Look at this monochrome portrait. This picture was entered into an International Photo Competition with National Geographic magazine. It has flat lighting with little modelling of the features. The top of the head is chopped off. The corners of the image have a harsh distracting vignette. The model is looking level and straight into the lens without emotion or gesture. She could have been instructed to look more appealing in this stark picture. Technically it could have been done in a photo booth. It won the people’s choice award.
This is what the judges wrote about this image.
This enigmatic shot is “timeless—it has a beautiful simplicity with no pretense,” says Monica Corcoran, senior photo producer at National Geographic Digital Media. “I keep looking at the portrait and wondering about this woman,” says freelance photojournalist Tyrone Turner. For National Geographic magazine senior photo editor Susan Welchman, “the ambiguous, mysterious style also frees the viewer from knowing when or what time period it was shot. Or is it a painting? All unknowns release the viewer from facts and encourage interpretation.”
Or look at this photograph of a dog which was also entered into the same competition. The dog is dead centre in this picture. It is lost in the pattern of the façade and does not stand out at all. There is a near perfect reflection of the scene which competes for the eye of the viewer. One is confused as to whether to look up or look down. Perhaps the photographer should have cropped either the scene or the reflection to reduce ambiguity and give a greater sense of balance or harmony. In this case the picture was awarded an honourable mention.
This is what the judge had to say for the picture,
At Hok Tjing Bio, a Chinese Temple in Palembang South Sumatra, Indonesia, the photographer has framed the shot at a precise moment, with the reflection, and the position of the passing dog in the middle of the tiger pictorial on the temple’s wall.
Despite all that I have learned about breaking up symmetry, this judge applauds the effort to portray and reinforce the symmetry of this image.
Or how about this picture of some Cuban kids letting off fireworks. The horizon is not straight. The characters are moving out of the frame of the picture without there being room for them to move into. Two of the figures have been amputated by the frame of the picture. The largest of the three figures is entirely blurred. It however also received an honourable mention.
The caption reads, The picture was shot at San Juan de los Remedios, Cuba, during a local celebration called “Las Parrandas” in which the highlight is fireworks. Here children light the fireworks and escape.
Lastly this image of a fare ground. Again the horizon is crooked, the main subject, the carousel is entirely blurred. There is a very bright highlight in the sun competing for attention with the subject. This one however was the winner of this section of the competition.
And the Judges’ Comments
The transporting quality of this photo “conjures up childhood,” says National Geographic senior photo editor Elizabeth Krist. Adds freelance photojournalist Maggie Steber: “The photographer took something we have seen a lot and managed to frame it in a setting that is unexpected. It is very cinematic and creates a scene and an opening. What will happen next?”
What I have learned at photo club seems to be at odds with the way the National Geographic Judges have been assessing their images. What were the judges thinking of? Haven’t they heard of the rules of composition? Didn’t they attend a photo club? What is going on?
There seems to be a difference in the way we are looking at the images. My initial comments for each image are based on a set of empiric rules. They have been told to me week after week as I attend the various competitions. The National Geographic judges however allude to their emotional reactions to the image. They seem unperturbed by the transgression of the rules, as long as the picture finds a resonance, or emotional quality. As Mark Pedlar puts it – the image has impact.
I am reminded by Arthur Farmer, a life member of our club who loved to quote Ansell Adams –
“There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.”
Perhaps we should not think of these photo club statements as emphatic rules, but as techniques of composition. Let me give an analogy. Although a polarising filter has a pleasing effect it is not mandatory that you should always use one in every photograph. Sometimes the polariser can really look awful.
Likewise there is no rule that says that your horizon must always be straight. In the 2 photographs above the uneven horizon creates a sense of movement and drama in the picture. In each case a straight horizon would ruin the effect. Conversely, the horizon is better straight when you intend a sense of balance or calm.
So how do the National geographic Judges ascribe merit if there are no rules? This is perhaps the easiest and hardest part to grasp. It seems they ascribe merit by their emotional response. That seems arbitrary and subjective. Not so. The photographer has a vision they wish to convey. The good images are more successful in swaying the opinion of the judge, better at showing that vision. In fact the set of compositional rules is more arbitrary as it instantly dismisses quite a large number of images. Images that may win International competitions, images that might thrill and excite us.
To sum up, I believe that we need to look at pictures differently. We need a different set of spectacles. It is not about adherence to a dozen rules or guiding principles. I think that is an old prescription that served us well when we were starting to learn the ropes of photography. Now it is time to take off that pair of glasses and look for that inner response that the image creates. What is the photographer’s vision and did they convey it well? We need to relook at the pictures with a better prescription, and I think we will begin to see things that we didn’t see before. I believe we will find more enjoyment in our photography.