What makes a good picture?
…aka Fuji Instax Mini Monochrome Photo Contest addendum
Soon after we launched the Instax Mini Monochrome competition, a potential entrant reminded us that we had not disclosed the judging criteria. I had thought to simply say “Make a great image”, but that begs the question “What makes a great image?” I’ll try to answer that in this article, along with what we are looking to achieve and some tips about how to make the best of this medium.
A great image should say something. Make a statement, or better, tell a story. Capture the viewer’s imagination and elicit emotion. Provoke a thought, or better still lead the viewer through a train of thoughts. Bring forth a memory, or stimulate a new thought. Make the viewer want to stand up, grab a camera and set off to capture new sights.
Natural, uncontrived and spontaneous work stands out, as does access to visions few other people have the opportunity to see. Wide lenses like the Instax cameras have lend themselves to close in work, and unself-conscious social interactions delight any viewer. This is incredibly powerful as it places the viewer in your seat and shows them a snapshot of your world through their eyes.
Always seek to challenge and surprise the viewer. Take a picture that the viewer either couldn’t see themselves being able to do or confound them by taking a simple but effective picture that anyone could make if only they had thought of it first. Variety is the spice of life and originality is an exotic spice first tasted. Unusual viewing angles put a new spin on and old subject, or tell an old story in a new way. It’s all about the story and the exploration, even a still life or an abstract work.
We are all taught in photography or art class about choosing and posing a subject, the rules of composition, the techniques of lighting and all the other factors comprising the technical craft of producing an image. While these can contribute to a compelling visual, great images can break all the rules. These are skills and methodologies that can be applied to create art, or they may be factors that can be used to explain why the image works, but they are only a loose framework. Viewer’s aren’t robots who rate the fitness of an image against a matrix of aesthetic standards. Otherwise we could just program a robot to make the perfect picture. We are human and it is about how the artist touches the viewer through his or her work that matters.
It is quite possible to go out and take a series of uncontrived snapshots and produce a work of art by accident, or where we unconsciously see the scene, the beauty of how the light is falling and compose by reflex. It is more reliable to craft an image with solid fundamentals, but in doing so, we may sacrifice spontaneity.
In the competition we are currently running, we impose some specific restrictions which affect the pictures that can be made. Photos must be made on Instax Monochrome and shot directly onto film. For a start, it’s a monochrome film and that makes nigh impossible to use colour impact as an attention grabber, so subject, narrative, texture, line, composition, and gray tones come to the fore. This doesn’t mean you can ignore colour because this emulsion reacts strangely to some colours and unless you know what colours come out lighter or darker, you may be surprised by your results and this can totally change the tones and contrast and heighten details or distract from them. As you become familiar with the film, you will discover that certain colours produce and off-gray with a pronounced colour cast and it will be interesting to see whether people have developed such mastery over the medium (or luck) so that these colour casts contribute positively to the picture. I encourage you to read my article on Instax Monochrome’s properties and quirks for more detail and tips to avoid frustration and wasted film before you get started.
Sharpness and detail are a key element in many black and white images. However, the film is of very low resolution, the print is small and Instax cameras aren’t known for their critical sharpness, so I would expect contrast and subtly delivered mid tones to be all the more important. The film has a low dynamic range, so highlight and shadow detail will be challenging and perhaps this can be used for background separation, or to focus the viewer’s attention. Instax cameras have a long depth of field for medium format and careful attention to distracting peripheral or background elements will be hard to achieve and it is here that the limited dynamic range can be used to advantage.
We have also put a restriction on digital manipulation, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be creative optically, or with light, or physical manipulation of the print, or in the way you present your image.
Entering a competition is not quite as simple as shooting for one’s self as you are not the final judge of your work. One trick is to discover the kind of images the judges make themselves, the images they’ve previously selected in competition and those they’ve liked or reblogged on social media. This works, and I can tell you I gravitate to human stories and interaction, because that’s where I personally do best, but my style preference is distinctly eclectic and I am open to all subject matter. Indeed, abstract work, architecture and landscapes are subjects I struggle at and may be more impressed by things I couldn’t do myself.
Above all, simply delight us the judges, and submit an image that we would want to share with the world which exemplifies all that can be done with Instax Monochrome.
Now go out and take some pictures! You can’t win if you have nothing to submit.
~ Dan K
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