PHOTOGRAPHIC CHALLENGES: Using Symbols to Tell a Story

The ability to tell a story in a single picture is indeed an ambitious goal for photographers, and yet, once you are aware of the importance of symbols, it is a much easier to achieve.

The world is full of symbols guiding us through life. So, when photographing life, symbols assist in telling a story or interpreting the contents. Often we are not even aware of them, although they are there. Therefore photographers who can recognize and emphasize them will improve the impact of their photos.

What can we learn from advertising photography? Using photographic symbols that provide a defined
path to making a clear statement is vital. And a commercial has to connect with its audience within seconds, or otherwise it will be overlooked. Further, a commercial offers plenty of scope for creative freedom because realism is not necessarily a requirement.

Let’s look at what various advertising companies did to get the viewers attention quickly, while at the same time, sending them a clear message about their product.

A series of commercials for German Railways leaned heavily on concise symbols for their messages to be instantly and memorably understood. The close-up of an elegant lady’s shoe stepping from the train clearly signals the luxurious aspect of rail travel. Additionally, the hint of sex appeal in the image might attract many a travelling businessman.

Or take the very tight frame on a porter with a cello: it leaves no doubt in your mind that even travelers with precious and bulky baggage will feel their items are in good, safe hand and that they will travel in comfort. And even from behind, the lady with the long blonde braid seems to have the artistic look of a musician.

A series of motorcycle commercials showed close-ups of bikes covered with mud, thereby demonstrating their cross country abilities under rough conditions. By placing the camera close to the scene, the images gain intensity.

A FORD commercial provides an interesting example of the importance of symbols in a picture: the image managed to demonstrate the durability of FORDs by showing one of their antique cars still doing its job in a contemporary situation. Add to that a Portuguese market place and it looks as if it had been photographed some decades ago. In order to link the scene more obviously with the present, a modern bicycle was added, serving as a clear symbol of the era in which we live.

Symbols can also take the form of activities. In an airplane factory, presenting the quality and precision of work taking place was very important. At a metal-cutting machine, I focused solely on the hands of a workman carefully inspecting the metal surface and its filigreed cut. The scene interpreted the essence of building airplanes: precision and expertise. The hands were emphasized with the narrow beam of a studio spot light, and for an additional dramatic effect, an identical light with a blue filter was used in the background.

Go online, pick up some magazines or go to your local library and study the images in the advertisements. How did they grab your attention?

The next time you grab your camera and head out to make those photos, focus on the symbols you see. Practice telling a story with just the image. Can you find the way to conjure up a reaction or an emotion or memory in the viewer – something that makes them want to come back and see it time and time again?

by Gert Wagner
All Text & Images: © 2013 Gert Wagner. All Rights Reserved.

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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