Someone asked, “how do you know when you’ve got the “right” shot?” I’m not sure who asked the question. The message appeared on one of my social media sites. A few hours later when I went to reply, the sender and the message had disappeared. Hopefully the sender is still out there somewhere and will allow me a moment to share my humble opinion.
I’m glad they asked because this affords me an opportunity to explain something that can’t be summarized in a few simple words. Knowing an image or a photograph is the “right” one or the “perfect” one is highly subjective. Yet, from a design point of view, there are things to look for that may make an image more pleasing than any other. The most pleasing forms of nature have followed an identifiable set of rules. Things we are most naturally attracted to share a commonality of form, shape, line, color, value, space and often times direction . Instinctually, we are subconsciously drawn to these compositions and have accepted them as the basis of our visual reality. It is the benchmark for our interpretation of art, music, mathematics, engineering, nature and all that makes up the tangible world. It is referred to as The Golden Mean.
Without getting overly technical or even metaphysical or mathematical, this “Mean” defines multiple disciplines from music to architecture. It has become the benchmark by which artwork is measured and has been the blueprint that has guided (and continues to guide) our creations for centuries. As an art student, you will learn about The Golden Mean as it relates to composition. You learn how artist like da Vinci and mathematicians like Pythagoras employed the Golden Mean principle and how other artists, scientists and mathematicians still follow this principles today.
On a conscious or subconscious level, the art and design we find most pleasing tends to follow The Golden Mean pattern. When a painting tends to draw more attention it employs the Golden Mean form. When an interior space or form of architecture feels harmonious and balanced it tends to fit within the space of the Golden Mean. It is not strictly defined in all cases. Yet, some component of it is reflected in what is deemed as good composition.
However, it alone is not the sole determinant of good design or art; it is simply an instinctual norm humans have developed over thousands of years via our symbiotic relationship with nature. But good design is influenced by several things that fall outside the strictures of fixed space or rules of principle. Art is also emotionally charged. Art may or may not require a context to be understood. More often than not, meaning is a mental construct in the creator’s mind and is deemed successful when the artist can convey purpose through shapes, color, composition and lines, the true essence of its existence. If the art has no meaning then that may have been the creator’s intent; to stir imagination and to have the viewer surmise it’s purpose to their own satisfaction. That could be the single component that may make it great art or the “right” image or photo.
However, in a commercial context, art generally has more directed purpose. It follows finer parameters and driven with promotional purpose. Graphic designers create layouts of magazines, websites, they design products, manuals, brochures and signs among other things. They follow principles that have been proven to instigate action or to compel someone to perform a function. Photography with graphic design often times performs a commercial function for the sake of advertising. The composition is driven by a financial mandate which is likely to create sales by creating interests to spur action. The design and layout follows a set of principles designed for advertising and to often times maximize textual placement relative to a image component. Therefore, every picture a photographer takes doesn’t work. If it is to be the cover a magazine, an editor or team will narrow 50 images down to 10; 10 will become 3 and 3 becomes 1. They will not all make the cut for a variety of reasons. The editor must consider the market, the placement of ads, the color, the light and consumer reaction. Does it achieve the purpose for the magazine or periodical? Does it suit the market? What are the legal and ethical implications? If they are selling a product then does it show the product well? Only then will they know if they have chosen the “right” shot.
The “right” shot is the best shot because there isn’t any other that is better. Often times I see amateur photographers and other artists display serials; meaning they show nearly every capture of a single look on their website or blog. In a commercial setting, serials are only seen during the image vetting process. These pictures are narrowly differentiated if at all and not all of them will not be published or made public.
Outside of a commercial setting I see serials everywhere. These artists or editors have a difficult time judging their own work and quite frankly haven’t quite learned that every shot is not a good shot. I think we’ve all been guilty of it early on in our photography careers. We want people to see everything but every image is not and should not be meant for public consumption. On occasion I have at best managed to gain what I believe to be 5 above average shots from what may have began as 25 from a single series or look (I’m pretty hard on myself). Should I choose to use all 5, I will attempt to place each image in a context in which I feel it will gain maximum appeal and feedback based on the market, site and/or publication. So while you may see one image on my blog; you may see a slightly different image on my Facebook or on my website. Why? Because the audience is different and have different tastes and preferences. However, if I’m designing a magazine cover, only one shot makes the cut for the cover.
Vogue doesn’t put 30 photos on their cover. Nor do they put even 10 images of the same look inside the magazine; maybe 1 or 2 if it is differentiated enough. In a spread, you may see one look twice but more likely you’ll see multiple images with totally different looks and styling but using the same model. They place 1 on the cover. Do you believe that is the only image the photographer took? No. The photographer likely took 50 or 100, perhaps more to get that single shot. A team of potentially a dozen people combed through hundreds of images and narrowed it to 5. These 5 were presented to the editor or creative director to find the 1 shot that would make the cover; the 1 shot that was the “right” shot. Ever wonder why they don’t allow cell phone pics and stray photos from the shoot to be taken other than their own? They want to be the first to release the shots. Secondly, they want full proprietary rights to the images and any leaked image would diminish the impact of their release and that would have a financial impact. Also, any image that has not gone through their brutal vetting process could diminish the quality of their brand; again influencing public opinion and having financial consequences. Any professional working model would tell you how using their cell phone camera is a major no-no on a photo shoot job. Securing the quality and rights of those photos is of paramount concern and no photo except the “right” photo will be released and only when they want it to be.
While The Golden Mean and other drivers dictate our course, as you can see there are other aspects of art that can determine whether a shot is the “right” shot or even the “best” shot. It is subjective to a point. Beyond basic consumption there are more stringent guidelines that determine what is the “right” shot and what is not.
I hope this helps to answer the question. Hopefully I haven’t made it more confusing. I like writing and tend to get overly philosophical at times. I encourage any photographer or model interested to try visiting a commercial photo shoot and if possible to sit in on the behind the scenes process for selecting an image for publication. It’s quite the eye opener. There are numerous resources online that go more in depth on the subject and show videos of the process.