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Great Photographs Don’t Describe, They Suggest

Great Photographs Don't Describe; They Suggest

French photographer Robert Doisneau—known for “Le Baiser de l’hôtel de Ville” (The Kiss)—once said, “To suggest is to create; to describe is to destroy.”

I have always been fascinated by these words, and keep them in mind every time I point my lens in any direction. However, suggesting in photography takes far more effort than describing. One reason could lie in the fact that, unlike pens and pencils, cameras capture the world around us with extreme high-fidelity. Therefore, it’s easy and tempting to describe when taking photos. Nevertheless, if our goal is to create images rather than taking snaps, we must strive to suggest. This idea is also at the core of our photo adventures. We constantly urge people to think outside the frame. Below is a list of tools we can use to produce suggestive photos.

Use The People

Let’s take Doisneau’s most popular image as an example. The story goes that Doisneau asked the couple kissing here to pose. He later revealed, “I would never have dared to photograph people like that. Lovers kissing in the street, those couples are rarely legitimate.” As for the protagonists, they stated, “He told us we were charming and asked if we could kiss again for the camera…”

However, if we pay attention, we see that the photo is great not only because of the kissing couple but also thanks to the photographer’s deliberate choice to instill candidness to the scene. We are immersed in the streets of Paris facing an iconic building. Doisneau shoots from the terrace of a cafe. There is another customer in the foreground, thus giving depth to the image. We can see passersby going about their daily routines, and the traffic behind gives a sense of natural motion. Here, Doisneau uses his improvised models to suggests an emotion that would be otherwise missing.

great photo don't describe; they suggest
The Kiss ©Robert Doisneau

Use The Timing

Clicking the shutter release at the right time is critical. Henri-Cartier Bresson coined the catchword: “The decisive moment.” A blink of an eye before or after and you get another photo all together. How can we use timing to suggest something in our images?

On Temples of Tokyo, Lukasz took the picture below. What do we see? The background is composed of Japanese sliding doors and curtains. The room is lit up with colorful artificial light coming from outside. The subject is a silhouette of a man. That is all fine but what is suggested here? The photographer carefully clicked when the man took a prayer posture. Kneeling, bowing and clapping his hands. By doing so, Lukasz implies the meaning of the space and the reason for the man’s presence. The final result would be radically different five seconds earlier or later.

Use The Framing

The frame defines the photograph. During our photo adventures, we often say that what we decide to include in your frame is not as important as what we choose not to. We can suggest by deliberately removing elements from a shot. We give the viewers the freedom to imagine what is beyond the boundaries of the image.

To illustrate this point I chose a photo taken during Memoirs Of Kyoto. We see a cook and a geisha running in the streets of Kyoto. In Gion, this is a common occurrence, yet the photo sparks our interest. Not only is this due to the surprisingly eye-pleasing posture of each protagonist—demonstrating the precise use of timing—but also thanks to framing. What is happening on the right has been deliberately cut out. We can only guess why the geisha turned around. What is she looking at? What is so important that she stops and turn around? Up to the viewer to create the story.

Use The Environment

No matter where we are, stuff surrounds us. Whether natural or artificial, trees or buildings, inanimate objects are bound to show up in our photos. We often think of them as nuisances obstructing our subject. However, as we regularly prove on our workshops, we can use all those things to suggest ideas or emotions to the viewers.

We took the image below during a Tokyo Metropolis workshop in the Shiodome area. The location is ideal to demonstrate how to pass on emotions using surrounding elements. When we get there, we are besieged by ominous looking skyscrapers. The image does a good job at conveying the austere and lifeless scene. The way the buildings on the right of the frame, tilted as if they are about to crumble onto the puny subject on the left, helps us carry this emotion to the viewer.

Use The Speed

A camera with manual settings allows us to choose the shutter speed. By doing so, we can freeze time or let it flow. We can use these mechanics to convey ideas. The idea of bustling traffic, chaos in the city, is what we go for when using slower shutter speeds on our Tokyo by Night photo adventure.

For instance, when we master the flow of time, urban scenes that would otherwise look incredibly dull become vibrant and pleasing to the eye. The photo below is a good example of suggesting the stream of traffic. The photographer slows the shutter speed down and voila! We now see colorful light trails instead of monotonous vehicles on the road. It can be difficult at first to envision the resulting image of long exposures. After all, our eyes are not designed to record the passing of time this way. In fact, when we set our tripods with a group of six photographers in front of a crossing, people sometimes ask us why we came to take photos in such an uninspiring spot. They don’t see it nor get it. However, once we show them the results on screen, their eyebrows raise as they shout: hallelujah!

Use YOUR Mind

None of the tricks aforementioned will ever replace our most important tool: your brain. We must learn to create interesting photos. Suggesting more than we describe is one way to achieve that, but there are many other skills to master. We must also learn composition, storytelling, color theory and so much more to come!

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