The Third Element #98
The Third Element #98
Recently, a photographer asked me, does every photo need a third element? The photographer said that he had been told that every photo needs a third element. Let's back it up a bit. Raise your hand if you've ever heard that every photo needs a foreground, middle ground, and a background? How about every photo needs to tell a story? Never put the horizon in the middle. Use the rule of thirds. How about the golden mean? Always have a leading line. Yeah, we've all heard these rules. And obviously, the most recent rule is that every photo needs a third element. Something other than the main subject. And as it was explained to me, that third element can be a nice bokeh, or the foreground, or the story, something more than just a bird on a stick, so to speak.
And although this was sufficiently vague, it did sound rather clever and it sounded right. But in the end, it was still yet another attempt to create an easy guide that anyone… anyone can follow and guarantee a great photo. The thought is if you just follow whatever the rule is, your photos will be amazing. In other words, you too can be a great photographer.
Although I'm glad the suggestion goes beyond just getting a great camera and acknowledges that at some level it's not the camera that makes a great photo, this advice, like all the others, continued to fail on multiple levels. I know I'm just ranting here, but I'll get to the actual answer in a second. In my opinion, good art pushes boundaries while great art breaks convention altogether. So right off the bat, following these rules for composition will make you a mediocre photographer at best.
So what will make your photos great? The answer is simple, it's you. You are the third element. And I'm not joking here, and it's not a wink, wink, I gotcha. I'm seriously not trying to be funny or coy about this. The question is, what do you bring to the table? Too often photography is thought of as purely a documentary medium. Just point the camera at whatever and push the button. That's all we're doing, right? And of course, it can just be a documentary medium. I mean, we see it all the time on Instagram. Here's my dinner. Here's my sexy body in a mirror. Here's my cat. But photography is also an art. And great art is a mode of expression, the expression of self. And no, I'm not talking about the sexy selfie in the mirror. It could be, but that's not necessarily what I'm talking about. I'm talking about who you are, what makes you tick. How you uniquely see the world.
Yes, great photographs generally, and I do mean generally, also contain good composition and good lighting. But what gives it that zing? That zing is what the photographer brings to the table of themselves. And this is not something that can be taught in a single class or a single podcast for that matter. This is something that takes time to understand. One of the biggest hurdles is always us. And by us, I mean me and you. And the problem with this often has to do with honesty and courage. To bring yourself into the photo, you first need to know who you are, your likes and your dislikes. Which means that you need to be honest with yourself. If you are only shooting things that convention says are beautiful, like flowers, but you actually find them boring, you will never be able to intentionally get a great shot no matter how hard you try. And if you're thinking, Zim, it's a freaking photo, then you just answered the question as to why your photography sucks. If you just wanna take a freaking photo, please refer to the rules I just stated at the beginning of this podcast. If you wanna do really great work, you have to understand what you want to express and why you want to express it. In other words, what do you like about the thing you're photographing and why? And your answer doesn't have to be complicated. It can be as simple as I like the shape of that object. But if your answer is only about the technical challenge, like getting a sharp bird in flight, then it's basically the same thing as trying to get a golf ball in that hole and making par. There's no artistic consideration. I'm not saying it's easy, or that it doesn't take practice to do that part, but if you can't get beyond that, then your photos are doomed to mediocrity. So even if you answer the question of what do you like about the subject and why, is as simple as you like the movement that the bird makes when it's in flight, then I think you've got something. Once you answer that question, the next question is, how do you capture that better? How will your image express the beauty of that movement? Because to express that idea, you will need to get well beyond compositional rules. You'll have to consider how the bird is positioned not only in the frame, but the angle and the light that will express that movement. And to do that, you'll have to pull light theory and color theory into play. My point is you need to know what you want to begin with.
Many of you have heard me ask, what are you shooting? That's where it starts. The next step is why. Why are you photographing that? I think if you can begin to answer that question, then you can begin to become a good photographer and then a great photographer. Unfortunately, there's no easy way to teach this. This is about a journey and a conversation. This is something that takes time and continues to change as you grow. And as I said earlier, this doesn't happen without a whole lot of honesty and courage. The courage part is the courage to step away from convention, to be willing to experiment and to fail, to do the things that the rules tell you not to do. So I'll say it again, the third element is you. What do you bring to the table as an individual? This is not something that anyone can define for you, and it is not something that you can easily get to by yourself. It really does take a lot of input from people you trust and those that you don't trust to help you see your own work better. In many ways, doing it by yourself is like doing psychoanalysis on yourself. To be clear, I'm not saying that you can't get pretty pictures without this introspection. I'm saying you can't get beyond just pretty pictures without it. That's my opinion anyway. Unfortunately, there were no easy answers this week. This is a journey and one that we should take together. I hope that was helpful. Until next time, keep on shooting.