I don’t always agree with what the Instagram audience deems best, but in 2017 I think they nailed it. It’s not actually the image with the most likes, but it’s only slightly less well liked than another image that came much later in the year, after I had quite a few more followers, so it wins on pure engagement. Not that any of that matters all that much — I do think it’s objectively the best image I took this year, regardless of the oddity of Instagram popularity. And while I don’t totally know the value of determining a “best image of the year” — it’s not the best image in the world or changing lives in any way — perhaps taking a moment to look at an image and remember how I took it offers some clues to how I want to progress in 2018. So, let’s dissect.
Funny enough, the shot was taken in the first week of the year (so, one could argue that everything after week one of 2017 was a huge disappointment). It was a notable time because I had just started a little graphic novel, called End Of The Shift, as a fun little side project with my buddy, actor Phil Lubin, as the main character. It was a sci-fi noir set a hundred years in the future after a law is passed outlawing working. And while this image captured the concept perfectly — the narrator taking a snooze underneath a busy work-oriented skyline — I didn’t go into the shoot with this image in mind. I wish I had. It was actually a “hey, one more thing” idea that came at the end of the shoot. Here’s a few of the shots I took leading up to it:
The location was up above Dodger Stadium on a hill that not everybody knows about, but all L.A. photographers end up finding at some point or another. The original concept was: “noir-ish guy reflects on the city “— a kind of direct interpretation of the story. The first four images in the series above were pretty much what was in my mind. I hadn’t gone so far as to be exactly sure what the pose for Phil might be. But this is normal. My shooting strategy is almost always the same: I go in with a good location, a rough idea of what the concept is and then let some on-site improvisation take me somewhere I wouldn’t have been able to conceive of beforehand. That’s part of the joy for me. And what makes it so different from other kinds of photography (or many other creative endeavors) which require knowing much more about what you’re going to get before going in.
That moment that a new direction dawns on you at a shoot is unpredictable, but even so, it follows a certain pattern. There is definitely a moment where you make a leap, but it’s more step-by-step than many think.
Let’s zoom in on the moments between shots 5 and shots 6 above, right as the idea struck me, and you’ll see how straightforward it all was:
It’s not hard to see where the observation happened. Having him lay down was just supposed to be another pose. You see the direction unfolding in the first shot. Phil put the hat on his face and I turned to a portrait shot and zoomed in to capture it. As I zoomed back out, in image three, that’s where I saw the relationship of the length of his body with the length of the skyline. From there, it was just finding the right juxtaposition of the two and placing myself in a spot where the two lengths matched. That’s it, step-by-step.
I liked the shot a lot, I remember that. I remember being excited after I took it. I showed it to some of my closer, very honest friends to make sure I wasn’t overly-excited about it. They confirmed there was something about it. But, as happens, I moved on from it quickly and kept working at new ideas, new shots. Here’s an image I took just two days later:
This image here is a good reminder that, too often, I go shoot without a narrative to drive what I do once I get there. It’s a fine shot, but it’s driven almost entirely by the location. I do that a lot and it never quite reaches the heights of the images that have a story or concept behind them.
It makes sense then that if there’s going to be a takeaway from all of this, it’s going to be, first and foremost, about having an idea.
So, here’s my message to me in 2018. A reminder to start with an idea and then push from there. Maybe it will resonate with you, too:
Start With An Idea
Great photos have a narrative or concept behind them. Hoping for one randomly is just not as effective as having the basic forms of your concept going in.
Concept + Composition
Don’t be slavish to your idea once you’re shooting — let it breathe and evolve into something new. There’s many ways to capture what’s in your mind, keep pushing until the composition is as inspired as the concept.
The Idea Is Stronger Than The Processing
This photo would have done just as well in color or with less contrast than I ended up with. There is nothing special about the settings (f/4.5 at 1/1000th/sec). I didn’t need a drone, a ladder or some special equipment. and there was nothing particular about the weather or light. And yet, though there was nothing technically special about it, it appears more unique than any other shot I took this year. Just focus on ideas.
Keep shooting at the shoot, but also after the shoot and on into the next one after that. You don’t really know which of your shoots or ideas is going to produce that one special image that rises above the others — could be in the first week, could be in the last week. The best you can do is to shoot every week.
Thanks for reading. For more of my photography, I post daily here. Happy New Year, everyone!