The Soul of an Image

On one level, this is a photograph of a female sperm whale executing a playful flick of her fluke at the ocean surface.

female sperm whale at ocean surface
Stories are to images as souls are to people

The thing about photography though, at least for me, is that images should be about more than just taking a snapshot of a particular moment in time.

Compelling photos, those that make you sit and stare for a while, are ones that convey stories. In fact, the more intricate the stories are, and the "deeper" (excuse the pun) the tales go…the more memorable the image.

Take the photo above. It's by no means the most exciting picture of a sperm whale I've ever taken, but I like it…in large part because there are multiple stories embedded within the image.

I could, for instance, describe the immediate experience of having a 12-metre toothed cetacean swim up, take a look at you, then saunter off in a nonchalant manner. Woohoo!

Or…to look beyond the actual encounter…I could tell you about the series of events that led up to this face-to-face rendezvous: the dozens of whales we came across, the interactions among them, and how this particular individual seemed to fit in to the cetacean family's activities for the day.

To go beyond even that, I could tell you about the hundreds of hours I've devoted over the years to sitting and waiting for whales like this…enduring extreme boredom in the process but also loving every second.

I could elaborate, and talk about how little knowledge we have about large marine mammals in general, because…well…they just don't spend much time in places and conditions that make it easy for us to observe them. And even when they do, they often have more pressing matters to attend to than entertaining inquisitive landlubbers.

I could tell you about how this whale and its family group were similar to, and different from, other sperm whale families I've encountered in the past.

I could tell you about the first time I met a sperm whale, about how scared I was due to ignorance (they do have big mouths and big teeth, after all); how it decided to take my leg into its mouth (which, naturally, exacerbated my trepidation); and how I finally ended up making friends with the inquisitive animal (after taking back possession of all my limbs), resulting an experience that literally changed the course of my life.

Stepping back even more, I could tell you about the sad history of men and leviathans, about how "intelligent" humans, for many years, saw these majestic animals as a source of blubber and spermaceti…used to make truly important things like margarine.

My point is this: Stories are to images as souls are to people.

There has been and continues to be a lot of chatter on the net about gear…new cameras, different formats, amazing lenses, manufacturer A vs. manufacturer B, lighting modifiers, and so forth.

Gear is important. There is no question about it.

But when it comes time to create an image, it's what you do with the gear that matters. It's the story/ stories you convey.

In the final analysis, it's the soul of the image that counts, not your choice of hardware.