Feature Story

Communication is Essential to Great Photography

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The greatest photographers in the world have three things in common, a creative eye, the comprehension of their equipment and the ability to communicate both to their subject and the intended audience—or as I like to say, the three C's of photography, creativity, comprehension and communication. At some point in our lives, we often hear that communication or the lack of communication is the root of all problems, so I will focus on communication since most photography involves some sort of dialogue between a photographer and a subject.

First, in order to better understand communication, a photographer should take from what is known as the "mother of all models," the Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver's 1949 communication model. This communication model is composed of the following elements—a sender (information source), a message, a transmission, a channel, a receiver and a destination. In this mix you also have the concept of noise, or interference.

Photographers are the information sources that transmit visual and verbal communication to their subjects. A photographer's voice is the transmitter outlet, and like all transmitters, if that outlet fails, the message will not be heard as it was intended and the results usually have a negative impact on the subject. Subjects also subconsciously study signals from the body language of the photographer that can impact their perceptions about the photographer's professionalism and abilities.

The channel is the photography session and if that session experiences noise, or distractions, such as the phone ringing, clock-watching because the subject or photographer has other commitments, etc., the message will suffer its effect. If a photographer is having problems with equipment, usually because it was not checked before the subject arrived, this provides a distraction that will impact the confidence the subject has in the photographer and will impact the shoot. An unconfident subject will produce a tight face, without the corners of the eyes in harmony with the corners of the lips, there is no face or real photograph. The photographer and the subject are merely left with a picture of an uncomfortable subject.

The subject is the receiver. If the receiver does not accept the channel, say the subject doesn't like the location of the photo session or the props, then the receiver and the sender will experience interference and the entire photo session becomes a failure.

The destination is the final photographs, not pictures; anyone can take "happy snaps," but few can create photographs. In order to produce a great photograph, the subject and the photographer must arrive at the same destination or conclusion.

Communication doesn't start the moment a photographer picks up their camera, it starts the first time any contact is made with the potential subject whether it be by phone, email or in person. Communication, like rapport, is ongoing from the first contact to the shoot itself and down to the delivery of the final images themselves along with any follow-up. It's imperative photographers are careful with the words and tone they choose to communicate.

Photographers should understand that emails are printed words and often sound harsher than spoken words as there is no verbal or visual tone to help decode the actual intention of the communicated message. The right tone or inflection of another person's voice, often helps convey a message more clearly than if the words were merely printed. A printed word without clarification can create noise that will cause the subject (receiver) to shut down, while the right words or vocal tone can weave clear channels of reception. Emails normally don't allow us to view body language, another form of visual communication from the sender to the receiver.

As an example, when I physically talk to my subjects before a shoot, I'm usually sitting down and directly across from them. This posture places us both at the same eye-contact level. I avoid standing if my subject sits during a conversation, as I do not want to give the appearance I'm looking down upon my subject in conversation. While photographing my subject, I normally shoot from a lower position, usually bellybutton up, which also gives my subject the feeling they are upon a pedestal.

Ultimately as photographers we must be careful in what we say, when we say it, how we say it and where we say it, when communicating to our subjects. Like a doctor practicing great beside manners with a patient, a photographer must practice professionalism when communicating with a subject and following the concepts of the Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver's communication model will help ensure a photographer will have not root problems with their subjects.

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11 responses

  • Justin Case

    Justin Case   gave props (5 May 2010):


  • Juan Origel

    Juan Origel gave props (5 May 2010):

    Great Read.

  • Tony Oquias

    Tony Oquias said (13 May 2010):

    It's easy to see the importance of communicating with a subject in a commercial or fashion shoot but how do you communicate (body language included), if at all, with the subject when you are doing photojournalism work? Are there situations where it's alright to communicate and influence the final image, like "put your hand here" or "look that way"? Thanks :-)

  • Rolando Gomez

    Rolando Gomez   said (13 May 2010):

    Obviously it depends on the photojournalism situation, for example, when I photographed NBA games, I obviously could not ask the player to go back and dunk the ball. When I photographed the falling of the Berlin Wall in 1989, I could not say build the wall back up and let's do it again. In spot news and sports events, normally you can't and its traditionally against journalism ethics to do otherwise--photographers have lost their jobs over such situations.

    However, in an "environmental portrait" of an individual for a "feature story," as a photojournalist, you can control the situation somewhat. It's about common sense and ethics.

    Where communication is very important to a photojournalist, is when talking to the right people to get you "access" to the venue, especially when photographing high-profile subjects or events. It's about access as a photojournalist and communication can get you access or get you denied access.

  • John Linton

    John Linton gave props (13 May 2010):

    Hell YEAH! Rad!

  • Debbie Smartt

    Debbie Smartt   said (30 Sep 2010):

    Thanks for the great read Rolando! Voted!

  • Dean Askin

    Dean Askin said (26 Dec 2010):

    As a professional communicator in my career and a semi-pro photographer (both in my career above, and on the side), I can really relate to this piece and totally agree. The best shots happen before you press the shutter button, because you've taken the time to build a rapport/relationship with the people you're photographing. Great piece!

  • adeline herrman

    adeline herrman gave props (7 Jan 2011):

    great storie

  • Michele Wambaugh

    Michele Wambaugh (Deleted) said (8 May 2012):


  • John Bost

    John Bost said (26 Sep 2012):

    As a former model I agree with you.Rolando you have mad skills.I agree with the three Cs.It's true you will show what you feel.My clients in Italy liked me looking mad for the editorials.So when the prima donna photographers showed up hours late.They got a pissed off model and I got paid.

    I always tried to tell a story without words as a model.I don't like the models that can only smile and look pretty.They are a dime a dozen.I like profiles and candids more than a straight look into the camera.The photographer that understands this may mold them into something special by communication and and patience.

  • Andy Tuttle

    Andy Tuttle (Deleted) gave props (26 Nov 2015):

    Thanks for the help!

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