Want your photo to compel onlookers to find out “the rest of the story”? Capture a scene that’s out of balance.
Whatever scene you capture, it’ll be the imbalance — the conflict between incognruence elements — that creates story appeal and adds intrigue to your photo.
When everything fits, we have no need to wonder at any kind of explanatory backstory. But when we experience the extraoardinary, not only do we pay attention, but we have a built-in need to understand the cause and meaning of the exception. A need that can’t be triggered absent imbalance or trouble.
If your wife comes home every evening at 5:30 pm, and you see her car roll into the driveway at 5:30, you’re not about to wonder why, are you? There’s no trouble, no curiosity
But if it’s 6:45 pm and she hasn’t come home or e-mailed or called, well… you’ll start to wonder why, right? And in wondering, you’ll start creating scenarios — stories! — to explain the exception to your wife’s ordinary routine. It’s called worry.
So here’s the thing: for any visual scene, there are only 5–6 basic elements at play, and the imbalance usually only occurs between two of them. For instance a person pictured might be attempting to accomplish a goal with an outlandish or rather exceptional tool. Here’s an example of just that kind of imbalance:
Of course, the image is made all the more powerful by the symbolism inherent in the incongruence. But the symbolism only enhances the story appeal inherent in the imbalance, it doesn’t create it. How do I know, because photos depicting similar action-tool imbalances create similar amounts of story appeal and intrigue:
Again, there is a lot of symbolism in these photos that helps enhance the impact, along with many visually arresting aspects of these photographs that also add to their ability to hold our attention, but these elements are additive and not generative, when it comes to story appeal. They enhance; they do not create intrigue. That’s why the heart of all these civilian-soldier photos lies the same central imbalance — the same engine for story appeal.
Another example is the action-agent imbalance. The things being done by or to a person are out of balance with the nature of the person pictured. Famous example:
And here’s a very similar photo showing the same imbalance:
And here’s a very different photo that still manages to capture that same agent-action imbalance:
What’s the point?
According to the late, great David Ogilvy the most effective, hardest working advertising images are those with what he called “Story Appeal.” Yet no one that I’ve been able to find or have heard of has ever made a methodical study of just what goes into creating story appeal within an image.
But it’s not like it’s an impossible code to crack… and I thinkI can say (without sounding too imodest, I hope) that I have cracked at least a part of that code…
Interested in reading more about this? Let me know either in the comments section or by e-mail.
P.S. There are other elements and factors that can make an image visually striking and appealing that don’t require imbalance. The extreme beauty on display in an Ansel Adams photo is one example. But wherever you find story appeal, you’ll also find imbalance.