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Photography Principles, Reframed for Business

Thanks to smartphones and social media, most people now think and communicate in pictures.

It seems that everyone is a photographer now. The smartphone revolutionized capturing images even more than George Eastman did with his roll film and Kodak Brownie camera, introduced over a hundred years ago. And social platforms provide virtual galleries and massive audiences for the kind of work that appeared only in real-life galleries and museums, for the elite, just a few decades ago.

I started shooting photos in high school, when 35mm film was the only option. Because shooting film and making prints were both expensive, students and professional photographers alike quickly learned how to properly focus, expose and frame a decent picture. In essence, if you made a mistake you paid for it twice—first with the film exposed in the camera, and then with the prints you picked up days or weeks later where you saw for the first time what you actually shot. Photography was a craft that took time to master, with an attention to detail akin to the carpenter’s maxim of “measure twice, cut once.” It was more than pushing a button.

Today I do my best to go beyond simple picture-taking to thoughtful image-making. Digital cameras, computers, software and other powerful tools enable us all to create great works of art and communication, limited only by our imaginations. While a lot has changed with the technology of capturing an image, there are some fundamentals that have not. And I believe some of these lessons are instructive for today’s marketers.

Show the Viewer Where to Look

Like a magician, a photographer must show people where to look. Photographers use color, composition and cropping, light and shadow, depth of field and selective focus to direct the viewer’s attention. In business, we also need to tell our audience where to look, whether in advertisements, presentations, board meetings, industry conferences or hallway conversations. Busy-ness people crave a shorthand and simplicity that tells them what’s important, so they don’t waste time getting lost in the details. Like a headline in a newspaper or on a slide, it says, “This is the one idea you should take away from this thing you don’t have time to read and think about.”

Focus Selectively

In most cases, if everything is in sharp focus then the photographer has not prioritized what’s in the frame. Some exceptions to this are architectural and landscape photography, which direct the viewer’s gaze through other means. Outside of that, we see many examples of soft focus used to isolate a subject, particularly when applied to the background. Great painters like Leonardo da Vinci used sfumato — a painting technique to blur the transition between colors, mimicking the soft focus of a camera lens — as demonstrated in his iconic Mona Lisa. In business, tech-savvy managers talk about the signal-to-noise ratio, seeing their job as increasing signal and decreasing noise. They are in fact just isolating their subject (idea, project, product) from a distracting background (trends, competition, regulation), in a less beautiful (but still necessary) manner than Leonardo.

“Inspiration is a guest that does not willingly visit the lazy.” — Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Technology & Tricks Are No Substitute for a Compelling Subject

A few years ago I had to buy a pricey mirrorless camera, because I told myself I needed a smaller kit for international travel. I was in fact just chasing another shiny object that I believed would help me take more compelling pictures. I’ve since learned that in order for a viewer to feel something, she must have an emotional connection to what is in the picture. Or, be reminded of a similar connection in her life. In business, we need to ask ourselves if we are working on solving the right problems, important ones to which customers have an emotional connection and really care about. I don’t believe that an exquisitely designed app or algorithm that solves a first-world problem for a small number of rich people makes for a compelling subject, no matter how technically sophisticated. And no amount of Photoshop trickery can make me care about the Cardi B or the Kardashians.


Finally, I think the secret to taking a good picture is to take a lot of pictures. On an inspired day of shooting, my ratio of average photos to really good ones is about 50:1. And that’s an improvement gained over my last decade of practice. It’s tempting with tiny digital cameras and unlimited storage to shoot thousands of pictures with very little care going into each one. Next time try taking a breath before hitting the button or looking around to make sure you’re not missing something better just outside the frame. Measure twice, cut once.


Author: Joe Shields

Photo credit: Joe Shields