Means of artistic expression in photography

Selecting the object, a point of view, foreground and background

What is meant by means of artistic expression in photography is the way we can make our photograph reach the viewer. We separate what is important in a picture from that which is not. We create accents so that the viewer can easily navigate in the photo and find what we want them to look at. Our message to the viewers must be clear, specific and easily understandable.

This is especially important today in this dynamic world where time is always scarce and we are constantly bombarded with images.

We can accentuate on certain objects within the frame with the help of choosing a different viewing angle or by positioning that object in the foreground. By focusing on them (along the focus-defocus line). By considering colour and composition.

Selecting an object

The first thing we do when we pick up our camera is select the object of our photo. We must be unconditional about our choices and know exactly what we want to show our viewers. If we ourselves do not know exactly what we are shooting, there is no way the viewer can understand what we are trying to show. And there is no way they will like the photo.

I believe that today photographs must carry a clear and understandable message because we live in dynamic times when we are overwhelmed by imagery. Photos are everywhere – tablets, computers, mobile phones, billboards, television, press. Millions of photos are uploaded on the internet each day. Our photos stand very little chance of being noticed. A photo needs to be able to grab the attention of the viewer in a mere second because the next image is only a click or a glance away.

The viewer cannot understand empty shots without a particular object.

The line of the horizon with an empty blue sky above and an empty field or sea below. (Some people would call this a minimalistic approach, but minimalism requires as a minimum an object of interest to the viewer, not the absence of one). Neither will viewers understand photographs filled with too many scattered objects without any apparent relation between them.

Usually people choose as objects for their photos beautiful landscapes, the faces of other people, everyday events, flowers or animals. Their images will fall respectively in one of the main genres of photography – portrait, landscape, reportage, nature…

Choosing a point of view

Once we have selected the object of our photo, it is time to choose the point of view from which we are going to examine the scene. The camera angle. Because things do not look the same seen from different perspectives. Light falls differently on the objects and the background is different depending on where we stand. Moving the camera can change your message to the viewer completely.

We often hear people say about good photographs taken by professionals – but of course they will be good with all the professional equipment you have at hand. That is true, but only up to a point. Most of the aesthetic effect is not due to the good technical quality provided by the expensive equipment but by the unusual camera angle. Sometimes a slight shift of only a few millimetres to the side, a squat, raising your position a little higher or turning the camera to the side can produce a completely different effect. A photo can become more dramatic.

Here are two photographs taken at the same place, but having completely different messages. The first photograph shows the pyramids as a highly commercialised and urbanised place. The second photograph which was taken only a few hundred metres to the side shows the pyramids as a mysterious place at the beginning of the desert.

Usually people shoot standing upright with a camera in front of their eyes. This is the standard normal point of view. It is the most easily accepted by the viewer common point of view, but it is also worn out. We see objects positioned the way we normally see them every day.

In addition to the standard point of view, there is also a low and a high point of view. We say we are using a low point of view when the camera is positioned below the level of the objects we want to shoot. A high point of view means that the camera is positioned above the level of the objects we want to shoot. The low and high point of view are more unconventional and more interesting for the viewer because they present things from an angle which we do not normally see. This could probably explain why drone photography has become so popular. We see the same things, but from an angle which is not typical for us.

Some scenes simply cannot be seen from a normal viewing angle. An example of this is the next photograph – in order to see the cross we need to use a high point of view. From the level of the people on the ground this would be impossible.

Low and high points of view can also be used to manipulate the perceptions of the viewer. Especially when combined with the use of wide-angle optics. From a low point of view vertical objects seem longer vertically. From a high point of view they look smaller. This approach is used not only in photography, but quite often in television and cinema as well.

The articulating tilt screen of some cameras is a great convenience when shooting from a low or high point of view. To shoot from a low point of view with a camera with a conventional view finder on ground level we need to be lying down or shoot without looking into the view finder.
At concerts, street demonstration, football matches and other mass events, the people in front of us often prevent us from seeing the stage and we need to raise the camera to a high point of view. Having a tilt screen is a definite advantage in such situations because it allows us to compose the photo the way we want to without any blind shots, just like the reporters in the next shot.

Foreground and background

Separating the photo into visual planes – foreground, midground and background makes sense from the point of view of creating a sense of volume and a three-dimensional space. We cannot shoot only faraway wide shots and still want our photos to be impressive.

One of the most important elements in a photo in terms of conveying a message to the viewer is the foreground or in other words, the objects closest to the photographer. Accentuating on these objects and including them in the shot adds depth to the photo, a sense of scale and three-dimensional space. These objects can be used as a frame, for example leaves and branches framing in the main object in the distance or they could be individual objects. The foreground can help to make a photo more interesting and it adds perspective. It is often where the message of the image is concentrated, the main object within a frame.

Wide-angle lenses are especially suitable when we want to emphasise on perspective. They help us to include a lot of detail from the background into the photo while accentuating on the foreground. They allow you to include objects which are right in front of the feet of the photographer, and when using a fish eye lens we need to be extra careful unless we want our feet in the shot.

Of course, the objects in the foreground should never be random, they must interact with the other elements in the photograph.

It is easy to separate the photograph into planes when you shoot in the open in nature. The grounds are self-evident, especially when we are at a place with good visibility. It is more difficult to have foreground and background in an urban setting or in a closed room. In this case we can use various objects or items we can place or even hold close to the lens.

Often in photography classes we ask the students to hold leaves, grass, scarves or other objects close to the lens in order to create a foreground. It does not need to be distinct, it could be just a spot, but the purpose of the spot is to convey to the viewer the sense that there is something standing between the photographer and the object. This creates a sense of volume and space. Here is the effect you achieve having a branch with leaves in front of the camera.

Photography is the basis on which the fine arts, literature, history and even philosophy need to rethink their subjects.
Paul Valerie

The bottles on the table also create the sense of having close and far-away objects and add to the dimensionality of the scene.

It is important to scale the objects in the frame and include recognisable objects, such as people, buildings, and road signs. It is difficult to tell the difference between a five-metre rock and a fifteen-meter one when looking at a photo. But if we can detect a recognisable object, something whose dimensions we are familiar with, our mind will automatically adjust the dimensions and scale of the other objects in the scene, estimating their respective height and width and the distance between them.

The human figures give us a sense of the dimensions of the cave. Without them it would be difficult to assess the size of the cavern. In the next photograph the hut can be used to estimate the height of the mountain.