Point of Reference - Where's the Context?

By: Gary Gray


Lets talk about point of reference. To be even more specific, I want to talk about including a point of reference in your photographs.

A very common mistake with beginner photographers is to forget about framing their shot to include a point of reference or failure to give their image a context. This may manifest itself thusly... Out with the camera, see something beautiful/interesting/inspiring. Lift the camera. Zoom in on said beautiful/interesting/inspiring object. Press the shutter button. Hope the shot is as beautiful/interesting/inspiring as we first saw it. When we look at the photograph later, we see that it is just another picture of something that isn't so beautiful/interesting/inspiring, but we cling to our memory and show it off and people say nice things but it's just another picture of the same old things and doesn't really stand out.

The compositions for these types of wasted shots are usually the object framed in the center of the frame and you wouldn't know anything about the object other than it was an object.

Where is it? When was it? What was it near? Why was it happening? Who witnessed it? What happened?

If your composition doesn't ask and answer one or more of these questions, you blew it. The photo needs to tell a story. It doesn't have to be complicated, it doesn't have to be unique. It can't be boring though.

So, it being summer, I'm going to use a fireworks shot as a perfect example of this concept.

Here's a typical exploding fireworks photo.  A nice, colorful, very clear shot of an aerial pyrotechnic.  Boring!

Notice how it's isolated from what-ever was near it and where-ever it may have occurred. It could have been anywhere, at any time. You'll never know. It's just a photograph of a pretty explosion.

So, you take 50 of these shots, all of them look the same.  You have to pick out the prettiest explosion and then the best you can hope for is to put it in photoshop and apply some canned effect to it in order to enhance the aura of artistic accomplishment.   Well, surprise, it'll still look like a bad photograph with a canned photoshop effect.  Aim a little higher I say.

Now, lets take the same event and put it in perspective.

A bit more robust of an explosion to say the least, however, there's more here. You can see that the shot was near sundown over what appears to be a lake in what appears to be a rural mountainous area. There's also a bit of reflection in the water and an ominous texture to the sky. Additionally, the scale of the explosion is evident. Pretty large.

So, when you see something beautiful/interesting/inspiring and decide to take a photograph.  Tell us a little more about what your seeing.  Don't just point the camera at it and take a snapshot. Give your subject a little context.

(Originally published, Aug 4, 2011)