I often speak of telling a story with your photographs, and I truly believe that is the root of all great photos. It’s not enough to simply capture an interesting subject through the lens, you need to connect with your viewers. And the best and most effective way to do that is to tell a simple story. An essential component to any story, even ones told with a camera, is context. With a still shot, the objects surrounding your subject matter, even if they are implied or just a little bit blurry. If your viewer can understand the surroundings, the context as it were, the story can be told and the photograph is a success. One photographer and story teller, Mark Heath, provides an exquisite context with his photo, Pearl Tower, II, which is the basis for this week’s inspiration.
It’s always the simple compositions that catch my eye and Pearl Tower, II doesn’t feature any complexity. The placement of the primary subject, the scooter, follows the traditional Golden Mean (triangulation method, see analysis at right). An aside: The Golden Mean is the more pure version of a popular composition rule, the rule of thirds. Technically, the rule of thirds is an easier to set version of the Golden Mean, but there is a slight positional difference, particularly along the long axis. Personally, I find photos that snap to the Golden Mean to be more aesthetically pleasing, and I feel that with practice its easy enough to visualize with practice. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves as I do feel that we all have it in us to understand what’s aesthetically pleasing regardless of what rules might apply. I apply the Golden Mean here only to demonstrate how the shot fits compositionally. Pearl Tower, II is about as simple as one could make it with only one clear subject.
But I’m not drawn in by the simple composition or the one clear subject. As I suggested in the introduction to this feature, it’s context that I’m after. And there is one element in particular that draws my attention, despite the fact that it is no in focus. That element would be the Oriental Pearl Tower, a TV tower in Shanghai, China. The tower is well beyond the focus of the camera, but it’s appearance – even in bokeh – is indistinguishable. To me, this offers context, a setting of Shanghai. Suddenly, the photograph is more than just a snapshot of a scooter on a wet evening. A destination is suggested as well as a means for transportation. Is this possibly the beginning of our simple story? At least I can say that a simple story is now formed inside my head, and the out-of-focus Oriental Pearl Tower is the reason I find this story – ahem, this photograph – so interesting. I don’t doubt that Mark fully intended to lead us into that story. After all, the title of the photograph is “Pearl Tower, II”, not “Scooter on a Wet Road”.
The lesson that can be learned from Mark Heath’s inspiring photograph is that context can aid in the development of a story and that composition alone may not make a great photograph. So next time you’re setting up a shot, look around and see if the local context could add to the photo, and explore different techniques to clearly separate the subject from the context. As Mark has shown us here, the use of bokeh can be used in interesting ways to tell a story.
Mark is a member and regular contributor to the Shutter Photo @ Flickr Group. In fact, we shared a pair of his photos back in March in an article titled The Tale of Two Formats: Mark Heath’s “Shi Ku Men”. As always, you can view a great deal of Mark Heath’s work through his Flickr Photostream where you will find much inspiration from the streets of Shanghai.