In an ideal world, my subject would possess all the key visual draws, but if that world existed I would also have a full head of hair and own the perfect camera bag.
The reality of a photograph, however, is that the subject often doesn't possess all those qualities and that some other elements in the scene do. This is when a secondary element in the frame may compete with the subject for the viewer's attention.
This photograph of a beautiful waitress I met in Seattle has most of the qualities that I want in a photograph. She's illuminated by a beautiful quality of reflected light, which helps make her brighter than most of the alleyway behind her. The contrast between her shirt and vest helps draw the viewer's eyes to her. Her skin and hair have a nice saturated color, which appears both pleasing and warm. Finally, she's the sharpest element in the frame.
The bright area in the upper-right corner is a distraction, leaving the viewer's eye to wander a bit. Ideally, I wouldn't want that brightness to be there at all, but I only had a limited time to work with her and I had to make do. The image still works for me despite that area of brightness, because I had the benefit of a subject who had all those qualities of brightness, contrast, sharpness, and saturation.
If secondary elements in the background had possessed more of those five key qualities, the image would have been weakened and the viewer's eye would have wandered all over the frame.
Staying aware of everything that's happening in your frame helps you compensate when distracting elements intrude into the frame.
This image of a bride being helped by her mother into her wedding dress includes a bright window, which could prove a big distraction. Yet, I used contrast, saturation, and sharpness to build a composition that flows between the young woman, the gown, and her mother. So, though there may be some distracting elements in the background, the building of the image on the principle of the five visual draws helped me to create a composition that is visually pleasing and captures the story of that special moment.
More often than not, it's the presence of distracting elements that have one or more of those five visual draws that sabotages an image, even if it's well exposed and sharp. The viewers don't know what to pay attention to—they're pulled in different directions simultaneously.
Though we can't control everything that appears in the frame, the ability to use the five visual draws helps to produce an image that still works and has impact.
This portrait that I made of a man I met at an African Marketplace festival is an example of an image that could have been so much better. It still frustrates me that I didn't come away with a better image. Though the subject is striking and sharp, distractions abound, including the bright area in the upper left, the saturated red of the tent, and the worst element, the green water hose that contrasts against the black fence. Though the man is a great subject, those elements repeatedly draw the eye away from him, weakening the overall impact of the image.
I was aware of those elements when I made the photograph, but because I didn't want to impose on my subject, I didn't walk him toward an area where I might have found a cleaner, simpler background. I was rushing myself, and the image suffered as a consequence.
REMEMBER: If taking great pictures were easy, everybody would do it. The fun and the challenge lie in wrangling with the light and these various elements to make the photograph happen. It's certainly frustrating when I miss the mark, but there's nothing like those moments when I've nailed it. It's for these moments that I pick up the camera and am willing to fall on my face. Failing is part of the process.
An important part of the process is not only going out to shoot, but also analyzing the images you've already produced, trying to discern why some of them work and why others don't. Browse through your archive of images, especially your near misses, and using the idea of the five visual draws, see if you can determine where things worked and where they didn't, and why.
Distracting elements in the background that are brighter have more contrast, and saturation draws the viewer's attention away from the main subject and weakens the photograph.
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