There are thousands of great photographs out there across all genres of photography taken by photographers ranging from someone taking holiday snaps to photographers with a wealth of experience and expertise. Out of all these images how many convey meaning or feeling without words?
By asking the question How to take meaningful photographs? as a photographer you are about to embark on a journey of self discovery almost spiritual like and hopefully take your images to the next level. I say hopefully as believe me this next step is something that many have trod before you and very few succeed in the quest of consistently producing Photographic Art with meaning that evokes emotion and feeling.
I don’t want this post to sound biblical and as a photographer myself I am also walking the same path as you but you need to understand that there are no shortcuts, there are no wrong paths and no matter which direction you take the path will never end! What I can promise you, is through all the hardships and frustrations along your journey you will improve your state of mind and personal well-being, improve yourself as a person and take your photography to a new level. You will begin to produce photographs that you never thought possible that will be the envy of many and admiration of more as your images evolve into works of art!
What is a meaningful photo?
There are many answers to this question dependant on the context it is asked and the person you are asking, what is meaningful to one can be different to another. This is where you start your journey by asking yourself what the definition of a meaningful photo is to you? Once you understand your own feelings and desires you then have a vision and goal of where you aspire to be.
I split my thoughts on meaningful photographs into two categories but you can have as many as you see fit.
Personal meaningful photographs
These are images that to most don’t appear meaningful at all but to the person who took them could be the most meaningful photographs they have ever taken. This could be the obvious such as your child blowing out candles at his birthday party, family members or the place you met your partner for the 1st time. To anyone other than the person that took them they might mean nothing but to the families involved would mean everything.
Notice how I said might? This is because there are no hard rules and it certainly is not black and white as someone could look at those photos who has just lost a child which would mean many different things to them personally and stir emotions of happiness, sadness or even regret.
What I am saying here is understanding the differences of meaningful photographs and what it means to you as a photographer. For that I personally class it as taking an image with intent where it was intended to capture a mood or emotion and speak to the audience without words.
Every photograph ever taken will mean something to someone and provoke feeling and meaningfulness in another and why I believe it is so important to ask yourself the question to give yourself clarity and direction.
Non personal meaningful photographs
These are photographs that are not just meaningful to me but photographs that convey meaning, feeling and emotion to others. These are the images I strive to take every time I venture out with a camera to try and portray my thoughts and feelings at that moment in time with intent. This for me is as I like to call it The Art of Photography.
Many will disagree but this just brings me back to what I originally said about self discovery and what it means to you as a photographer. Photography over time has become theorised based on theories of composition and light and all is needed to make a good photo but this is simply not true. Of course they all help and by creating colour harmony and balance in an image you can create something visually stunning and truely beautiful photos. Guess what though, I am not talking about just visually stunning photos here I am talking about images that have a soul!
What I am talking about is not just beautiful photographs that you hang on a wall because it looks nice that you may quickly glimpse at every now and then as you walk on by. My focus is to try and capture images that you can immerse yourself in that asks questions, creates emotion and feeling and are timeless.
When you can produce work like this I really do think that you are at a level that most can only aspire to be and sadly a lot of photographers will never achieve. I am certainly not in that bracket and would never claim to be but it is my desire and aspiration to hopefully one day get there and it is what drives me to keep searching, developing and enjoying the art of photography.
Here you will find key pointers on how to start your journey of self discovery and start create meaningful Photos that evoke emotion and feeling.
Gain valuable experience first – Learn your craft
This is for anyone relatively new to photography who is reading this and although I hope this will give you inspiration on where you want to go with your photography you first need to learn your craft.
You maybe one of those rare totally gifted photographers who just has a natural gift (I am certainly not one of them!) but for most you have to learn the craft of photography. You need to be able understand and know how to create what you are trying to say.
This comes from experience, trial and error and understanding the different techniques and tools at your disposal. What I am saying here is don’t run before you can walk as you will get frustrated and hinder your progress as a photographer.
This is an important one for me, every photograph you take is not going to produce the results you want. As a landscape photographer mother nature also has to play her part and some beautiful images you take just won’t be able to speak to you the way you want them to.
Only the other day I was photographing a panorama tower on the top of a hill after weeks of terrible weather. The forecast was looking promising for a nice sunset so I decided to go and take an image of a place I had never been before. The sky lit up and bathed the tower in a lovely golden glow but I had no foreground and was halfway down the hill looking up at the tower as any other angle the light just wasn’t right.
It is a nice image, I like it but does it speak to me and have meaning? Not really but that doesn’t make it a bad image. It was a panorama tower built in 1812 as an observation point to take in the wonderful surrounding area so an image capturing a beautiful sunset over the surrounding hills with the tower beautifully illuminated would tell the story of the tower much better. Now surrounded by a network of roads, villages and a motorway it is an image that will always be difficult to portray it as I would like.
There are many photographs of this particular spot but none that I have seen that portray the meaning of this tower but imagine mist masking the roads and villages reflecting light on the tower with the hills in the distance at sunrise? It would tell a different story and one that may take me years to get if ever but it is certainly one I will try to capture over the years ahead.
The key here is that I am not petered by my results, I don’t see it as a failure. I am realistic and know that I can’t always produce work as I would like but instead learn from the experience and have an idea on what I need to succeed.
Ask questions before you reach for the camera
This leads me onto an important question you need to answer before you grab your camera and your tripod begins to grow roots!
Why do you want to take this photo?
Whenever I ask this question to people on a workshop with me they usually look at me blank for a few seconds and reply with errrr…
You have to know what it is about the scene in front of you that makes you want to capture it. This is so important and so often overlooked and such an easy thing to do. If you slow down and take the time to ask yourself this question it will improve your photography tenfold.
You will read time and time again photographers telling you to get on location at least an hour before sunrise or sunset but most miss the point. It is usually always written around allowing yourself time to find a good composition etc which is fine and something we all have to do but the most important step is what are you photographing? Sounds simple right but ask yourself how often do you do this?
What I do is take a seat poor myself a coffee and just sit there taking it all in. I collect my thoughts take in the view and ask myself why am I here? How does the scene make me feel? What do I like about the scene and what are the points of interest?
Once I have connected with my emotions and feelings and know what I m trying to achieve I will begin to walk around to find the best location to capture my feelings before I even take out my camera. Then I can begin to work with the camera to find a pleasing composition once I am set on what I want only then will I reach for the tripod.
I know that this is not always practical and you might just have to grab the shot there and then if you are chasing the light but if the conditions allow, take you time, slow down and connect with your surroundings!
Remove Pressure – Just Roll With It!
Probably the one I struggle with most of all and that is putting too much pressure on yourself to capture that perfect image. This is where I should follow my own advice and certainly in landscape photography you just have to accept whatever mother nature throws at you and just roll with it!
It can be difficult, frustrating and demoralising after a 3 hour drive and long hike to get to your location to find that mother nature has her own plans and you find yourself in dense fog, flat light or driving rain. Deflated you get angry tense and ask yourself why the hell do I bother? You are not alone it happens to me more often than not but you know what? Who cares?
Take the opportunity if you can to explore, take a different route back, take reference shots and just enjoy the great outdoors. Plan for your next visit while you are there, stand and think to yourself what do you want from these images and what would make it perfect? Be positive and say next time I am going to get that image!
This is the same as taking your time if you are rushing or putting excessive pressure on yourself it will reflect in your images and you will not be able to connect with the environment or you audience. You have to be in the correct frame of mind, calm, clear headed and focused on what you are trying to achieve.
Stop worrying about perfection!
Again and again I watch people over thinking and over complicating the process of trying to capture an image. You have so much information thrown at you on a daily basis whenever you are watching your favourite photographer on youtube or reading post like this from people like me.
I see so many blogs and vlogs titled the rule of this that and the other that less experienced photographers try and follow and totally over complicate their thinking in search of this idea of perfection.
This means they spend so much time searching for something that just isn’t present in a scene at the sacrifice of thinking about the very important elements they are trying to achieve and portray.
If there is one thing to take away from what I am saying here it is:
Stop worrying about perfection! In photography perfection does not exist! Composition and the like are not rules, photography has no rules and are purely just tools!
In terms of creating meaning with intent in your photographs the correct exposure is key to success. This is where most people struggle because getting the correct exposure is so complexed and effects everything within the image and how people see it. This is why people should be careful with using general practices such as ‘Exposing to the right’.
Learning exposure is way beyond the scope of this post but I highly recommend this as the first area to concentrate your efforts on. Understanding exposure is a must and by this I don’t just mean being able to read the Histogram tool and know if an image is over or under exposed and has any clipping.
What I am talking about here is understanding both How and Why exposure in your images is important and how it works. There are a number of very good in-depth books which I highly recommend you to read and study and practice this key element of photography. This will enable you to create images correctly right from the start as you intended without the need to start over processing your images later with software.
This is another key factor in creating any beautiful photograph. Understanding colour theory, what works and what doesn’t and being able to focus on key colours within your scene to gain the correct exposure is tough to master.
It is essential to train the minds eye looking for warm and cool tones to give your images that tonal contrast. Without it images can be flat without dimension and key points of the image become lost in a sea of vibrant colours.
I see this most of all when people start getting into post processing by simply over saturation and over processing their images. Colour tones do not have to be vibrant and saturated the harmony of an image can work just as beautifully with very subtle warm and cool tones. It’s about using colour to emphasise what you are try to portray and set the correct mood of the image.
Think about it, you are standing at the top of a mountain in driving snow freezing cold and can’t feel your fingers but you process your image with a warm white balance so your overall image takes on warm tones. What do you think that is saying to your audience? Now go the other way and head into subtle blue cool tones your image will take on a different feeling.
Another example is your taking the same photographs of snow capped mountains and its freezing cold but the sun is illuminating the mountain tops with a beautiful alpine glow and you can feel the beautiful warmth on you face and hands as it rises above the horizon. Where would you push the colour tone of your image, warm or cold?
I am talking about the overall feel of an image here and trying to emphasise your thought process of what you are trying to get your audience to see. There are selective techniques which you also have at your disposal such as luminosity masking to target key areas of an image to emphasise what you are trying portray.
My big tip to help with this in post processing is once you think you have finished editing your image convert it to black and white. This is dead simple using most photo editing suits then go make yourself a drink. Come back sit in front of the screen stare at it for 30 seconds then disable the black and white preview. How do the colours look now? Is this what you wanted to achieve?
When we are busy staring at an image editing you become colour blind where it is so easy to over process. Using this very simple tip will help you check for the correct colour balance in your image. Simply adjust and repeat until you are happy with your final edit.
Don’t be afraid to be unconventional and try different things, push colours around this way you can see what works and what doesn’t and gain valuable exerience.
Critique your own images, review them and learn!
You have most likely already started to do this and this is what has lead you to ask the question How to take meaningful photographs? in the first place. If not then start doing it now!
As great as the latest and greatest cameras are these days in my opinion the worst thing about them is how it has pushed us down the route of digital images. Now don’t get me wrong of course there are so many benefits and the digital age is fantastic but the trouble is no one ever reviews their images anymore.
For those old enough like me will remember the good old days when your parents would get out the good old photo album to embarrass you in front of friends and family and go through old photographs. This just doesn’t happen anymore and we are all guilty of taking images, edit them, publish them to social media or own websites and forget about them. We end up with terabytes of digital images which never ever see the light of day again.
The best way to improve your photography is be honest to yourself and critique your own work especially after a lengthy period since you took the image. This way you have lost that initial emotional attachment and can look at the image, study it then ask a yourself a few very simple questions.
How does this photograph make me feel?
What is it saying to me, what is it about?
Does it achieve my original vision and portray what I wanted? If Yes, Why? If No, Why?
Do I still like this image, if Yes why? If No, why?
How could this image be better?
You get the idea so think about it yourself and write these questions down then start going through your own Portfolio and Galleries. This learning process is so important as you are beginning to ask questions of your own work and then start thinking about what you like or dislike about it.
One thing that is often overlooked is that we all continue to develop as photographers and our ideas of the perfect image and type of images we want to produce changes over time.
You learn new techniques, you will see images similar to yours which you like better and asking tough questions about your own photos, you will subconsciously think about things slightly different the next time you are in a similar environment.
The next phase in this is then go and browse through your old images, the ones that you didn’t like or thought were not good enough. You will be amazed how many photographs you find that you now think are better than the published original or totally disregarded first time round.
When I follow this up with photographers who have done this exercise most images were discarded due to what was originally though to have the wrong exposure.
Back then they didn’t fully understand exposure and its impact on feeling in relationship to what they wanted to portray. This simple technique which cost you nothing can seriously take your photographs to the next level.
One final thing on the subject of critique and that is also analyse the images that inspire you. Get out your list and ask the same questions, study them.
If you feel that a particular photo is better than yours find the answers why! Don’t just think oh they are a much better photographer than me if I only I was that good. You need to understand why the image is better and then you can carry this across into your own photography, learn from others!
To find the answers to How to take meaningful photographs? you have to ask yourself a number of questions to find what meaningful means to you!
To help you find find the answers and aid your photography take on new meaning:
- Find out exactly what meaningful means to you and your photograph
- Gain experience first and learn your craft as a photographer
- Be realistic and understand that you will not create meaningful pictures every time
- Slow down and ask questions about why you want to photograph this before you reach for the camera
- Remove pressure from yourself. Just roll with it!
- Stop worrying about perfection. Photograph what you feel not see!
- Study and learn Exposure and its effects upon an image
- Explore colour theory and its connections with emotions and feeling
- Critique your own images, be true to yourself and understand what you need to do to improve
This may sound strange but I hope after reading this you have found more questions than answers. I started by saying I didn’t want any of this to sound biblical but the truth is, it really is about the road of self discovery. To cut away from the norm and really push yourself to new levels this is where the magic of photography really begins and you start to produce works of art.
Your work will become more unique and you will discover new areas and different directions you will want to explore. The possibilities are infinite and this is what makes photography so unique and rewarding.
Remember these words “Don’t shoot how something looks, instead shoot how it feels”
Also remember that everyone is different, everyones opinions are different. This is your work and if you love what you are producing other peoples opinions do not matter! They are just their opinions!
Answer the question and discover yourself, set your photography free!
With years of experience and a number of award winning photographs Nigel Waters is a UK landscape photographer based in Worcestershire. With a passion for the great outdoors and continually chasing the light to capture beautiful photographs his landscape, seascape and nightscape photography will give you inspiration to get out and explore the best British landscapes have to offer.