Routine Images, Good Images — or Images which Tell a Story?

Routine Images, Good Images — or Images which Tell a Story?

Usain Bolt. 200m, Round 1.

(Gallery updated — for the last time).

Just came to think about something. No big thing, just some quiet self-reflection. No complaints, no whining and absolutely no ranting. Just thinking aloud.

But: I realized that majority of my work could be classified into three different categories.

The image above is routine. Your basic point and shoot. It’s Usain Bolt, that’s enough: this is what people usually expect when they ask me to e.g. shoot a track compe­tition. A good sports image. Images like that you can basically do every couple of minutes; it’s enough you more or less know what you are doing and got the right gear for the job. Quite often my brief is: “Can you shoot this and this and this… and then we will be doing a story on this and this and this…” Sure. No worries. I can do that. If it is at all possible, I can do it — i.e. if two things are not totally overlapping — sure, no worries. But: it’s routine and the results look.. well… routine, too — nothing more.

Then there are good pictures. (I’d call them great but I really cannot call my own work that, can I…? ;-) ) But they are the images which end into your portfolio. Quite often they do not end up printed — as a story of this particular athlete is not on the agenda that day. Like the image below, I don’t think it made it into the print.

Image has to be Blanca Vlasic, you could not make an image like that with Anna Chicherova — she just doesn’t have that presence. Nor does any of the other jumpers.

Blanca Vlasic clearing 1.95 in qualifying.

For this kind of images you have to work quite a lot. At least I have to. Know the athlete, know the sport, pay close attention to the changes of light, background patterns, etc.

In addition, this often involves risks in lens choice, DOF, shutter speed , etc. Quite often you have just one shot and that’s it. No “Blanca, could you do that again, please?” :-)

Big chance that your several hours of work is ruined by the fact that you did not crop/focus accurately. Like in this example it was an educated guess as how much DOF does f8 produce on that distance with an 800mm, which part of the bar is she on when she is in peak action, etc. Finding your position and keeping your perip­heral eyes open for people who might walk into your line of fire…

Yes, it is a good image. I goes into my portfolio. But let’s be honest here: it’s more like me showing off as a photo­grapher than telling a journa­listic story…

But then there are images which do tell the story. Like the one below.

Andreas Thorkildsen and Tero Pitkämäki in qualifying.

These should end up into the papers — and big size — but unfor­tu­nately they rarely do. This one did, albeit very small. It tells a story — and I’d say more than any words could convey.

Goes without saying that lots of things have to come together for an image like this. Your skill, equipment, right choice of lenses, knowledge of the sport — and the athletes and their routines, etc. You have to be very alert… and then there is the luck factor… which is needed, but only after all the afore­men­tioned “prerequi­sites” are fulfilled.

But there is one major problem: you — as a reader — have to be able to read that image. And the trouble is: the majority papers (I guess I should say all…) in Finland are done “text first” — i.e text driven and people doing them are not used to the fact that you could just tell the whole story with “just” an image… Image is seen as an illustration element for the story, not as the story itself. So unfor­tu­nately, you don’t see images like this so often.

And as a consequence, people are losing their ability to read images… and this in the times when our future looks more visual than ever.

BTW: If you are not familiar with the sport or the prota­go­nists here, they are the two past world champions of javelin (Andreas Thorkildsen of Norway two years ago (in Berlin) and Tero Pitkämäki of Finland four years ago (in Osaka)) — who both definitely did below par in the quali­fication last night and it is so written on their faces. Thorkildsen made it to the final, but Tero was out in the qualifying.

Anyway, I really meant what I said, i.e. this is not ranting, just something I came to think of today. So consider this as my five cents this afternoon.

Gotta go. Gotta shoot more images. Good ones which tell stories, I hope.


PS. More images in the gallery, if you are interested.

10 Replies to “Routine Images, Good Images — or Images which Tell a Story?”

  1. It is the diffe­rence between what I call “collecting evidence” (ie, proving you were occupying proximate space/time with another person who was doing a certain thing) and telling a story. Even the 2nd image tells a story through body position and frozen moment. I admire your self-restraint in calling the image good over great (because I really really hate it when photo­graphers describe their own work as great). You are noble enough to leave that decision to the viewer; and that’s a great charac­te­ristic (By the way, it really is a pretty good shot).
    Also, thought you might be interested in this:

    Keep at it. You might just make something of yourself one day.
    (And before people start flaming me on this blog, Kari and I have known each other for 26 years and that’s pretty much how we always speak to each other).
    I know…26 years, right? Ouch. Back when both of us had more hair.

    1. Peter — thanks for commenting. Yup, we should sometimes write something about the times when we both had more hair. Like how we ended up doing this… Man, lots of good memories there. Lots of film burned…
      Actually thought of you today as I have decided that I will sell (the majority of) my Leica M equipment. Like; did we both get that stuff together in New York, what was the name of that shop on the second floor of Broadway and the Fifth?
      And getting together in Rome. I still think I have so slides left from those days.

      Anyway. As always, good to hear from you.


  2. I have so much I want to say on this!!!!! :) I think I may have to make a blog entry and paste a link back though!! :)

    Great’ images though… perso­nally I don’t mind people saying they’re own images are great. (When they are, that is)! :) I think one knows when an image works and also that one is aware of the context in which is exists (both the one in which it was taken and the one in which it should appear). By knowing those parameters one can, if you are honest with yourself, accurately place ones work within it. And sometimes you do know it’s great. (And a lot of the time you do know it’s not…)! :)

    It’s the same with films. One can watch an American teen shock comedy and laugh and be enter­tained for 90 minutes. It’s not a ‘great’ film like ‘Psycho’ or ‘Jaws’ or ‘Taxi Driver’ etc. But within the ‘type’ of film it is placing itself with, it can either be a good or bad example of that type.

    1. Adam -

      a quick reply: I truly, truly appreciate always your opinions on art etc. and all the things involved. You definitely have a very clear and intel­ligent approach to this matter — and I have learned a lot by reading your commentary and it has made me think a lot.
      I gotta dash out but basically, simply: thank you for all your input in this blog.

  3. I love reading your blog! And the range of followers is great for getting a wide range of informed and opinio­nated responses! Just how it should be!

    Here’s a few of my not-all-that-concise thoughts on the issue of ‘routine’ images (if you have a moment at any point)! :)

    1. Thank Adam for your input. Yes, I agree, one of the best surprises I have had ever since starting this blog is the — as you mentioned — the range of really informed and opinio­nated responses. I’ve learned so much thru these discussion.
      I read your piece and I have to read it again. Lots of thought there. Never thought about that — that there is a manifold of infor­mation in the format of the image, in the color spectrum used etc. Call it code, whatever.

      As usual, monday morning, gotta rush the kids to school etc. Will reread later on — and I do recommend reading it (i.e. the ref above) to everybody.


  4. There are a lot of photo­graphers who can shoot fantastic pictures but.. a lot of them are on the World Championship Athletics and have (almost) no info on the athletes. Yes, they do know Usain Bolt (who doesn’t) but they are there in Daegu to shoot a picture of a certain athlete by assingment and not because the like the sport or they are interested in.

    You my friend are an amazing photo­grapher who loves your sports and altough you make pictures because it is your job you still can make picture who fans like I can like so much. Greatest example must be the picture (can I call it that?) you made at the Beijing Olympics inside the Stadium. I think it must be seen by millions of people all around the world !

    ps1: I have a small doubt on your fact “you could not make an image like that with Anna Chicherova – she just doesn’t have that presence. Nor does any of the other jumpers”
    Have you tried to make images like that with Emma Green and/or Ebba Jungmark ? Two fantastic athletes from Sweden :-) Good luck.

    ps2: If you are happy with an picture and you want to share it with your fans I don’t mind that you say it is a ‘great picture’ . I mean.. you are at the Championships to shoot those great pictures so if one makes you happier than the other just share it with us and make us happy.

    1. Bjorn — thanks for checking this out. I noticed your tweet just prior to the games, something like “nice to see my two favorite photo­graphers are covering the games”. Really made me smile. Thank you for that.
      As to your remark about Emma and Ebba… absolutely. Both of them have sort of radiance around them which you can see when you look at them thru the lens. And yes, I have shot them both now and in the past. But I would still like to argue that there is something about Blanca… just as there is something about Elena in pole vault. Blanca pulled an incre­dible stunt (as you know) in the final: she twice made a SB — but was still second.


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