Yes, but what’s it about?

Ever looked at a photograph and thought that it lacked something, but you’re not sure what? In many cases, the thing that’s lacking is a point to the image. Why was it taken? What is it saying? What, when all’s said and done, is this picture about?

It is a truism that, if you want to take good photos, then you should always know why you are taking the picture. Sometimes, though, you start trying to say one thing and end up saying something else.

Case in point: I was sifting through the pictures I took of the runners in the Manchester marathon. I had the camera on continuous shooting mode, so had a lot of sequences where five or six frames covered a couple of seconds of real time. There was one sequence where I was trying to capture the crowd of runners—the ‘peloton’, so to speak. Now, you can’t just take a random picture of a crowd of people: it’s just a jumble, there’s no ‘hook’ to it, nothing for your eye to rest on and come back to. So I was trying to put one or two people in the front of the picture in a sort of ‘representative’ role. They would be the ‘hook’ but the rest of the crowd would give context. One sequence of images had this near the beginning:

Manchester marathon

And this kind of does what I wanted. The three runners at the front give something to hang on to, but the picture is about that huge crowd following them. We can identify with those three as they push themselves along, but there is always the sense that they are a part of that great group of people heading up the road.

Two seconds later (literally), and this image says something completely different.

Manchester marathon

The central runner of the previous picture has moved a few metres closer to me, but that small change has resulted in a completely different photograph. Now, the image is about Alison (note how much more relevant her name tag is than in the previous image). The look of determination on her face is now the dominant feature of the image. The other two runners are at the border, so have lost their ‘status’ as principal elements of the picture. There are fewer of the following group  visible, reducing their impact and relegating them to context for the feeling of Alison single-mindedly heading for her goal.

The way to better photographs is not through better kit, it’s through an understanding of why you want to take that picture. If your reasons are fuzzy and ill-defined, then the pictures you take will be fuzzy and ill-defined (even if they’re perfectly in focus).

That said, sometimes you try to say one thing, but the picture wants to tell a different story. Happy accidents are at the root of creative expression.