Photography is many things to many people, but at its core, it's about communicating ideas in a visual way. Several years ago I struggled with how to best explain my photography in a consistent voice, and I needed to find a better way to communicate to viewers what I was trying to say. I would often show a photograph in color of an aggressive scene, like a lion chasing its prey, and the next image would be a peaceful landscape in a far away place. The connection was difficult to piece together when I looked at my portfolio of images. I needed a new approach. An adjective-driven approach.
Adjectives are gifts to photographers if they choose to think about and use them. By definition, adjectives are words that modify nouns to help add context to a phrase or sentence.
I thought about this for a while and realized that if I created a list of adjectives that I wanted all of my images to portray, this might be an easier way of reaching my goal of a cohesive body of work. So I jotted down a long list of words to describe where I wanted to go with my images. I then paired down the list to around 20 words, then 15, then 10. I eventually ended up with five: heroic, timeless, hopeful, uplifting, regal. Those words sit in the back of my mind every time I go out into the field. It doesn't matter if I'm shooting with medium format equipment, 35mm gear, or an iPhone; these adjectives are always in the back of my mind. I can be shooting African wildlife, landscapes, a street scene in India, or wildlife in the Antarctic. How I process these images changes over time as trends and technology change, but it doesn't matter because I have a clear idea of what I'm looking for and where I'm going.
When people get into photography, they're led to believe a couple of things: that good gear will yield better photographs, and that being at the right place at the right time will help create photographs that stir the soul. I think that’s only partly true. What's missing is how creativity drives the craft. I often see people with all of the latest gear engage in discussions both online and in person, displaying a deep knowledge on all of the functionality of gear: this-button-does-this-and-this-functionality-does-that kind of talk. So what happens is the craft of photography drives the creative: “If this button does this, then let's use it.” I’m not sure that’s the best approach.
Don’t get me wrong—craft is important, but it isn’t the most important. Your gear should not dictate the aesthetic. Your aesthetic should be satisfied by whatever gear you want to use.
It's a bit unconventional, but it's liberating. It's just a different way of thinking about how you take your photographs and how you're shooting. On an African safari, we spend a lot of time in Land Rovers, and there's a lot of time to have nice, casual, thought-provoking discussions. We talk about that, but also shapes, color, and clean versus complicated foregrounds and backgrounds—all the kind of things that support the adjectives. That's the way that I like to challenge people into thinking about their photography a bit differently. The adjective-driven approach isn't just to keep you on track for a trip. It can be used to keep you on track for a whole body of work that you've been shooting for a decade.
Andy's video series, Lightroom Simplified, offers an in-depth approach to creating believable images both quickly and efficiently. 13 videos, 3.5 hours of step-by-step instruction.
Andy Biggs is an avid adventurer, conservationist, teacher, and outdoor photographer whose photography primarily celebrates the African landscape and its rich wildlife, people, and culture. Andy was recently named BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year in the “Wild Places” category, and his work has been showcased by Banana Republic in its Urban Safari campaign. For more on Andy’s work and information about his photographic safaris, visit his website.