How To Make Your Photos Unforgettable

©istockphoto/Joakim LeroyBob­bing 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.


Seek Uni­ver­sal­i­ty
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 Egg
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.

Visu­al Language
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.