Desperately Seeking Impact

by ralph

In the 30s and '40s Alexei Brodovitch, the stormy picture editor of Harper's Bazaar Magazine used to pound his desk and thunder IMPACT! IMPACT! when he felt the pictures submitted by his fashion photographers didn't make the grade. Impact was not a sought after attribute before the photojournalism of the '30s and the Brodovitch style in the '40s. but the word stuck and has been with us ever since. It gave us at least one criteria with which we could judge the worth of a photo.

An impactful image does not need to be a dramatic one, it can just be one in which a mood or theme is forcefully or clearly shown --- even a pastoral, foggy morning can have impact simply because it is done so well. Still impact is not a single term that can describe every last engaging or inspiring photo that has come along. That leaves us desperately searching for some criteria to help us find or create good images and a way to avoid ones that are just plain dull.

Why would anyone bother to create and show an image which is just plain dull anyway? It's probably a fair guess that the photo had great meaning to its maker but the maker failed to convey it. If it was an " idea" image, that idea was not clearly expressed. Any picture with an idea is vastly better than one that is without it, but is the idea realized in the final photo or is it only in the head of the maker ? Perhaps the subject was just too personal, leaving an outsider in the cold. A picture of a house, for instance, is only a record shot with some meaning for the persons who live there, but if the picture conveyed the ideas of warmth, coziness and safety and had a touch of color in the garden, then the image conveys the idea of "home" in the more ideal sense --- hey that could even add a couple points to your score. A picture of your own pet might be appealing to you even if it's a bit out of focus and you can't see its eyes, but it can leave someone else "colder than a dogs nose". When all that well groomed, adorable fur frames bright, engaging and crisply focused eyes then the picture says "PET" in more universal ways.

Many competition judges, when faced with a picture that simply has no interest for them usually find some minor flaw to criticize because they want to avoid seeming arbitrary. Unfortunatly this gives the maker less guidance toward the goal of better photography.

While it's not possible to create a list of desirable subjects or subjects to avoid here's a grab bag of ideas that might help;

First of all try to sit on your latest creation for a while -- anywhere from days to months -- when that first enthusiasm cools the strengths or weaknesses of the image will be more apparent.

Look for eye catchers like strong patterns, colors, complementary color schemes, bold close-ups, strong perspectives (like with the use of wide angle lenses.) Some picture editors like to view unmagnified 35mm slides so that they can judge the overall composition and impact without the distraction of finer details in the subject. Try it.

Don't head out in the world with your camera driven by the urgent feeling that you must shoot just any picture (to avoid the feeling of coming back empty handed). You'll probably wind up investing some pointless subject with more significance than it deserves.

Find a new locale, in other words go on a trip. It's probably true that a stranger could come into your own back yard and find pictures that you missed because it represents a fresh, new subject to them, so the corollary is that we all tend to stop seeing things that are excessively familiar. In a sense there is a zone around you where you've grown stale and the size of that zone increases as years go by

Maximize excellence and authenticity. A blurry and grayish closeup of strongly textured wood has very little appeal but if it were wire sharp and of snappy contrast the tactile quality alone woul
hold the viewers attention. Ansel Adams produced a number of quiet images which can't be accused of having any impact and yet -- there's the one of the edge of an aspen forest that has such crisp image quality and beautiful light that merely to look at it makes you feel transported to the idyllic place.

. Avoid the many kinds of flatness. This is a big one. First there's the lifeless flatness of a print or slide that is washed out or too gray. The remedy here is to get your slide exposure right (try bracketing) and to play with (probably increase) your printing contrast when doing B&W.

Then there's flat lighting, the look you get when the main light comes from directly behind you. It's usually plenty bright but tends to flatten out the shapes and depth of all objects, especially in the distance. Flash lighting from right at the camera also looks less appealing than well planned portrait lighting ( which is generally from the side). In fact strong side lighting is almost always the best since it accentuates the shape and texture of your subjects


Next thing to avoid is flat planes, shooting an all distant view without items of interest at nearer or further distances. A typical bad example would be a view across a lake with just a slab of water in the foreground, blank sky on top and the strip of landscape running through the middle. Even if the shore had nice autumn color the composition is weak because of the lack of "depth cues". The picture could be improved with a foreground tree branch (near plane) providing some framing or some boat docks (middle distance plane) or having some of the shoreline curve from the foreground around the end of the lake (receding planes).

Not only do many planes of distance provide more agreeable composition, but it is the only way to convey the immensity of a grand landscape. This is actually a major factor in the so called "Moon effect". It has been observed that the moon can look simply immense when it is just above the horizon but it looks puny when high overhead. Most people are ready to swear that the size difference is real --- or at least caused by some kind of refraction in the air. Finally, some scientists put the questions to actual test and found that, (a) - there was no difference in size, and (b) there was a slight psychological factor that causes objects at high elevation to seem smaller than the same object near the horizon, but concluded; (c) the main reason for the apparent difference was the perceptual appreciation of the true size of the moon when it becomes apparent that it's so much further away than distant terrestrial objects. So it seems that photographers have been aware of this for a long time and have leaned on such devices as foreground framing and middleground details to make distant objects appear more like their true size.

Finding the emotional hook is a great way to make an image that grabs the eye. That can mean anything from humor to an appealing animal to a photojournalistic image.

Not many people remember Alexei Brodovitch anymore but one of his best known proteges was Richard Avedon and of course, to this day we're all still desperately seeking impact.