Life is Beautiful!

A simple phrase. Now sit back and think about it. Life is Beautiful. What do you feel when you read and contemplate over this phrase. A romantic dinner? Listening to bird sounds by the riverside? Serenity? A quiet drive down your favorite lane with a gentle breeze caressing your face and listening to your favorite melody churning out of your on-board hi-fi?

A positive atmosphere.

Or a storm, tending to uproot everything around it. You are awestruck by its power; intrigued by its devastation. Intimidated even, but you know that it causes a reaction in you, wishing to re-establish order. As harsh as this environment is, this intrigue is what you’d want to depict.

A negative atmosphere, but one which maybe still provokes a positive reaction in you.

You feel urged to communicate this to others.
Photography is but one type of communication, but it is a non-verbal communication medium. At its best, a photograph conveys a thought from one person, the photographer, to another, the viewer. In this aspect, photography is very similar to other art forms such as painting. Its power, however, is in that it can convey an atmosphere by demonstrating things we might have actually easily overlooked. Beyond that, there is an inherent realism to a photograph which bestows a patience to this art form that makes it stand apart from all other forms of art today. This is what draws people to photography, or snap shooting.

What makes a photography an art?

I will start with this statement: “Even the most technically perfect print is meaningless without emotion.”

One should make a clear distinction between photography as a science and photography as an art. Photography is a tool (and a great tool at that) for recording scenes perfectly. […]

But is it an inspiring photo? Does it instill an emotion in you, the viewer, whether good or bad? […]

So what makes a photograph a piece of art? It is the 4th dimension, the timed light, the atmosphere, the mood, the emotions… call it as you want. Obviously, it helps to know the way to correctly record the X, Y and Z axes, but like any good wine, it is the 4th dimension which leaves the lasting impression on the viewer, long after the latter has ceased to see the image in question.

And the 4th dimension is personal to the photographer.
To achieve it, the photographer must relate himself to the scene he is photographing. He must tell a story. Simply by following the rules. Are there any really? From where did these originate really? Most rules are myths anyway, or items for helping others create arguments when the argument should be: “Does this image work for you?” Rules may help you create a technically perfect image, but if there is nothing you want to say, then that is, unfortunately just a snap shot.

The definition of mood

The Oxford Dictionary defines mood as:

• “noun 1. a temporary state of mind. 2 a fit of bad temper or depression. 3 the atmosphere of a work of art. 4 grammar: a form or category of a verb expressing fact, command, question, wish or conditionality.”

All are valid, though the second definition might in fact have a negative implication (a person who is said to be “moody” isn’t normally seen as a stable character) and I personally do not agree fully with it because, after all, there is such a thing as a good mood.

But definitely, mood has to do with the psyche of a person, in our art form, that person is the photographer.

Over time the technique of photography has changed greatly, from the Kodak Brownie to the digital camera. But one thing has not changed, and that is the creativity that can be achieved. But what separates a good photographer from a great one? Technical skill is certainly important but is by no means the determining criteria. As we said before, a technically superb photograph can be emotionless and flat if attention is not being given to the message it is intended to portray that is, to the non-verbal communication it is supposed to convey.

In fact, the number one determining factor for a great photograph is mood; the emotion conveyed in one image can, and should speak to the viewer and portray what the photographer was feeling in the moment that the image was taken.

One would here realize, then, that mood is personal. Yes, but not only to the photographer, but also to the viewer, the receiving end of the communication. Is the viewer perceptible to the mood the photographer is trying to pass on? A true photograph does this, but it can also do more, for the viewer has their own mood in their own right too. So I would go even a step further here by saying that a great photograph should involve the viewer too, make them part of the image and bring out in them their own interpretations.

As we all know, it is fascinating to listen to what others have to say on our photographs and this is why we all feel compelled to show them to others, to share our vision… not only ours as the photographers, but also theirs – the magic of photography.

“The difference between seeing and not seeing is insight. Insight is the element that separates the great photographers from the ordinary ones.”

Failure of the logical model

The human being has always felt compelled to transmit their emotions. Photography is but one way of doing so. Yes, they are guidelines by which we try to judge images, born out of our logical frame of mind with which we have been taught to think.

Everything we do in life we try to explain by a logical method. True? The logic within our head tells us to determine the quality of something by comparing with something else. In a way, our logical frame of mind makes us describe things relatively. But is everything explained as such? Think about it… if I were to tell you a joke, am I guaranteed you are going to find it amusing? No, of course not. Then why is it that some persons may in fact find it amusing while other do not?

It is not logical. Our thinking model fails here. Same with all emotions. How do we explain love? Anger? This is the subjectivity of the art. Which, in reality, brings into perspective the strict adherence to guidelines. (Note that I call them guidelines, not rules – rules are there to strictly obeyed, guidelines are there to give you direction.) Number one question we should pose to ourselves when viewing an image – Do we like this image or not? Only when we have the answer to this question must we proceed to analyse why.

What you see is what you get – right?

Wrong! “Looking” is one thing; “seeing” is quite another. Two people can look at the same thing and one will see a great deal while the other will see nothing, or rather, nothing of interest to them. The situation is analogous to an experienced detective in a crime scene finding numerous clues when the average man on the street would have overlooked them. The difference between seeing and not seeing is insight. Insight is that element that separates the great photographers from the ordinary ones. When you gain further understanding and insight into the subject matter you’re photographing, you’ll create photographs that progressively penetrate deeper into the essence of the subject. More importantly, you gain an insight into your own areas of interests – what excites you, why it excites you and how it excites you. You will be discovering yourself.

A further point on this. Consider a scene, or scenario which you feel compelled to immortalize in a photograph. It is already a headache to transmit what you are seeing in the digital medium (the image), because I am sure you’ll agree on the numerous occasions we were disappointed that what you saw was not what you captured. To add to these profound differences, these actual differences are rendered even more profound due to the fact that your response to the scene also depends on the non-visual sensory input not present into your image. It includes the sounds, smells, temperatures and breezes, the feel of things near you, as well as your state of health and your state of mind of the time. None of these things are visual, yet they all contribute to your reaction on the scene. So how can you possibly distill all this sensory input into an 20x16 two-dimensional image (which could also be black and white) with any hope of capturing the original? In a very real sense, it cannot be done! The photograph is distinctly different from the scene, and as a result, it is foolish to attempt to “capture the scene”. Instead, attempt to convey the mood that the scene has impressed upon you.

Catching the atmosphere

But how does one capture emotion in a photograph? What is emotion or mood? Emotion in photography is thoughts, feelings, and ideas conveyed in a split second (the instant the photo was taken) that elicit the same or similar thoughts, feelings or ideas from the viewer. Sound complicated? In some way it is, in others it is just a matter of common sense. In others, it just comes naturally.

The first step to improving the mood of your photographs is to simply stop and look around you. What do you see? Are there people moving quickly around you? Anyone sitting still? What demeanor does that person have? Is he smiling, frowning, or watching the sunset? All of these emotions can be captured on film, and can portray entirely different moods. Different expressions, varying angles and different viewpoints can help to achieve emotion in images.

Another effective tool for achieving mood or tone of a photograph is the use of colour. Bright contrasting colours give a sharp, hard hitting mood, while soft muted colours can give a sad, nostalgic or even romantic tone.

Another way to invoke emotion is through the use of black and white photography. Black and white is perhaps the most creative medium available in photography. It can be used to convey many tones: classy, timeless, modern, and poignant are just a few. An image shot in colour might appear to be a completely different image when presented in black and white.

Another way to infuse a photograph with emotion is to pay attention to the lighting conditions. A photograph taken in low light will present a much softer, more muted tone than the one taken in the middle sun. The same principle holds true for overcast skies and low lighting indoors. The shadows cast during midday will be different to those of the morning or early evening.

Different types of filters can be used to convey various tones or moods as well. A diffusion filter can be used to soften edges or images, giving a romantic tone. A polarizer can make colour saturation appear deeper, and coloured filters used with black and white film can make overcast skies look quite sinister. There are many different filters on the market ranging from magnifying to every colour of the rainbow. There is even one that has a rainbow on it so you can add a rainbow to your landscapes!

Technical skill is certainly important, and as more and more sophisticated equipment becomes available on the market it will continue to be an important part of photography. But infusing your photographs with emotion will make your photographs all the more distinctive and you’ll be able to take a greater pride knowing that you captured that elusive shot, that special photograph no one else has.

A word about technology and photography

Today, technology helps us out because it brought photography to the people, but it is wrong to think that now that you have a sophisticated digital camera then you have become a photographer. A computer is a tool, nothing more, nothing less. A camera is a tool. A darkroom is a tool, nothing more, nothing less. A paintbrush is an artistic tool. A pencil is one, too. A computer will not turn the average person into an artist anymore than any other tools will do so. It’s the mind behind the tool that creates art, not the tool. Those who think they will make an artistic breakthrough by approaching photography through digital methods, are in for a tremendous surprise. It would be like thinking that by going to a pen you’ll become a better writer then you have been through the use of a pencil.

Another cliché is that now art is more available because it has become more convenient. That’s fine if it keeps you in photography, but it should be noted that none of the great work in photography was done when it was “convenient”. It was done by people who were committed to self expression, by people who put other things aside to do photography because it was so important to them. This is a fact and I am pointing this out because this convenience attitude is a great atmosphere – or mood-killer. Work will be produced in times of convenience, but it won’t be outstanding work. The people who will do great digital work will be as artistically visionary and as committed to it as the great photographers of the past and present who have been committed to their work. People doing it on a “convenience” basis will not produce much of lasting value. None of this should be surprising. Great work in any field – artistic, scientific, business, etc. – is always done by people who are driven, are committed, are enthusiastic, and are totally involved. Einstein did not create his revolutionary theories in times of convenience. Picasso did not create his great paintings when it was convenient. They – and all others who have been creative – put everything else aside to do their great work, and their lives were fully devoted to these endeavours. But how many who are doing photography have the illusions that you (or me) are in the league with Ansel Adams, or Edward Weston, or any of the other “greats” in the history of photography? Probably very few of us. So what’s wrong with doing work when it’s convenient? Nothing! In fact I would have to concede immediately that if it does, indeed, keep you in the game, in your hobby, in your passion, and it allows you to proceed with your passion when you have time to do it, then go for it! If digital allows you to proceed with your photography when you have the chance in your busy life (and all of our lives seem busier than we would like them to be) then digital may be the answer.
I’m simply saying that if you aspire to be an Adams or a Weston, don’t expect digital convenience to get you there.

The Technique to catching the atmosphere – An Approach to Personal Expression

Basically all the above can be infused into three major steps, which I find very useful and quite appropriately defines my photography. I call it the “3-step method”:

1. Know your subject
2. Concentrate (focus your attention) on your subject (in other words, compose your image)
3. Simplify

Do not over-push an image. You will get your strongest photographs with the honest approach.

Step1: Study your subject. A great photo always has strong subject matter, one with line, form, shape, mass. Look photographically and see the details. Examine and identify what intrigues you personally. Decipher the message you want to pass on. Given the chance, take time to observe.

Step2: Composition is a means of leading a viewer through your photograph and holding him there until he or she sees the message. For this, there are methods of composing to achieve maximum strength in your imagery. One can identify them as elements, and here I thought it worthwhile listing them out:
- Light
- Colour
- Contrast and Tone
- Line
- Form
- Pattern
- Balance
- Movement
- Positive/ Negative Space
- Camera Position
- Focal Length
- Depth of Field
- Shutter Speed.

Discussing them one by one is beyond the scope of this article, but it is important to say that elements of composition must always be considered in combination. The essence of photography (indeed of all art) is in the relationships that are created. The relationships within an image become the essence of a fine photograph. When a photograph includes a bunch of things, but posing no compelling relationships between them, it simply fails. All too often, a photograph fails because it is strictly an “object” photograph; an isolated object of visual interest. Yet the object exhibits no interesting relationship to anything else in the photograph. The remainder of the image is strictly background. With rare exceptions, such photographs are mere documentation of objects but, lacking internal relationship, they fail artistically. Photographers look for relationships; snap shooters look for things.

Step 3: Simplify. Do not let the eye wonder around RANDOMLY! Even a complex composition needs to be simplified by the process of eliminating all unnecessary items but being sure to retain all that is important.

“What is photography if not the expression of the photographer’s emotions when placed in a particular set of circumstances?”


This is much more to say […] The scope of this article is to get you thinking. My own repertoire of images includes several disciplines, and this is purely borne from the strange affliction of curiosity embedded within me.

Moreover. I have chosen to speak in the first person because I feel that photography is my way of self expression, that photographs are entirely personal and that’s the way I want to project them.

By the way, Life IS Beautiful

Ruben Buhagiar

Ruben Buhagiar
“Chronical from the World of Mood”

Professional IMAGEMAKER Magazine
October-November 2009


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