There’s a mysterious thing that happens with images: sometimes, the light we capture on the sensor (or on the film) somehow is missing the one thing that made the moment so spectacular. It’s not out of focus, it’s not terribly under exposed, the composition is okay, there’s just something…. not there.
The thing that’s not there of course, is your feelings the moment you took it. That is something that can be very elusive. The viewers of an image are not cold, they are not windblown, they are not out of breath from hiking up to that ridge, they are not among exciting new friends. All of that is basically impossible to convey in a static image, and that may well be what makes that image special to you.
The very hardest thing for any photographer to do is to look at their images objectively. It’s maddeningly difficult sometimes. I didn’t really understand this mechanism until I worked for Galen Rowell. There were a few images that he absolutely adored, had marked as his Best Images, and yet they were… just a picture. Not a great picture in any objective sense. Most of the time he was spot-on at knowing which images of his would really resonate with people, but every once in a while, he was wrong. There was just no way we would know what it was like to be in that dark, smoky Tibetan house high in the Himalaya, to meet these sweet gentle people who were so kind, and whose picture he took at that moment while the fire burned brightly in the corner.
This is one reason why I think it’s a bad idea to do any sort of real editing while you’re on a trip. You’re too close to the action, emotionally, to tell if a picture is really good or not. There’s time enough when you get home for all that. And your pictures will be better for it.
So when you sit down to edit, ask yourself these things about every picture you’ve taken:
- Is it engaging to look at?
- Is it quickly understandable?
- How long do you want to look at it?
Is it engaging to look at? – Is the composition flat or dynamic? Is there a tension to the composition that will engage the viewer?
The texture of this berg is interesting, and I like how it’s reflected in the calm water beneath it, but it’s just sitting there, really. Compositionally this is a bust. There’s nothing dynamic happening here. There’s nothing technically wrong with this image, it’s just not that interesting.
This is much more engaging. First of all the texture is really fascinating: this ice looks like frosted glass! And the deep grooves in the iceberg give a diagonal line to the composition that really help the picture stand out. Add to that the smaller grooves at a perpendicular angle to that and all of a sudden this is much more interesting compositionally than the one above. And the color, who knew one iceberg could have that many shades of blue?
Is there enough going on inside the frame to allow you to spend some time with it, or is it the kind of picture where a single glance is all you need?
This one is really borderline to me. There’s enough going on visually, but the composition is missing any dynamism. Nice to have brash ice, but the ice floes are too far away and your eye has to kind of reach in order to get any of the detail in the mid-to background.
THIS is what I’m talking about. The brash ice (and even a bit of pancake ice!) litter the foreground. The ice floes lead your eyes into the frame, and the light and clouds give lots of varied color and texture to the scene.
This is essentially separate from the question above, and is a lot more difficult to explain: do you want to just stare at it? The longer you want to stare at an image the better.
This image definitely has texture, but it’s all pretty much the same texture. Perhaps the light was a bit too flat, or this was just not the best iceberg to shoot. You’re kind of at the mercy of nature at times like this; there’s only so much you can do to position an iceberg for a portrait at its best angle. Maybe we need to just go find a different iceberg.
This is much more like it. The ship in the distance gives some interest, and the triangular shape of the berg leads the viewer’s eye right there. The berg itself has both bizarre dappled texture and is run through with thick bands of moraine which gives some depth of color. The water is rippled by a breeze and that mimics the texture on the ice. The light that day was relentlessly flat but since the iceberg itself has so much texture it still works.
Let me give you another example of the “stare at an image” idea:
This is one picture from Antarctic that I’m absolutely in love with. The texture of that snow, the light hitting it at an angle like that to really show off the texture and the sculptural nature of it… oooh. Just love it. This is one image I can just stare at. It’s not that complicated of an image, there’s not that much going on compositionally, but the way the different elements (the side light, the color of the light, the yellow light paired with the deep blue clouds) really pops.
Oh, and yeah, I’m totally obsessed with ice and icebergs now. I know it. I won’t try to hide it.