What makes a photograph work?

 (Julian Haber)

Hint: it’s not the make of your camera

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

Though Maya Angelou wasn’t explicitly talking about what makes a good photograph work, she might as well have been.  Context is everything, and in the context of businesses using photography to help create, promote and develop their brands, understanding the secret sauce of what makes a photograph effective can be very useful, and profitable.

Studying the data trail on images across visual platforms like Instagram and Pinterest will certainly lead to some actionable insights, but for a quick and simple rule of thumb, thinking about how the image used is intended to make the viewer feel is a big part about getting it right.

Go pro, amateur or UGC? It depends… 

 (Julian Haber)

Recently at an iMedia conference I was covering, I listened in on a panel discussion led by Matthew Langie, CMO at Curalate, a company that helps consumers discover brands, and helps brands leverage their visual content by, among other things, enriching their photography with relevant metadata that connects back to their commerce sites. It also conducts research into things like what makes an image popular on Pinterest, and one of their findings was that sometimes professional images – those shot by a photographer with professional lighting, expensive kit and under artistic direction, did worse (fewer repins and shares) than images shot by amateurs.

I am not surprised by this finding but I think the real reason why some images resonate better than others is not whether they were shot by a professional or not, but whether there is a match up between the feeling of the image and how the viewer feels in response to it.

In my experience working as a photographer, I’ve observed that there are certain types of contexts where people have an inherent distrust of an image that appears too polished, or looks like it went through too many filters (portraits; over-reliance on HDR in real estate shots; fake family vacation photos from all-inclusive resorts, etc). There is something about the rawness of an image captured in the moment, with minimal adjustments applied afterwards that seems to carry greater weight and authenticity. No matter if the moment is manufactured, which many are, the image – the social proof that gets shared – needs to look and feel real to have an impact. Digitally aware people today, (which includes most Millenials, but also older generations who’ve embraced digital tools and toys as they’ve grown), are very sensitive to any attempt to manipulate them, and an overly edited, “perfect” looking image is often interpreted as some kind of attempt at manipulation.

Does your image have resonance?

 (Julian Haber)

A good photograph is one that elicits a strong emotional reaction that is consonant with the imagery shown. It can be taken in a quick moment of inspiration on a phone, or after careful preparation and setup by a pro. The method is immaterial. The photograph is just the medium connecting two synchronized emotional worlds – the viewer’s, and the one shown as felt and experienced by the photographer. When the two match up, there is a connection formed and the image “works”, regardless of who took it, what it was shot with or even what it is about. A poorly taken, blurry image can have more impact than a perfectly shot, tack sharp one of the same subject matter.

I think a lot of product photography fails, for example, because it focuses too much on showing off the product and not enough on creating an emotional resonance with its intended audience. On the other hand, when the product is shown in a context that matters to the intended audience, there is an emotional connection made and the image is successful. Sometimes, the best product photography hardly shows the product at all and still manages to drive people to take action, which in marketing parlance typically means convert and buy.

This is what I would define as emotional resonance: the degree to which an image is synchronized with the emotional reaction it elicits. The greater the synchronicity, the stronger the resonance. The stronger the resonance, the greater the impact and the more likely it is that a viewer will be inspired by the image to take action.

The more overt the attempt to manipulate that response, the more likely it is that the image will fail in the sense that its resonant capacity has been diminished in direct correlation to the amount of effort that appears to have been put into making it provocative in the first place. If it seems too calculating, in other words, it loses emotional impact and will probably not work.

So what makes a photograph work?

 (Julian Haber)

I think the key is actually empathy. As the photographer, professional or not, you need empathy with your subject(s) and/or the audience for whom the image is going to be shown. If you are using the photograph for business purposes – whether as advertising, embedded native content or some other brand promoting use, you need to be even more careful about making sure the image is empathetic with your audience. As more and more images are thrust into the faces of people daily, the level of attention paid to any particular one is scant and growing scanter. What will make someone stop, look and care is not the production value or the level of saturation, or any other trick of the trade. It will be whether or not the image speaks to them personally, feels real and makes them feel something in return. No single image will reach everyone, but concentrating on how your viewer will feel and empathizing with him or her will go a long way toward making them connect with your image, and ultimately your business, brand or art.