How to take meaningful photographs

Discussion in 'Beginner Questions' started by blackyman, Apr 14, 2020.

  1. Hello everybody, i will try to explain a feeling or a thought and i will be glad to hear your opinions about it.

    I started learning photography 3 years ago ( I'm 24 if that matters). These 3 years i learned how to compose, learned the basic rules, learned the settings triangle iso/shutter speed/f stop, learned editing in softwares, learned how my camera and lenses work and what i can do with that. ( It doesn't matter what gear i use, that's not the point of this thread. I only hear good words about my photos, either online or from people that have seen my prints. But it really doesn't matter either.

    Yesterday i had a realisation that hit me hard. My photos dont have soul from my point of you. They are really beautiful mostly landscapes and travel photos, but something is missing.

    Yesterday i realised i want to make art from photos. I want to make my photos speak. To tell a story. To make People watch them for over 1 sec. How can i come to that point? I feel lost. I feel that my photos are not good and i think that i might have done things wrong. Have you ever felt something like that ever? How can i make photos that speak? I have been from many (that knows about photography) that i have the photographer's eye.

    I dont care about contests or likes or things like that. I really want to make my photography an art. I want my photos to have soul. Is something wrong with me? I dont know.
  2. Immerse yourself in photos that accomplish the 'soul' that you allude to... both from the past and present. Ask yourself why the narrative works. Then pay attention to your unique inner voice. Shoot a lot. for yourself, make sure it speaks to you before considering others. Continue to learn the craft as you go. And make sure you have a good job or career to provide a comfortable safety net. Enjoy...
    post some of your work when you ready.
  3. Tony Parsons

    Tony Parsons Norfolk and Good

    Glad that you are enjoying your photography - that is surely a good start. One thing I have found helpful, over the years, is to look at other people's work as much as I can, and see what it is about their images that really 'grabs' me. Then, without copying their work, try to tease out an underlying principle that could be applied to my own photos. Be warned - I usually have far more failures than successes, but when it hits the mark, you know it !

    Good luck - look forward to seeing your posts - and don't forget, you can often learn far more from your 'failures'.
    Ricochetrider and robert_bowring like this.
  4. SCL


    About 20 years ago, I was going thru a similar period of self introspection regarding my work, which I thought up to that point had been good, but not spectacular. That summer I went to a fair and encountered a plethora of pictures which really spoke to me, and I thought about what differentiated mine from theirs. And then it hit...their prints were larger...much larger, exceptionally well printed, and, most of all, they were artistically framed to accent the key colors of highlight the points of interest in the prints. I'm not artistic by inclination, so all this took a while to sink in, especially since I had bought some of the works I admired and had the framed prints shipped to my home. The outcome, after analyzing things, was that I realized my works could shine, if I visualized them in a decor in somebody's home, and I needed to shoot and compose, and frame them with that thought in mind. Since then I've taken thousands of shots worldwide, and only about 1-200, after introspection, have met my new criteria...yet it is so worth it, 100 times over when one comes to life and grabs me and I know it will grab others as well. I then saw some of Vivian Maier's black and white works, contact printed and then printed at museum quality, some enlarged 30-40x, and they literally jumped off the walls. It reinforced me to continue my quest for how I could get my B&W to do likewise. What worked for me won't necessarily work for you, but I encourage you to keep experimenting until you hit your sweet spot as well.
  5. A few thoughts after reading your question and others' responses:

    I've found having a project/theme to my photography engages me more than just being out and taking pictures of whatever I've found (sometimes that's fun though). I look at others' work a lot, which is often simultaneoulsy inspiring and demoralizing. It gives me fresh ideas, but I try hard to not mimic either. One of the factors that got me into photography were the captivating images in National Geographic, or the well-known photos of the Works Progress Administration. I think many of us imagine that the most captivating photos are taken by photographers who take them one after another. What we don't know are how many they delete or don't present. For example, I went to the Library of Congress website to look at WPA photos and found I had made this assumption - a lot of those photos are neat from a historical perspective, even if the shots were just of street corners and didn't have a lot of soul. And lastly, this is probably a developmental component of artistry - once you've reasonably got the technical components down, it takes longer to find your own voice in it.
  6. Don’t try too hard. Shoot lots and try to avoid cliches. There is so much photography out there, we get a vision of what a good photo is supposed to be, and search for that, rather than making original pictures ourselves. In the days of only film, how many shots that ended up ‘Great’ were known they were great before the film was developed? Some for sure, but many were unknown until that contact sheet was produced. Up your hit rate by shooting more in situations where you think you have the right ingredients for a shot with ‘soul’, but don’t agonise too much at the taking stage. Just shoot. Worry about if it’s great when you get home.
    Tony Parsons and Ricochetrider like this.
  7. To answer the question you first have to answer the question, "What is art?" I think that's been debated for quite a while. Can you give examples of what you feel is photography raised to art?
    Ricochetrider likes this.
  8. I think what matters is that YOU feel it is art. Maybe you won't be recognized until you are dead, or maybe never but YOU have to feel that you captured what you SEE. Who do you take pictures for? For whom do you spend the time developing the raw images? Why do you bother? I think all of us do it for ourselves, and then our egos like stroking when we are appreciated. The effort is for yourself.
    Ricochetrider likes this.
  9. I started out when I was about 19 years old. I don't know exactly why I got interesting in photography (the movie Blow-up may have had something to do with it!). but for me it started as photographing the people I knew around me in every day life. I've just followed my instincts. That's the only thing that pleases me. What I'm getting at is to listen to your own voice. What stimulates your eye. 50 years later I'm still using the same approach. I've been told my images look like "my images" so I must have developed some kind of consistency.
    Ricochetrider and Karim Ghantous like this.
  10. I agree with Andrew: look at other photos, from a variety of eras. For example, I have on my bookshelf: a few copies of American Photography from the 1940s; a stack of American Cinematographer from the 1990s - present; National Geographic issues from the 1930s to the 1960s; a selection of fashion magazines, etc. I also have a bunch of stock catalogues from the 1990s (e.g. The Image Bank) which I could look at all day.

    Also, you absolutely should explore this site:

    FILMGRAB [ • ]

    You know, there are a few secrets to good photography. One of them is actually very simple: look at the camera's viewfinder, and ask yourself if there is anything in the frame that does not need to be there. If there are elements that should not be in the frame, either recompose or remove them, then take the picture again.

    Another secret: the background of a photo is equally important as, or more important than, the subject. A background does not have to be plain, but it can't be 'blah' or distracting.

    Here is one example of a background that is not 'plain' by any means. But here, the background does not distract from the subject:

    The image is actually a frame from a movie, but the principle is exactly the same. In fact you could say that in this frame, the background actually supports the subject, in this case, a young woman. You could argue that the background tells us something about her. But at the least, the background should not interfere.

    A good photograph can have lots of elements, or it can have only one. But a good photo has something to say. But you cannot say something if you are saying many things at once, or if you are confused as to what you are trying to communicate. Here's an example of a photo that shows a very nice scene, but says absolutely nothing about it:

    Gran Paradiso |

    This is a photo of nothing. There is no drama, no focus. Even the light is boring. If the photographer could, he would go back and try again, and probably come back with a better picture. Refinement is a good thing. Film directors often do multiple takes of the same shot for a reason. We should, too.

    A more typical, everyday example: you see a nice church, and you want to take a photo. But there are some problems. Firstly, there are all sorts of cars in front of it. Then, there are power lines visible from where you put the camera. In addition to that, there is a bag of rubbish near the front door, and the bag is white, which is a distraction. So, you have to come back later.

    This is why tourist photos aren't usually that good - the traveller does not have the luxury to come back to the scene. He has to take the photo, and just accept the imperfect light, or the imperfect time of day.

    If you feel like watching a video or two, I think you will really like this channel:

    Nick Carver

    Now, there are lots of great photography blogs and channels out there. But the reason why I'm suggesting this one is because the photographer shows you his process. He will take two or three exposures of a scene, then examine them, and then explain why he prefers one over the other. His approach is very deliberate. I have no doubt that you will appreciate his approach.
  11. James G. Dainis

    James G. Dainis Moderator

  12. Something that worked for me early on was not to focus too much on taking meaningful pictures lest they come across as forced or obvious. Once I let go of concentrating on the meaningfulness of the photo and allowed myself the freedom to discover, I found more authenticity and meaning in what I was doing.

    What seemed to happen to me is that letting go of a lot of pre-conceived ideas of what would be meaningful allowed me to slowly start letting my own work speak to me instead of my trying always or too much to direct it. The more I photographed and looked at my work carefully and with an open mind, even photos I considered not very good, the more meaning I started to find and build on. Bad photos I've taken have taught me as much as good ones and have often moved me in a good direction.

    Meaning, for me, is not a yes or no, not an on-off switch. It's a process. And it's sometimes found where I wouldn't have expected it.
    Ricochetrider likes this.
  13. Lots of good advice here! Like others, I have also spent more than a little time exploring other peoples' work, looking for -and finding- inspiration in shots I like, or simply in what photographers are doing or have done. Currently, we have over 100 years of potential inspiration. Yet in that 100 years, how much has "been done"?

    Landscapes, to me are one of the most difficult of all subject to pull off. Most landscape shots just seem so blasé! you really have to look deeply at a landscape - AND be there at the right time of day or night to get that light that highlights it just so. Lots of times that means taking a lot of time to study the scan in every kind of light, from every angle. IF that particular scene has already been shot a few million times (think: Eiffel Tower, Grand Canyon, etc), how will YOUR photo vary from all the others?

    Travel photos, much the same. Have millions already captured that same shot? How will your vary? But as has also been pointed out, many times travel photographers simply have a single opportunity to capture the scene. SO we make the best of it. Use your imagination and do not walk away with something that simply blends in with all the others.

    Find a few of your photographs that you like best, and get them printed (if you don't have the facilities or wherewithal to do it yourself). Maybe just do some inexpensive printing to see what some shot you like looks like at a larger scale. Size up. Stand back and look at the print. Then, IF you love it, go for a more high end print. A photograph isn't really come alive until it becomes a printed image that you can hold in your hand. This simple thing makes way more difference than you might imagine. If you go into printing your work, do as was suggested and pick a series of 8 or 10 similar or "themed" shots. If you are ever going to display your photos (as in a gallery or something similar), nobody is going to want to see a handful of random images that aren't connected to one another.

    Also, in the world of digital photography, it is so easy to shoot many many more shots than ever before. Quality isn't often found in quantity, so maybe if you tend to shoot a lot, back it down a wee bit and choose your shots more selectively. Shooting from the hip is not likely to result in amazing images. Also, while there are rules for composition, don't be afraid to bend or break them, if you can do so convincingly and with purpose.

    The biggest thing I can say, from my own limited experience- is that it's important to really feel like what you are doing is right, or that you are on the correct path to accomplishing your goal. You want your shots to have "soul"? Then love what you are shooting. Follow your heart. ALSO, do not discount what others are saying about your work. If your shots are drawing compliments from friends and family, then you must be doing something right- it's doubtful that so many, who are close to you, would intentionally lie to you about how they feel in regard to your photos. Ask them what they like about each shot, drill down to see what the essence of a photo is for them, what they like about it.

    Best of luck in your quest tho. Keep shooting and by all means, please do show us some of your photos.
  14. Discussion of "lonely"pictures in Three Days of the Condor (1975)

    Maybe your pictures ARE you?
  15. I pretty much stopped taking pictures because nothing about it felt very 'meaningful' to me. I think it is particularly difficult to make a landscape 'tell a story.' I've taken many landscape shots, and seems to me their appeal is purely aesthetic. The photos that have told me stories generally feature people or animals in either a tragic or pleasant situation, but typically there are elements in the photo that depict not only the main subject, but the environment. 'Street photography,' to me, is the style where you are most likely to find stories, but it's not something everyone enjoys, and you certainly don't want to take advantage of someone's suffering in the name of art. But if your landscapes are such that they bring other people pleasure in viewing them, then perhaps that in itself should provide meaning.
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  16. I have been taking "photographs" for over 60 years. By that I mean photos that had some meaning I was trying to express; it does not include the countless snapshot photos I have taken over the decades. In my exuberant youth I flirted with photography as a profession. But I soon learned that as a professional you have to shoot what sells, not what you like. Today it would be a lot tougher, because what you do in post processing is as important as what you do with the cameras.

    Since I know what I like and like what I shoot. The opinion of others means little, I hope they like my work but I cannot force my values on them.

    My opinion of a photograph is based on the subject matter and is the photo interesting. It makes little difference to me if it is a photograph is from the 1880's and shot with a pinhole camera or a product of the latest digital wizardry. This does not mean that one can be sloppy with sharpness, contrast and detail but these are of far less importance than the impact the subject matter leaves with me.

    I suppose that having grown up with black and white images in magazines, TV and photographs, my attention was focused on subject matter, not color and flashy techniques.

    Photography is a fun hobby and there is no single definition of fun.
  17. Let's agree about one thing -- you HAVE BEEN doing art. 99% of art is practice: getting to know your tools, approaching various kinds of material content, repeating, revising. trying something different...and on and on. I think what is frustrating you is that you don't have many pieces that strike you as finished, that produce the kind of effect in the viewer that the great photographs by others which you love produce. You might also feel you don't have a confident direction to go in order to achieve what you want. You might be saying to yourself, "Certainly great artistic photographers are filled with a sense of that kind of direction, aren't they?" I would suggest to you that maybe a few are, but in some cases they didn't get there until after decades of practice and questioning. In many other cases, photographers, like other visual artists may have a life-long quest for what can be the most meaningful images they can achieve, a quest punctuated by disappointments, changes of direction, and re-visioning.

    You mention the Works Progress Administration photographers. Remember that they didn't create their own individual purposes. They were hired to document life around the United States during the Great Depression. They were given an assignment, a realm of subject mater. They took and developed their pictures and sent copies of them off to a government agency. Some of the pictures were published in government publications or made available to other newspapers and magazines, but many were not published at the time. I think we might assume that these photographers believed (or came to believe) that documenting these human lives and social/economic conditions involved the need to communicate something about them to others. We might also, as later viewers of some of those photographs, further assume that those photographers began to care very much about this subject matter, the often struggling lives they pointed their lenses at. That caring might be where something personal about them came to bear on how their photographic abilities were applied to their documentary tasks.

    In what I have observed from watching or reading about the lives of artists, many of them seem to grow by moving from project to project. I know of a pencil artist who also makes large sculptures, and a collage artist who also designs Japanese Gardens. I know of a an intaglio print maker, who occasionally switches to painting, but what is perhaps even more important--who fills pages of his large sketchbook with drawings every day. Lives like this are filled with artistic inquiry--that is their direction, not merely what might be detected from their best pieces worth showing.

    So, let me suggest this. You like the Works Progress Admin photographers. Their core task was documentary. Is there something you want to document? It doesn't have to have any relation with social strife. It doesn't necessarily have to require long travel. It probably should be something you are interested in enough to photograph over and over, over a period of time in which some kind of change might happen, something you realize you don't know everything about and which could continue to elicit questions from you. Make it a job that you will engage with for a certain amount of time, or a certain number of exposures: 10 months? 800 exposures? 5 days per week? 7 days per week? [ or if you're a Beatles fan 8 days a week ;) ] Imagine you are submitting some portion or portfolio of your attempts to some administrative editor every two weeks. At the end of the month, take a few minutes and imagine which ones this taskmaster might like most and would encourage more of its type, but also ask yourself which you think might be the better ones. But don't dwell on this for long; jump back on your documentary task. If you want to make it more like the WPA photographers' experience place some limitations on your photography. They shot black-and-white film, developed it themselves, printed it themselves. In most cases, they had fixed lens cameras. Limitations can force a creative response. What if you limit your lens choices: only one lens? only two lenses? make one of them manual focus? Monochrome, not color? Limit the kinds of post-processing you are allowed to do? Or -- oh, no say it couldn't be so -- shooting only in-camera jpegs? Select at least a couple of limitations if you're able. Then see what has happened after that scheduled total time or number of documentary exposures have occurred. Even if at the end you want to try a very different artistic project, finding that direction will be important.
    sjmurray likes this.
  18. I beg to differ. His photos are great because they made a statement. A good photograph is often deliberate. And when you are deliberate in something, you are making a statement. I don't mean that they literally convey data to the viewer. That's a materialistic view, and if you like that way of thinking, fair enough.
    sjmurray likes this.
  19. William Michael

    William Michael Moderator Staff Member

    "Meaning[fulness]", when viewed as a process, is also a function of experience.

    Things have (one) meaning based upon one's experience to which they can be compared and contrasted.

    With that in mind, what was not meaningful previously, sometimes are found as more meaningful, now.


    To the OP -

    Whilst it seems that you are NOT logging in regularly, maybe you are viewing these replies: my advice concerning your quest for meaning, is to engage in conversation - get down on the court and mix it up, there is little meaning to be found sitting in the stands and watching it all pass before you.

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