In part two of his new 13-part series, Michael explores how photographs can be enhanced if they’re energised by some action – and the less predictable it is, the better
Michael Freeman shares his advice for having something happen in your photographs
There are many situations where you might not want any action disturbing your carefully set, calm composition. A formal architectural study or a stark minimalist landscape, for example, are occasions that don’t need extra action. Other images, possibly even the majority, come alive when something in the frame energises them through some event. It can be a small, slightly strange or elegant thing, or anything that fits in beyond the obvious and completely predictable.
Wanting something to happen goes deep to the heart of photographic style, and most of us veer in one direction or another. Style is a strangely unexplored aspect, outside of curator’s notes for an exhibition, and yet it’s something most photographers would like to have a handle on. Without getting into the specifics of individual photographers’ styles, which can be risky art-crit territory, there’s a basic scale that goes from Quiet to Dramatic, which you could also call Restrained to Energetic. Having things happen in an image definitely belongs to the Dramatic/Energetic camp, and is almost a credo of street photography. As with all of the creative paths I’ll present in this series, it has its own direction, and it won’t suit every photograph.
The basic scenario is that you have a scene in front of you, or at least a framing, and some of the right ingredients in place. Subject, light, colour, contrast, whatever – it’s nearly there. But somewhere in the back of your head there’s the nagging wish that if, say, someone just came and did something, it would be complete. Imagine a street shot where you have two people in conversation and the lighting’s good and the setting is interesting, and they haven’t noticed you, so you can shoot for a bit. But they’re not expressing much, and you think, “If only
they’d share a joke and laugh. Or even argue!” It may be frustrating that you can do nothing to influence it, but that’s really the point – you’re hoping for something to happen that’s outside your control, because that will make the shot more interesting.
The uncertainty principle
The title of this feature is carefully worded. To ‘Have’ something happen isn’t to ‘Make’ it happen. If you could art-direct a scene so that it contained a neat piece of action, how valuable would that be? It would definitely work in a commercial lifestyle or fashion shoot, but for pure street theatre it would be interference that killed the spontaneity. Any kind of natural reportage depends on uncertainty, which in turn depends on your skill, anticipation and/or patience to capture an unexpected moment. You might feel exposed to circumstances beyond your control, and it would be safer if you could control them, but capturing an unscripted moment, however ordinary, is what photography alone can do.
Having something happen may seem little more than willing it to happen, which doesn’t sound like much of a technique, but there are two things you can master. One is to be more than usually alert so you are able to anticipate one or two things that might happen, as in the examples here, and exercise the patience to wait until they do.
The other is to accept that successful shots that depend on uncertainty don’t happen every minute, and that you’re fishing for prize events, not everyday minnows. In any case, don’t be satisfied with what you have in front of you at the start. It could be better if you wait.
You’re hoping for something to happen that’s outside your control, because that’ll make the shot more interesting
This old footbridge, at a Shinto shrine in Japan, was lit by a shaft of sunlight breaking through the forest. What it needed, and what happened after a long wait, was a Shinto priest crossing it, passing through the sunlight. I used the waiting time to test my exposure settings.
If you enjoy this article and want to learn more, there are 50 more paths to be discovered in Michael’s new book Fifty Paths to Creative Photography (NB: all 50 are different from those that will be featured here in the magazine).