Ansel Adams said, “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” As photographers, this is our greatest struggle — to produce images with a meaning that is immediately evident and warrants a deeper examination of the subject material.
So how do we produce images like this? One way to create a powerful collection — a meaningful portfolio — is to seriously zero in on your concepts. Take your subject material and distill it until only the most resonating elements stand out. However, this isn't the only thing that you'll need to think about as you strive for a striking collection of images. I’ll show you a few good ways to approach this task.
We all have certain genres or themes that we prefer to photograph, and sometimes, this can lead to an incredibly broad range of images. To create a powerful body of work, it’s not good enough to simply say, “I want to raise environmental awareness with images of the natural world,” or “I’d like to make a collection of portraits.” Instead, you need to drill down on those themes.
Ask yourself questions like this: What is it about natural images that makes you think about the environment. Is it trees? Rivers? Or is it something else? If you’re photographing people, what story about humanity are you trying to tell? Find the elements that best tell the story that you are trying to portray and make them a strong part of your theme.
Sometimes, the best way to distill your theme is to look at all the parts that make up your subject material. If you photograph buildings, for instance, you can break the building down into rooms. Rooms can be broken down into their component pieces — floors, ceilings, walls, windows and doors. You can dig even deeper yet, with things like reflections in doorknobs or the polished woodwork.
The same goes for most themes. Natural images can be broken down into leaves, stones, sticks, water and much, much more. If you photograph people, perhaps you should focus on eyes, lips, hands or another feature.
Of course, not every small element comes with the emotional pull that you need to create a meaningful photograph. However, the deeper you look, the more wonderful opportunities you are likely to find.
One struggle that many of us face is the temptation to photograph all the things that please us from day to day. And, in a sense, there is nothing wrong with that. However, when “random acts of art” start to interfere with your artistic focus, then it might be time to step away from photographing anything and everything.
Instead, develop an interesting photography project and devote your creativity to it. Some photographers spend months traveling around their areas and photographing doors. Others devote a weekend camping trip to getting to know their surroundings completely and photographing the things that they find.
Whatever projects you choose to embark on, you’ll find that they’ll help you to both narrow your theme and focus your attention on meaningful elements. In addition, each project has the wonderful advantage of giving you a brand new, unified collection of images that you can turn into a portfolio.
When it comes to developing a portfolio, it’s not only the subject material or the photographic style that needs to be unified. Whether in relationships or in art, no one likes to have his or her emotions toyed with. To that end, one of the biggest keys to creating a strong group of images is to make sure that they are united in their emotional effect.
To use the example of portraiture again, if some of the images in your portfolio show joy, then all should show joy to varying degrees. Unless, of course, you are trying to depict a progression of emotions, in which case, the progression itself is the thing that unifies your portfolio.
It isn't easy to create a powerful portfolio, but fortunately, we're not limited to just one attempt. Every new project and each new image represents a chance to create a group of photographs that makes people pause to consider your work.