Originally written as an opinion piece for Outdoor Photography. © Niall Benvie 2011
Adding words to pictures is a graphic designer’s job – right? Not a bit of it, argues Niall Benvie as he encourages you to put the words there yourself.
We live in a visually illiterate age. Few of us are educated to analyse and interpret images; to think critically about their content or even understand the creator’s intention. Too often we look only at the surface of pictures, at their colours and forms, texture and shapes without hearing the dialogue between these components and appreciating context in which the work is produced. Given the primacy of the visual image in communication today this is both paradoxical and, for those of us who use photography to share ideas and concerns, profoundly frustrating. Without the ability to “read” images, we are like the dog that listens to a conversation between Goethe and Aristotle (sic) but wags its tail only when it hears its own name.
It has not always been thus: through the ages artists, and their patrons, have had a keen awareness of symbolism in their work; placing a lower status individual higher in the painting than their superior would bring a swift end to patronage. A good deal of religious art is there to be read, rather than merely looked at, and was created at a time when an understanding of allegory and metaphor, rather than brute literalism, was expected of the viewer.
There’s no point in fighting the inevitable; if people can’t read the picture, make “the message” part of the finished work. The message may be as simple as a couple of words to point the viewer in the right direction, to clarify what I want them to take from the image: sometimes the image itself is the vehicle for a bigger idea.
If your pictures are being lost in the crowd it’s probably not because of any aesthetic or technical shortcomings; it may be because they lack context. When I judge and look at pictures on the web and in magazines, I am struck by how much “good” work is being made today. Yet few of these images “speak” to the viewer because they lack the coherence provided by context. They are like random words. And while you may have a fondness for particular words, their experience is more satisfying when incorporated into a resonant sentence. You can do this: the hardest part is finding the right words to say what you want to say, succinctly. But when you do you will give a meaning to pictures that were previously undistinguished – because you’ve given them a context.
It seems to me that one of the greatest handicaps outdoor photographers have in using their work to campaign or lobby on behalf of the natural world is the inherent lack of humour in nature. If we do see it in pictures, it is exclusively of the anthropomorphic sort – “dumb” wombats having earth shovelled in their faces; “hilarious” Adele penguins waddling over an iceflow; “cheeky” oxpeckers relieving buffalo of aural ticks. Yet we all know that employing humour (and irony) is the key method in campaigning and advertising to win over the audience. As the communications company Futerra emphasises in its document, Branding Biodiversity, we need to “Kill the extinction message: loss generates apathy, not action. [Instead] celebrate our love of nature. It is the most powerful driver of public behaviour.” And as part of the “Love” message we should add “and make people smile as you deliver it.”
Adding words to your pictures makes their meaning explicit but so that the message is consistent you need to give some thought to the positioning of the text – it is, after all, part of the composition – and the choice of font. Excepting as a means the help text stand out, I stay well clear of the mechanistic look of layer effects such as drop shadows when the words form part of the composition: they can just look cheesy. While your imaging application (I use Photoshop but Photoshop Elements works fine too) should be able to access and use all the fonts in your computer’s library, you may well need to look a little further afield the find the font with just the right look and feel. My favourite site is myFonts.com; although there are many sites with free fonts, I’m happy to contribute to other creatives who take time to design them.
Choosing fonts is a fun and creative exercise in its own right; when you get it right they resonate with the content of the message and feel of the image. To a large extent it’s a matter of common sense: if the picture is about something Australian, don’t choose a font that people associate with things Greek. If the picture is about something ancient, don’t look to a clean, modern font. It’s not usually a good idea to employ more than two different fonts in a single piece of work and by using different members of a single family (for example Futura Std Light and Book) you can weigh the importance of particular words without causing undue complexity by using several different fonts.
The placement of words and their size is to some extent determined by the spaces in the picture where they can be accommodated without being lost in background detail (although a generously feathered drop shadow around pale lettering can help make it stand out if all else fails). Sometimes, especially if a set of images is being presented together, it is more appropriate to place at least some of the text in the surrounding border.
In the digital age, the boundaries between graphic designer and photographer are blurring. If you accept that most viewers won’t read the subtle message of your photo, write it in large letters across the shot and erase the boundary altogether! It’s allowed. Maybe it’s even to be encouraged.