What You Don't Need for a Compelling Photograph

What makes a compellingly good photograph? To be honest I think there are way too many variables and personal perspectives to be able to answer the question with any degree of consistency or certainty.  It certainly depends on the perception of each individual as the viewer of the image. 

Personal taste rules here. 

I think it’s easier to exclude the things that are absolutely necessary for a good image.  Here are some qualities, likely not all, and in no particular order of importance, of things that I believe aren’t required for a compelling photograph.

  • An image doesn’t have to be technically perfect
  • It doesn’t have to be sharp
  • It doesn’t have to abide by the rules of photography, e.g., rule of thirds or be compositionally perfect in any way.
  • You don’t need to use the best or most expensive camera
  • You don’t need the best lens
  • The brand of gear used is irrelevant to a good image
  • You don’t need perfect light
  • You don’t need perfect exposure
  • You don’t need perfect framing
  • You don’t need auto anything

What’s required for a compelling image in its rawest form is timing and place, an alert and capable photographer, a working camera that can control the amount of light (on film, sensor or whatever works) through a lens or perhaps a pinhole.  Of course there are infinitely variable forms of cameras, lenses and light capturing mediums.  None of them matter to an overwhelming degree, the resulting image in whatever form only has to appeal to the viewer.

Consider whether you could learn to accept these thoughts for your personal work. 

Could you ever accept that a photograph works even though it may not be the most technically perfect? 

Could you be satisfied with gear that isn’t the latest model with all the bells and whistles the manufacturer markets to you as required for compellingly good images? 

Would you be willing to ever shoot when everything doesn’t feel perfectly in place?  Perhaps even when you’re not quite ready with the camera but see a moment that you feel compelled to capture.  Would you go ahead and press the shutter anyway?  

Could you feel free to be less constrained and be willing to experiment to achieve an image that might work, even one that may not be in in sharp focus, may not be optimally exposed and it may break more than a few rules compositionally?  Might this way of thinking free yourself to be more inspired and less constrained, perhaps lead you to take more photographs and develop your “out of the box” skills?  Consider the possibilities and potentially surprising results. 

Personally, moving to film has especially made this clearer for me.  Film has wonderful characteristics that allow the capture of a much wider spectrum of light, the equivalent dynamic range of film usually requires exposure bracketing when shooting digitally.  I've found that film requires me to be more tolerant when shooting; to be willing to accept "out of the box" results.  I've learned that the results are sometimes unexpected and I do have more of these "mistakes" when shooting film.  It's harder to get the consistent technical results you might come to expect after shooting digital because the immediate feedback isn't there for each frame.  But that's what attracts me to shooting film rather than digital.  Shooting with film is an act of faith.  Faith that the manual camera settings will deliver the intended results.  I can anticipate accurately most of the time but obviously not with the immediacy as when using a digital camera.  The lag in feedback perhaps means there's a need to create a process to remember the intent and settings used for a film image. A digital image can be corrected in real time meaning we can keep shooting till we get it "right."   Perhaps you'll agree though that sometimes "right" in a technical sense doesn't mean you have the best, most compelling image. 

In fact I’ve come to realize that I don’t have to be ultra-careful when I expose a frame of film, it’s much more forgiving than a digital exposure.  Film will accept many variables for exposure, possibly making them happy mistakes. 

Film can render varying amounts of grain depending on exposure and development.  Film frequently doesn’t appear as sharp as a digital image either.   But sometimes, a digital image looks too perfect for me.  I don’t want to capture a video frame as a still photograph.   Watch a show or film shot on video versus one captured on film.  What looks better to you?  For me, the film is always richer but not as clinically perfect as a television production shot on video. 

Bottom line, I like the imperfections of film. I’m increasingly okay with things not being perfect when using film.  I like the variability and unpredictability of film and sometimes I’ll even make an image that while far from perfect, touches me personally.  In fact, I really believe that an image that leaves the norms behind can stir creativity and lead to the creation of far more compelling images.

What do you think?  As always, thanks for reading.