How to Spot a Highly Evolved Photographer

Disclaimer: All images are copyright to their respective owners.
Words: Haris Babic

Photographers are found in abundance. Exceptional ones, though are extremely rare. Even in the most respected organizations, few can captivate the viewer by evoking wonder, curiosity, and inspiration. Only a handful of highly evolved photographers can capture imagery with the potency and emotion that wins Pulitzers.

I’m constantly tuning my receptivity to human emotion. My excitement for photography is deeply rooted in desire to be emotionally captivated. Many photographers employ plenty of hacks and are able to cobble together striking imagery. Only a precious few, however, know how to set pictures on fire and make meaning resonate.

“It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera… they are made with the eye, heart and head.”

– Henri Cartier-Bresson

 Henri Cartier-Bresson - Man Cycling Down Street, Hyeres, France, 1932

Henri Cartier-Bresson “Man Cycling Down Street”, Hyeres, France, 1932

“Quality … has to do with intention.”

– Elliott Erwitt

Eiffel Tower by Elliot Erwitt, Paris, 1989

Elliot Erwitt “Eiffel Tower”, Paris, 1989

They’re a different breed: I call them elite photographers.

This is good news for you. The rarity of exceptional photographers means that by having the right skills it’s easy to stand out from the herd.

So unusual is this level of ability that once you acquire it, editors and publishers of big newspapers and online magazines will sniff you out a mile off. They’ll compete for you.

The Art of Storytelling

You see, the average photographer knows how to assemble composition—to tell a story by stringing together basic elements and building blocks of photography, lines, shape/form, space, texture, and color, to give the viewers some kind of idea of what the picture is saying.

ADELMAN, Bob Free at last' - 'I have a dream' . March on Washington, 1963

ADELMAN, Bob
Free at last’ – ‘I have a dream’ . March on Washington, 1963

An elite photographer creates compelling perspectives around those elements, evoking powerful sense and emotion to the elements being captured. The cognitive and emotional impact on a viewer is completely different.

Salvador Dali by Irving Penn

Irving Penn, Salvador Dali

“A good photograph is one that communicate a fact, touches the heart, leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it. It is, in a word, effective.”

– Irving Penn

Salvador Dali by Philippe Halsman (1954)

Philippe Halsman, Salvador Dali (1954)

“To me the face – the eyes, the expression of the mouth – is the thing that reflects character. It is the only part of the body that permits us to see the inner person!”

– Philippe Halsman

Elite photographers have further distinctive traits. They know how to express emotion, feelings and meanings around a photo without extraneous elements, so that their intended emotions come through and are immediately and perfectly understood.

Amber Valletta by Vincent Peters

Vincent Peters, Amber Valletta

Sometimes elite photographers may disregard some of these principles. They do this deliberately and intuitively, and are usually lead by empathy and compassion. They possess a profound understanding of how to move the viewer by evoking human emotion. Most of these iconic captures have been replicated over and over simply because they elicit an emotional response.

They know how to capture the moment and drama of any situation.

“I think that emotional content is an image’s most important element, regardless of the photographic technique. Much of the work I see these days lacks the emotional impact to draw a reaction from viewers, or remain in their hearts.”

– Annie Leibovitz

Left: Small boy sitting on steps of home by Bob Adelman, Bedford Stuyvesant 1963 | Right: 'Migrant Mother' by Dorothea Lange

Left: Bob Adelman “Small boy sitting on steps of home”, Bedford Stuyvesant 1963
Right: Dorothea Lange ‘Migrant Mother’

Art Kane's famous photo of jazz greats, titled "Harlem 1958"; Photograph by Art Kane - courtesy Art Kane

Art Kane’s famous photo of jazz greats, titled “Harlem 1958”; Photograph by Art Kane

Yves Saint Laurent “Le Smoking” by Helmut Newton for French Vogue, 1975

Helmut Newton, Yves Saint Laurent “Le Smoking” for French Vogue, 1975

“The desire to discover, the desire to move, to capture the flavor, three concepts that describe the art of photography.”

– Helmut Newton

Under controlled circumstances they have a clear intention and they understand how to position their subjects and create nuances in their expression to reveal the true significance of the message they are looking to portray. And they know how to steer clear of weak elements and expressions that dull their imagery.

On top of that, they understand how to capture the grace and elegance of their intended subject. Only a handful of professional photographers can do all of that. There are some who hit upon the formula by accident but, lacking a full comprehension of what they’ve achieved, find themselves unable to repeat their success reliably.

Shalom Harlow by Irving Penn for US Vogue, April 1996.

Irving Penn, Shalom Harlow for US Vogue, April 1996.

“What I really try to do is photograph people at rest, in a state of serenity.”

– Irving Penn

Whether you’re a working photographer aspiring to become more senior, or a newbie eager to get noticed by an editor, by actively learning these principles and applying them in your photography, you will begin to notice progress very quickly and you’ll discover powerful ideas that will propel you into the extremely small world of elite photographers.

Thank You!