Tips For Timeless Images
The stamp of our era is all around us. Today, cell phones abound; there is bold-branding, there are the current fashion trends and even self-driving cars. There are also trends within our own industry that come and go, and some even make their way back around. Do you remember "#jumpstagram," from the early days of Instagram? How about the single red balloon that started showing up all over the place? Before that, there was the white vignette, the WAY overdone HDR, spot color, and of course, the tilted horizon. Today, it is smoke bombs and sparklers.
Today, none of us will come across a spot color image (you know, the image of a cool car where everything is black and white, except the vehicle itself), and say to ourselves, "Wow! What a timeless photo!" Nope. It doesn't happen. That is because it is not timeless, nor will most of the other images be that were created from temporary trends.
I am not saying that every image you create has to qualify as being 'timeless.' It does not. So, if you have shot your share of smoke bombs or sparklers, take no offense. I have made my own contributions to the trend pool. Sometimes it is fun just to play around, even with trends, and it is also important not to take ourselves too seriously.
Here's an example of an image that I believe is 100% timeless:
What's more timeless than clouds?
I know. It seems a bit silly and it's not at all an inspiring image, but the example stands true. Since the dawn of man, we have all looked to the sky and seen clouds, and every single person that has seen them relates to them in their own way. Achieving the timelessness of clouds in any image would be difficult, so, I think part of striving to create timeless works is knowing that they probably won't ever be 100% timeless, and that's okay.
Creating Timeless Images
Editing is arguably the biggest threat to timelessness today. Since digital technology came strutting onto the scene, we have been able to take an image, immediately transfer it to editing software and go ham. This isn't a bad thing, but it's all too easy to overdo it. I made some real Photoshop monstrosities before I got a handle on things. It's also far too easy to fall into trending edits as well. Not that long ago, giving a "vintage" look to your images was trendy. The result was often muddy tones, grayed blacks, and poorly muted highlights.
So, what do you do? Well, obviously, if you use Mastin Labs when editing your images, you're in no danger because the presets are designed to replicate actual films so very accurately that they have an inherent timeless quality to them. Beyond that, when editing for timelessness, naturalness is key. Don't overcorrect skin or make eyes bling and sparkle like a disco ball. Keep it natural. If you think you may have overdone it, you probably did. Step away from the edit and come back later to look at it.
Below is an example of some embarrassingly old work of mine. I shot the image in multiple frames and went to town in photoshop. I mean, it's not the worst, but it is nothing close to timeless; the stylized editing being at the forefront of reasons why.
About 100 miles away from timelessness.
Something that I believe all timeless images have in common is a clear subject and purpose. The subject of the photograph is without question, and anything else in the image relates directly to the story of that subject.
When composing your shots, take absolutely everything in the frame into account. If it doesn't relate to the subject in a meaningful way, it probably doesn't need to be there.
Here is a straightforward portrait of the musician, Taylor Cole.
Portrait of Musician, Taylor Cole. By Chris Daniels
Portraits are one of the instances that it will be challenging to make 100% timeless. There will be some reflection of time if the person is clearly portrayed. I still would say that this portrait falls in the category for it's simplicity and attention to the subject.
If there are too many things going on around the subject, even if they all matter to the story, chaos strikes in the eye of the viewer and there are no clear paths for the eyes to follow. It comes down to balance. You can have many things going on, but they need to balance one another out, maintaining the ultimate focus on the subject.
If you're photographing someone in a busy scene or environment, be aware of how the lines and colors of the area affect the outcome of the image.
Below is an image that I made of my friend, Brady. I still like the general concept, but as you can see, the image is just far too busy. Brady himself has a lot going on with his wardrobe and props and standing in a kitchen lined with pots and pans, appliances, reflective hardwood, and horrid 90's cabinets. . . it's just too much. The image doesn't work. If I'd taken him and his props and placed him on a backdrop, it would have been much cleaner.
Less is more.
Too much happening in the image. The eyes don't know where to go. By Chris Daniels
That's Better. By Chris Daniels, edited with Mastin Labs Tri-X 400 preset
When I was a child, I saw a photo of my dad from before I was born. He was sitting on top of a picnic table, sporting very short cut-offs, no shirt, and a bandanna tied around his head that was pinching his curly fro. In his hand was a Budweiser and a pack of Marlboro's was laying on the table.
Reflecting on it now, I think, "Damn, dad. Kind of a hip badass, weren't ya?" As cool as my dad was/is in that photo, I don't think that I could classify it as timeless because there are so many indicators in the image of the time period. It was not only the way he was dressed, but there were also lots of little things like the Budweiser, the pack of Marlboro's, and their specific branding of that time.
For timeless images, try to be aware of the small details; the kind of things that we don't think about because they are so very normal to us, such as logos, brands, cars, and very time-specific clothes and fashion.
When striving to create timeless photos, your goal is to make an image that in ten, twenty, or more years down the road, a complete stranger can't quite pinpoint when it was made, yet it still captures their attention. I hope these guidelines help do that.