Why good photography and copywriting is Lean
By Alan S. Morrison
When Mark spoke about Lean to St Andrews Business Club in September 2016 it made complete sense to me because I’ve already been applying its principles in my work for 30 years without realising it.
At its heart, Lean is about eliminating waste in order to maximise value creation. Using less to create more value.
I first learned about the idea of eliminating waste to simplify something when I was introduced to Occam’s Razor while studying Logic as part of the Philosophy half of my first degree at the University of Glasgow in the 1980s.
It teaches that the simplest solution tends to be the right one. So in formal logic equations should be reduced to their simplest form by removing as many elements as possible.
As a keen photographer I realised that this principle applies to photography too as, with most photos, less is more. Minimising the number of elements in a photo, by framing, cropping or editing, makes it simpler to read at a glance and on further analysis, making it more direct and powerful.
Look at the two photos below. They’re the same scene, but by limiting the depth of field (what’s in focus) to the key element in the foreground in the top one I’ve simplified the picture and made it more powerful than the version beneath, which has too much to distract the eye from the subject (the photo on the wall).
Similarly, most photos are made more powerful by converting them to monochrome. Doing this strips out any unnecessary and distracting colour information (we associate colours with emotions and ideas), reducing it to its basic form of shapes and lines. Again, the result is a photo simpler for the eye and brain to read and results in a more powerful impact.
See the example below, where I’ve also used cropping to reduce the image I started with (on top) to its basic elements.
This idea was summed up for me in a conversation I had with a professional photographer in the 1990s. I asked him what the difference was between an amateur and a professional photo. His answer – a professional decides what the picture’s about and makes it just about that. Amateurs have a tendency to add others things, confusing the message by adding more things to ‘read’ and therefore reducing its impact.
Of course, complex pictures can be powerful too. But they typically do so where the detail is so small that when the eye reads it, it becomes abstracted to its basic forms – shapes and lines and the ‘frame dynamic’ created by the interaction between them – how they make the eye move around the photo. You see this in aerial photography and photos of big crowds.
Less is more with copywriting too. Again, fewer things for the brain to input and understand means a quicker, more powerful impact.
I learned that when studying for my postgraduate diploma in journalism at Cardiff.
Which of the following headlines grabs you more and makes you want to read the story?
Alan S. Morrison, former journalist, editor and picture editor, becomes President of St Andrews Business Club
Alan becomes President
This principle is rooted in the National Council for the Training of Journalists’ standard copy style book – the first paragraph of a news story should be a summary of it in 25 words or less. Most stories can be reduced to that.
The details are then explained, in order of priority, in the following paragraphs. The reason is so that if a story has to be cut to a small space, the sub-editor can simply cut it from the bottom to fit the space available and as long as it’s been written properly the most essential details will automatically be left.
The best example of economy in copywriting is the advertising slogan voted Greatest Slogan of the 20th Century – “A Diamond is Forever”. Could you express the thoughts it conveys in fewer words? Would more add more? I’d answer no to both questions.
You can hear about the story behind its creation in this episode of the excellent BBC Radio 4 documentary series Marketing: Hacking the Unconscious.
Lean processes in photography
The drive to process efficiency at the heart of Lean is also vital in photography.
In photography you need to make taking a photo as simple as possible or you may miss what Henri Cartier-Bresson coined ‘The Decisive Moment’ – the best time to take the photo of an event to capture the image which will communicate it most effectively. You can see his most famous example here.
This is why news photography capturing events as they actually happened only took off after film and cameras allowed the short exposure times necessary to do so. Before, exposures over a second or longer meant the moment would be lost through motion even if the camera was pointing in the right direction, unless the photo was being staged.
The process to frame and shoot a picture also needs to be optimised to the minimum possible if you are to capture the Decisive Moment. Hence the importance of shutter lag – the delay between you pressing the shutter button and the picture being taken – and how much detail an Electronic Viewfinder shows you and its refresh rate – how quickly you will see what you want to capture.
Process efficiency is also one of the main reasons Adobe Lightroom is so popular with news and PR photographers (or anyone needing to process pictures as quickly as possible) compared to Photoshop.
It’s breakthrough innovation was designing it around an optimised logical workflow which takes you from one module to another left-to-right and within each module you should work from the top panel to the bottom to work from essential to optional tweaks. Within each module and panel you’re shown just the tools you need to see at that stage.
Lightroom also uses ‘Presets’ – sets of settings saved under one named action – to save time. So when bringing photos to be processed into it you can use an Import Preset to copy it to a set location, back it up to another, apply a standard set of ‘development’ actions to them and add the photographer’s and client’s details and keywords to them. All at once by selecting just one setting.
So, without realising it, I’ve been practicing Lean principles all my career.
If you want to write great copy and create impactful photos, you should be using Lean principles too.
Alan S. Morrison tells brands stories via copywriting, PR and photography at ASM Media & PR. You can find out more about him and his work on his website.