Making an Impact

Headshot Nikki

by Richard Young

When creating a photograph, do you ever take a moment to consider its level of impact? Such a concern may not be at the forefront of your mind, but it’s crucial to your workflow, both during capture and post-production.

Defining your image’s intended impact will guide many choices - from composing to knowing when processing is complete. High-impact images can be very powerful: they make a statement, grab our attention, and compel the viewer to engage. Low-impact images may not inspire the same immediate excitement, but their subtlety can be very beautiful, drawing the viewer in for a closer, more extended look. The level of impact you want to build in your work is a personal choice, another means of self-expression.

We can assess and adjust our images both in terms of global impact and local impact.

Global Impact

Global impact refers to how strongly the image impacts viewers as a whole - is it bold or subtle? The overall impact affects how we first connect with the photograph. How quickly does it grab us, and how long does it hold our attention? We can heighten our impact through the use of bold compositions, vivid colours, deep contrast, and extreme tonal ranges to create images that capture attention from a distance and move viewers in a very powerful way.

However, successful photographs do not always need to shout out to the viewer. A subtle, low-impact image might not arrest our gaze, but this can allow a deeper connection to emerge: lower-impact images encourage our eyes to flow more freely within the frame.

The lesson here is that impact, like all other photographic choices, must be applied creatively and in moderation. If your high-impact images grab but fail to hold the viewer’s attention, they will have little lasting effect.

Increasing global impact can get your work noticed, but be careful not to rely too heavily on that first double-take. Likewise, if an image does not deliver enough impact, it may be perceived as bland and dismissed without any engagement at all.

 The level of impact you seek in your images will likely become a cornerstone of your style, guided by the vision you wish to express. Do you want your work to shout or whisper? Does it present like a heavy rock concert or a gentle piano concerto?

Like any other element of style, our use of impact can unite our work; a bold image would likely not sit well with 11 very subtle photographs when viewed together as a collection. The level of impact we seek will also influence many other aspects of our work, from the subjects we shoot to the way we process.

Global impact in the field

While shooting in the field, we can create impact through the use of bold subject matter and dynamic movement. The light we shoot in, both quality of weather and time of day, plays a part in this: a vivid coastal sunset delivers a vastly different impact than the soft, diffused light of a misty forest. Our composition (placement and balance of elements within the frame) also contributes to impact. Have we given heavy visual weight to part of the scene, such as a bold foreground subject?

Have we composed with dramatic angles or gentle transitions? Our intent should be clear before capturing a photograph. The subject, light, and composition of our images do not have to be the product of chance - we can tailor the location, time of day, and many other factors to our intent.

These two photographs were taken at one of my favourite beaches in Abel Tasman National Park, a place I have visited many times, returning with very different images from each trip. The first was captured in 2018 in a rushed manner while focused on helping a client who had been drawn to the bold subject.

I like the image, but something about it never sat quite right with me. It took me some time to realise it was because of the impact: shooting with an ultra-wide angle lens and working very close to the rock had created a high-impact image that didn’t fit my style and vision.

The second image was taken a year later, and it creates a very different feeling - a feeling much more strongly aligned with how I wish to express this landscape. Without the dominant foreground rock, the photograph is not so bold, which frees the eye to move around the image and explore it more deeply.

The lighting in the second photograph is also a little more subtle, and the sky does not hold the same drama as the first. My preference for the second image (as an expression of my style and vision) doesn’t make it “better” than the first; some may prefer the first photograph, but like any other choice in photography, it is a case of what you wish to express.

Read the full article by Richard Young in Issue 63 of NZPhotographer magazine.

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