How to Create a Masterpiece
"A Little Ahead of Schedule" by Tom Fritz.
What is a Masterpiece
I was thinking this morning about how odd it is that music is a more effective visual medium than movies or photographs.
Think about it: a good piece of music takes you away. Close your eyes, and you're in a completely different place. A good piece of music takes you not just to another country, it physically takes you to another world, complete with sights all around you, smells, feelings, tastes, and everything as if you were there. Crappy music doesn't come close, but ask any music lover, and good music does all this and more. If it doesn't do it for you, it's time to listen more carefully.
Then I thought what a silly little medium it is with which we work. A photo, even a huge one, isn't reality. It's small, flat and we always can see beyond the frame. You may be looking at a photo, but you're still wherever you are. You may be in a gallery looking at a photo, but you're still in the gallery. You may be in a dark theater watching a film, but you're still in the theater.
Sure, you may think you're a little bit closer to wherever's portrayed in the film, but you're thinking how nice it would be to be there, not that you are there. Close your eyes and the photo or movie goes away. Your imagination isn't cooking yet, and it stops as soon as it might get serious. With music you're just getting started when you close your eyes and start paying attention.
Then I realized that that's what separates a great photo from a masterwork. In less time than it's taken you to read this far, I realized that masterpieces of visual art do the same thing. When I thought of some of the real masterpieces I've seen, I was immediately and powerfully taken to another world. I suddenly was in that new place.
I then imagined my own 29.5 second film to illustrate this. A couple walk by an image in a gallery, stop to glance casually, and the guy starts getting sucked into the painting. The middle of the canvas gets sucked out to meet him, he gets pulled by his head and lifted off his feet up into the image. Pulling his confused girlfriend along by the hand, they pop into a new world. They land on their feet, and the couple looks all around them: birds are chirping, music is playing, deer are sipping and everything is bathed in the gold of the setting sun. They smile at each other, and they're there for good.
Of course if that really was a TV ad, a logo for some expensive drug would then pop on the screen. It's funny how legal drugs are advertised as if they were illegal hallucinogenics: "take our drug for some nasty medical condition, and you'll be on a trip to a better world where you'll always be on vacation." The FDA hasn't seen fit to remove those subliminal messages yet. Anyway, back to the masterpieces…
When I first flipped the page to Autoweek Magazine's article about painter Tom Fritz winning the Automotive Fine Art's Society's Peter Helck Award, the small image of his painting "A Little Ahead of Schedule" stopped me in my tracks. I thought "Holy Crap!" as I was immediately pulled into another world. Fritz' work may seem like it's about cars to a casual observer, but it's really about making that "holy crap!" impact through lighting and numerous other elements. His work is created from his imagination, so he can use light in ways about which photographers can only dream.
I had the same thing happen to me looking at a photo hanging next to the register at the Rubio's Taco Stand in the Carlsbad Outlet Mall. It's a bunch of guys silhouetted by a setting sun as they fish. The canvas print is several feet wide. As I stood at the register, I saw a small beer bottle on the ground next to one of the fishermen. Then it caught me: I saw the glint of the setting sun in that beer bottle, very small in the scale of the print, and it all clicked. "Holy Crap!" again, I was suddenly in sunny México fishing along with them!
This is what makes a masterpiece. Of course we all have different tastes in everything, but the difference between a great photo and a masterpiece is that a masterpiece creates it's own reality for the viewer. If it takes you away, it's fantastic.
Creating a Masterpiece
To create a masterpiece, your work needs to pull people away. It needs to take them to wherever it is that you want to take them. It doesn't have to be a nice place, so long as it's the place you want them to see.
If you're Sebastião Salgado, your work takes us to nasty places, but that's where you're trying to take us. I had never imagined that old ships went to India to be broken apart by hand to be turned into scrap iron, or that people actually had to mine sulphur personally. Like other real photographers, Sebastião Salgado doesn't seem to have much, if any web site. I see his work in museums more than I've seen it online.
It's critical to be able to show people things in a way that pulls them someplace.
Photos can't be passive. If someone sees your image and just wants to click NEXT> or see the next one, it doesn't count. Edit it out.
Photos must engage the viewer. They have to stop the viewer dead in his tracks. Just being gross or shocking doesn't count; they have to grab his attention and take him away.
Only show images that at least make people say "Wow!" When I pull together images, if a shot has no wow factor, I don't show it. "Wow!,","Oooooh" and "Ahh" are the very least you should show.
A masterpiece is what gets a viewer to think "Holy Crap!!!," faint, and immediately wake up in some other place.
The basic structure of an image is how the elements, like shapes, lines, colors and tones, work together. If an image has no strong underlying structure, it fails.
The forms, lines, shapes, colors and balance that make up every image are obvious at any size. A great image looks intriguing even as a thumbnail or slide on a light table.
If an image is a dud, it will be a dull blob as a thumbnail, and stay dull no matter how sharp or how big it gets.
An image is all about the relationships between light and dark, up and down, warm and cool, and big and small, rhythm, points of interest and harmony. How do the shapes, gradations, scale, angles and everything work together? Are these creating depth, balance and impact, or just a confusing jumble of junk? Is there simplicity and unity, or are you trying to let your viewers guess what you meant? These dynamics are what give an image its wow factor. A real image catches your attention and draws you in to explore, regardless of size.
This is why the best photographers tend to be those with an art background. Artists understand these basic and critical image elements and know how to use them to create outstanding images. Most photographers have no clue, and instead waste their creativity fretting about lens sharpness, raw vs. JPG or 16- to 14-bit redithering algorithm design instead of the mandatory basics of image design.
The way a great image grabs attention is by getting the basics right. Details and sharpness are the least important parts of an image. Face it; when an image is boring in thumbnail size, does it ever get more interesting blown up? No.
The reason great images catch your eye is because they have their basic elements in order. Without the fundamentals, no matter how many details you add, it's still a sucky image.
Once you get the fundaments down, there ought to be a punchline to your photo. Once the reader looks around it, the punchline is when they find the AHA! or funny thing you put in, like a photo of a line of repeated objects with one object not quite right.
A former student of Homer LaGassey taught me what Homer LeGassy taught many other students: that images need to be as a spider makes his web. There has to be enough basic structure to catch your eye a hundred feet away, and once it draws you closer, needs to have enough details and entertainment to keep you investigating it for as long as possible. It's easy to get detail in photos, but never dawns on most photographers to get the basics right to catch the viewer's eyes in the first place.
As I compose a photo, I ignore the details until I get the basics all arranged first by moving myself around.
Sure, Ansel Adams' work is loaded with more detail than any digital camera image I've ever seen, but like all great work, it catches your eye even as tiny thumbnails. What makes it great are its fundamentals, not its details.
Great images are usually designed that way. Great images are carefully created, not simply caught. Even in perfect light, the critical elements of composition are your responsibility. They're what make an image sing, or flop. Galen Rowell taught us how to improve our luck in his book Mountain Light. For instance, if you expect that wonderful light is about to happen in 10 minutes, move yourself to the most advantageous position now so you'll be there to catch things as you want them when the glory happens.
Painters can play even more tricks than photographers. I was lucky enough to get to speak with painter Tom Fritz when I asked for permission to use his image at the top, and he explained how he'll move his shadows around, but not the source of light, if a different placement of shadows creates a stronger image.
Tom Fritz told me that he may start a painting by moving models around in his studio to play with his compositional options. He'll get a light and see how and where to put light sources and shadows. Even if he has an old photo of a specific vehicle for reference, he's creating the perspective, composition, lighting, clouds, environment and mood completely from his imagination. He's working first with very abstract concepts of image design, and these shapes only become cars or whatever after the basics are laid out.
The first thing to create are the fundamentals of values and tones, colors, shapes, balance and dynamics. If you get these right, your image will have impact. Adding the details later is the easy part. As a photographer, you need to be looking for these before you start looking for trivia like focus or depth of field.
As a photographer, the hardest part is seeing the fundamentals and then paying enough attention to get them right. We photographers are crippled by being distracted by all the sharp details from the first moment we look through the finder, when we really ought to be looking at the basic design of our image instead.
If an image lacks the right fundamentals of composition, light, form and color, don't even bother to press the shutter. That's why large format images have a larger percentage of "keepers:" we don't bother completing the lengthy large-format photographic process if we know the result is going to suck. With digital, people snap away with reckless disregard for the basics, which never can be replaced in Photoshop. Great photos have to happen in-camera; Photoshop merely fine-tunes.
I'm serious about not being able to replace or repair an image's fundamentals in Photoshop. Having worked many years in Hollywood, I (and most of you) know how Hollywood can conjure up just about any photorealistic image with computer animation. One thing we can't redo, other than by going in and changing every individual pixel by hand, is the position of the lighting. Yes, if it's an image completely drawn by computer we can redo the image from scratch by altering the sun's positions in the algorithms which generate the image, but once an image is created, there's no other way to go in and move the light source afterward. The position of the key light is one of the most critical elements in any image.
When I shoot in my studio, most of my time is spent moving the lights around to get the right emphasis. I want your eyes to flow where I want them to. If a viewer has to guess what the image is trying to do, it fails.
The most important thing anyone does in Photoshop is to burn and dodge to alter emphasis among various parts of an image. This requires fluency in layers and masks to allow efficient darkening and lightning of different parts of the image, and more importantly, the artistic eye to know what and where to lighten and darken by how much. I can't use a program like Lightroom or Aperture for serious art because they have no ability to do any of this; all they can do is are overall adjustments of the entire image, which you should have done in-camera in the first place.
If you're not getting any of this, I suspect you've never been taken by great art. Note how the word "taken" makes so much sense, since that's exactly what great art does. For this to make sense you need to appreciate great work.
Seeing the Basics
An image has nothing to do with pixels. Pixels are just details. All the fundamental elements must bring the image together as a whole before anyone should be worrying about details.
Great photos have nothing to do with resolution or sharpness. They have nothing to do with what camera you used. The magazine reproduction of Tom Fritz' painting was only a few inches wide, and it still brings me places. Why? Because it has the right basics. 95% of any image are these basics that can be seen from across a room.
If your images lack impact as thumbnails, then they aren't good images. A small, crummy viewfinder is actually a big help, although less convenient. A fuzzy viewfinder forces you to create a compositions strong enough to look decent even through a tiny viewfinder. Tiny LCDs are good, because they allow you to see the basics without the distraction of details.
Crappy finders and LCDs aren't as much fun, but they help make better pictures for most people than big, clear, sharp finders and LCDs.
When I shoot, I first look carefully for details as I compose. Why? Only so I can ensure that there isn't any distracting junk in my image! Once I have the garbage out of the frame, I do my most careful work by looking away from the image and composing out of the corner of my eye! By using my peripheral vision, I can concentrate on the fundamental and critical basics without being distracted by details. I can compose the strongest and most balanced possible image when I'm concentrating on the crucial fundamentals instead of details.
An advantage of a view camera is that the image is upside-down. This abstracts everything to allow you to compose more strongly. Talking with Tom Fritz, he mentioned that he will defocus his eyes when trying to see what's really going on in his images. He uses clouds and shadows not as clouds and shadows, but uses them as elements of shape and color with which he is building his composition.
Learning Image Design
Attend art school. Read every art book you can. Hang around artists, not photographers. Avoid the Internet, which is overpopulated by websites made by, as if you'd never guess, computer and technical weenies. Take art workshops. Pay attention to what turns you on in images you see and create, and do more of that. Keep an open mind.
An Open Mind
Much of creating an masterpiece is luck. A photographer can't set out with a goal of creating one. I never set out with any preconceived notion of what sort of photos I'm going to make. I just head out and see what I see, and when the light is hot, I just might get something interesting.
Many people think they need to get to exactly the right spot, like Onion Valley in the Eastern Sierra, at just the right time of year, as if the Swiss ran nature for us on a published schedule. I've found I get my best shots by just poking around, which gets me to my greatest discoveries. I've found going to places already on someone else's map to be far less productive than just wandering around with open eyes. Do you really think anyone needs to see more identical pictures of Delicate Arch at dawn?
David Muench, one of the greatest living landscape photographers of all history, has said the same thing. It's sad that amateurs go out with copies of his images and GPS coordinates trying to duplicate his images, since not even David Muench could reproduce them himself. Light is never the same twice. David Muench has said that he goes out with an open mind and sees what he can see. He doesn't go out with an intention to make any particular image.
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