Often photography is about grabbing your camera, going to an interesting place, and looking for subjects that catch your eye. No real plan, grab your camera, take a walk, and see what photo opportunities present themselves.
There’s nothing wrong with that. Often, serendipity will meet your skills as a photographer and a good shot will result. This is usually how most approach photography. Go to an interesting place, try to be there when the light is nice, look for compositions and make some shots.
But there is something to having a plan, a “theme” to guide your shots. Let’s look at ten reasons how to improve your photography by working with themes.
Just look at the different types of photographers in the industry, who focus on sports, travel, lifestyle, and more. All of these photographers find themselves shooting in accordance with broad themes that identify their genre at the moment. These themes can be narrowed to several less abstract but just as encompassing ones.
Travel photographers build upon themes related to the journey and adventure of life. This theme plays around where life will take you, and the excitement it might provide along the way. Humanitarian photographers thematically create images that inspire assistance and justice, hope and peace, as well as a unified global population. The wedding photographer is focused on shooting love, family, and the perpetuation of those two into the future.
These are fairly broad generalizations, and each genre has its own more specific thematic possibilities. But the point is, it is to our advantage when telling story, whether it’s through a photojournalism piece on the famine in Somalia or a wedding in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to determine or identify themes that will aid us in the storytelling process.
From abstract, theoretical meaning to detailed specificity, stories are developed across the thematic structure. Themes give stories breath, keep them on track, and invite broad and niche audiences to consume and interpret our images.
Photography is An International Fallacy
A photograph is a document, but it is a subjective document. Likewise, beyond what is simply in the frame, this document will mean something to someone. A rainbow appearing at the end of a torrential thunderstorm means something different to a variety of people. Photographers might look at a photograph of a rainbow and think, “Nice photograph.” While others might read hope, unity, strength, or a promise in the same image.
Take a deeper look into your own images. When we think about a story from a thematic point of view, we begin to notice the story in our images. Photographers can shoot under a fairly specific theme and develop images that also say something more universal. For example, developing images thematically around city color might excite the notion of global culture in viewers.
Good versus evil might be emphasized in images that were developed around the more pragmatic theme: venomous creatures of North America. You quickly become versed in the versatility of the images you have made. Then, you start to see where developing a theme for a particular shoot can provide you creative guidance and a new vision for what or who is in front of your lens.
Fortunately, photographers are able to do more than devote ourselves to the sense of sight; we can capitalize on themes that contribute an additional dynamic to a story. The ability to tell visual stories that revolve around universal themes is significant. It puts the phrase “a picture’s worth a 1,000 words” into perspective, doesn’t it?
Visual Theme Exercise
A great way to start developing and shooting with storytelling themes in mind is to find them among the images you have already made. I believe that each individual, knowingly or not, is drawn to certain universal themes over others.
Part I Discover Theme:
There’s a reason you became a photographer, and it’s likely to be apparent in your images. If you started out taking shots while you traveled, then you more than likely see themes related to culture, adventure, food, and other global narratives. For those of you who picked up the camera the moment you became a father or a mother, looking through your archive of images devoted to your children might result in identifying themes closer to purity, youth, joy, love, and possibly tradition. Consider these reasons for initially learning how to shoot as strengths. You’ve started to develop images along certain universal themes because you are in tune with them.
Determine what constitutes the bulk of your work. Are you a landscape shooter? A lifestyle photographer? Perhaps you use your camera as a tool to shape people’s attitudes about the less fortunate and how they should be treated. Comb your archives, if you must, to make this determination.
After you have a hold on the type of photography you lean toward, start looking at the images you have produced. What do they represent? Be philosophical for a moment, and write the answer to this question down.
Answering it will point you toward a universal theme or themes that your images embrace and relate to other viewers. This part of the exercise may seem somewhat useless or vague. However, it puts you in the mindset of looking for and identifying themes. Not only among your existing archive but also among the images you are yet to produce.
Part II: Shooting Theme
Assign yourself a weekend of shooting toward a universal theme. For the sake of the exercise, choose a rather abstract one. Something such as good and evil, prosperity, youth and age, power, or even life and death.
Once you’ve selected a theme, develop a list of at least 15 potential images that will highlight said theme. This will invigorate your creative juices, and even though you’ve already made a list of images, you will now be more likely to see others that showcase the theme you’re shooting. While flowers or street signs are relatively specific, images of flowers or street signs might actually contribute to storytelling themes that reach a broader audience.
Once the weekend is finished, edit your images down to the top ten that highlight your theme. Also, note why they are the strongest of the bunch. The “why” should relate to the theme you chose to cover. If it suits your liking, write down the reasons these images are strong representations of the theme. A more practical way of putting words to this facet of the exercise is to caption the images with your theme in mind.
Although it may seem impractical to repeat these exercises in a formal way each time you shoot, keeping them in mind will strengthen how you find and make storytelling images. The more you are open to finding and developing images that touch upon universal and regionalized themes, the stronger you become at saying something with your images.
The themes you discover among your images or what you continue to shoot may change over time. You might have started out because of your kiddos, but you might eventually find yourself shooting diptychs that illuminate a theme focused on justice and the lack thereof. Regardless, knowing how important themes are to storytelling will push you to be persistent in identifying the possibilities for producing stronger images.
Themes are always the foundation of stories. A magazine publication guided by a mission in wildlife conservation contains a variety of specific articles, and each speaks to its audience under a more broad theme: preservation of life and well-being. You might see this theme also addressed through stories and images in other publications dealing with human lifestyle, health, or even politics. Themes are theoretical, yet attractive. Stories, visual stories included, are tangible and representative. Without one, it’s hard to find the other.
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