of the sea are not unlike those in outer space—another hostile environment humans can’t live in for long, and containing all sorts of strangeness and maybe even strange creatures.
Photos also convey meaning through subtle use of light, color, and composition. How people look at photos is hard-wired deep in the limbic, instinctive part of our brains and operates at a mostly subconscious level. The meaning of lines that move in different directions, colors and the placement of objects convey a lot of meaning that the viewer of the image—and sometimes the photographer themselves—doesn’t realize. This image of Rufus Knapp in a kayak slalom race uses a number of visual langue cues to create a sense of tension and urgency that extends far beyond his facial expression. Learn how to use visual language to evoke the emotions you want.
Meaning First, Technique Second
If you get these things right, vision and the ability to evoke emotions will trump technique. Not that technique doesn’t matter, but, as Ansel Adams put it, there’s nothing more frustrating than a sharp image of a fuzzy idea. Another of the most famous images ever made—Robert Capa’s image of an American GI coming ashore at Omaha Beach during D-Day—perfectly sums the chaos of combat, the determination of soldiers in war and moments in space and time upon which history turns. It’s grainy, out of focus, imperfectly composed (you can’t blame Capa, considering the circumstances) and was damaged during processing. But nobody cares, and its impact endures to this day.
Get out there and shoot.