By Kyle McDougall

What are you trying to say?

A question that I revisit often. It grounds me and gets me back on track whenever I’m pulled in different directions during this wild creative journey. But maybe even more importantly, the answer to that question plays a huge role in helping me make decisions in the field and later on while back home processing.

Kyle McDougall OFFBEAT Photo Storytelling
Photo by Kyle McDougall.

At the start of my career, technical and creative discoveries were plentiful— things like capturing my first dramatic sunset properly, buying my first “expensive” lens, learning how to blend exposures or blur water with slow shutter speeds—the list could go on and on. All those types of things had a huge influence on the work that I created and led to me seeking out certain locations and situations purely to make images that revolved around them. There was a lot of growth during that stage in my career, and it was definitely an important part of the journey. But I really do believe that there comes a time where creative decisions need to be motivated by a mood or a story to be as effective as possible, not simply because they are exciting. There needs to be a clear understanding of “why”.

What is your subject and how do you want to present it?

What feelings or emotions do you want to evoke in your audience?

What mood are you trying to express?

And, how do you get there?

Kyle McDougall OFFBEAT Photo Storytelling
Photo by Kyle McDougall

I really believe that mood and story control everything during the creative process—decisions like focal length, choice of light, processing style, and movement to name a few. All of those things are tools that we have in our toolboxes that help us say what we want to say. We just have to make sure we use them in the most intentional way possible.

Will you process your image in B&W or in colour?

Will golden hour light actually be the best fit for the mood you’re trying to create, or would your image be better suited for an overcast day?

Will you use a wide angle lens to create drama, or would a normal “standard” focal length and a more subtle feel work better?

Will you use low saturation or high saturation while processing, and why?

Will you blur out the waves while shooting a seascape to add a sense of calm to the image, or would freezing the action and creating a more powerful mood work better?

Kyle McDougall OFFBEAT Photo Storytelling
Photo by Kyle McDougall.

For the last year, probably around 75 per cent of my work was created during mid-day under blue skies and bright sunlight. Those are conditions that earlier in my career I would have absolutely avoided at all costs. The image above is a good example of the mood and feel that a lot of my current work possesses. A lot of browns and blues, mid-day sun, washed out, bright highlights, low saturation—basically the complete opposite of my older images. A lot of this has to do with the subject matter, the environment, and the way that it makes me feel when I’m on location.

Kyle McDougall OFFBEAT Photo Storytelling
Photo by Kyle McDougall.

The desert is where most of this work was created, and it’s a dry, dusty, and at times barren landscape that evokes unique emotions. If I had approached this same scene and simply tried to make it as dramatic as possible, the finished image would have lost a lot of its impact, at least for me. A fiery sunset overhead or a wide-angle composition would give this picture a completely different feel. Not a “wrong” feel by any means, just not the one that I’m personally trying to create.

And with that being said, I want to make it clear that I truly believe there is no right or wrong, and I’m certainly not discouraging experimentation. Learn as much as you possibly can, and have fun doing it. But don’t forget to spend some time thinking about what you’re capturing and how you want to present it. Learn your craft and your tools. Build up an arsenal of techniques that you can deploy in a number of different ways. And then use those tools in the most intentional and meaningful way possible to create work that tells a story and evokes emotion.

As photographers, having a clear idea of the “why” behind our images not only helps us create stronger work, but it also guides us along the way and helps us make intentional decisions both in the field and behind the computer.

Kyle McDougall originally wrote this article for our private online photography community here at OFFBEAT. There are dozens more where that came from. If that sounds like something you like the sound of, sign up for our community!

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