What Does it Mean to “Design” a Photograph?

Photography has design, much like anything else. As consumers, especially with our mobile phone cameras taking snapshots, we don’t think so much about designing our photographs. And maybe that’s something we should think about.

After all, when it comes to photography, designers might think about it more than non-designers. And so maybe this column today will serve as a lesson to those of us who are non-designers. Graphic designers can follow along to refresh their memory.

When most people see a photograph, they see just the subject matter in it, be it a flower or a building or a person. And that’s the real difference between what a non-designer sees and what a designer sees. Because I’ve been a designer all of my career, I see shapes.

Photography is just another way for people to record what they see. Photographs can be planned, such as when a photographer is on assignment or in their studios to shoot certain things or people. But they can also be just snapshots, which does not necessarily mean they cannot be planned. If a street scene with a crowd milling in front of a landmark fills the bill for a vacationing tourist, why can‘t he/she design the shot?

Design is something we learn in design school: the idea of arranging shapes in an organizational manner so as to achieve a pleasing composition. We learn by using flat shapes, maybe cut from black paper, and adhering them to a white surface such as matte board. In today‘s digital formative two-dimensional design class, students might do it in Adobe Illustrator. It doesn‘t matter: the resulting arrangement is the key.

Remembering from our discussion in Tenets of Good Design, Part 1, good organizational design starts with a dominant shape’s placement followed by the placement of smaller, or subordinate shapes within a frame of reference. A frame of reference is the overall shape (usually a rectangle) within which we place those shapes.

Your camera’s frame of reference is that rectangle, and what you place into that frame is the subject matter you‘re about to record on that camera‘s CCD. So you have the device in your hands with which you’re about to record what you see.

How do you do it? Do you just snap it off right now? I know, you’re so in love with the scene you feel it necessary to catch it immediately. But is it really that necessary that you capture it right this instant? If it‘s moving, sure. If it‘s a family moment that‘s too magical to miss, of course. But what if it isn‘t? What if you can take the extra few moments to see if it can be framed in such a way that the shot becomes art?

Make no mistake: design is art. Photography is art as well. Don‘t forget that.

All of the above examples exhibit a good sense of design. Within each frame we can see the reason the shot was designed in a certain way. My friend Brian took most of these shots. He doesn’t think of himself as a designer (he‘s been a print manager most of his career), but his design acumen comes across pretty readily here.

Top left, he’s looking up at an adobe structure, and seeing the possibilities, he scopes in on the crack appearing in the wall. Does he place the window at the top in the center? No. By letting the window stay left, the interest remains the crack and the window an accent.

Bottom left, the palm tree’s intricate textures and varied patterns make for a good centered composition, closely cropped. Do you crop in-camera or afterward? Doesn’t matter, as long as you see the composition.

Center, the crop on the tall trees aids in appreciating their ascending beauty and strength.

Top right, the graceful curve of the shoreline sets up the difference in color and texture of nature‘s earth and water.

Bottom right, I just had to add this shot from Valmont, the 1989 movie from director Milos Forman and his cinematographer Miroslav Ondrícek. As everyone knows, the cinematographer in movies is the one who literally designs and shoots the moving pictures you see onscreen. This still of actress Meg Tilly is one such beautifully designed image: she reposes against a wall, deep in thought, and we see the shot ever so slightly tilted left to accentuate that repose, while the rest of her world is unfocused to the right.

Photography is like any other discipline in design, and art. Shapes, placement, and visual interest.

Please follow and like us:

Leave a Comment