A scene from The Watchmen, by Allan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Comic books are an incredibly powerful mix of illustration, storytelling, and fantasy. If you’ve ever tried just thumbing through one you’ll know how difficult they can be to put down. But there’s no need to feel guilty about it! You can learn a TON about photography by reading comic books.
How’s that for an awesome excuse to run to the comic book store?! Well, before you go, here are some elements of comic books that, as a photographer, you will find particularly educational and inspiring!
With comics you’ll likely be first drawn in by the gorgeous visuals. They’re bold, colourful, dynamic and captivating. What’s particularly special about the illustrations used in comics is that they’re not created to just look pretty. They also have to help tell complex story lines!
Wedding photographers (or photojournalists in general) are often looking to create images that tell the story of an event. With a single photo it’s often difficult (though not impossible!) to tell a whole story. To handle this challenge, wedding photographers can design wedding albums, as well as blog posts to highlight the most important elements of a wedding day. It’s not hard to see the parallels between an album and a comic book! And if you’ve noticed, blog posts are even starting to look more and more like comic books, with images being shown in multiple sizes and layouts to help tell the story!
So the next time you’re checking out a comic book, pay attention to how the illustrator is using the images to tell the story. Setting the scene, introducing the important characters, grabbing attention with high visual impact, showing the characters working through challenges, and finally coming to a resolution are all storytelling tips that are constantly used in comics that you can apply to how you shoot, and design your albums and blog posts. Wedding photography is just one example of course—you could just as easily create a great photo story of your family vacation!
2. Visual Impact
Comic books are eye-catching! The illustrators are masters at composition, perspective, and colour and tone. Not only is each panel carefully created, but they have to be incredibly varied to keep the reader’s attention.
As a photographer, the tips you can gain from the visuals of a comic book are nearly endless. The compositions alone could supply you with shot ideas for a life time. What do they include in the image? What don’t they include? How do they draw your eye around the illustration? What is it that catches your attention first? Why?
The illustrators also make sure to use different distances in their pages to keep things interesting. Wide shots to set the scene, close up face shots to show emotion, head and shoulder, 3/4 length, full length—there are so many different options to choose from! Make sure you’re using all these for yourself as well, not just to get variety, but to tell different parts of your own story.
Perspective is another powerful tool for both the comic book artist and the photographer. As you look at the book, make sure to ask yourself questions about the choices the artist made. What angle is chosen for each shot? How does that add more strength and meaning to the image? What would it look like with a different angle? How might that add or detract from the image?
When it comes to comic books, colour is a huge element. It’s so critical that the front of the book sometimes lists the author, the illustrator, and the colourist. And that’s because colour does far more than just look nice. It can create a mood, direct your eye to different elements, introduce contrast, or create harmony with complimentary colours. The more you study how the colourist used tones to enhance the story, the more you can start noticing colour as you shoot, and make it an essential tool in your photographic belt.
Despite the impressive visuals found in a comic book, you’ll probably have a difficult time understanding what’s going on without reading the speech bubbles and captions. They’re a vital part of the plot and character development and communicate tons of important information.
But you don’t often see essays in comic books. Instead, you see a lesson in efficiency. The illustrations in comics don’t have a lot of space for speech bubbles, so the writing needs to be concise and impactful. Each word is carefully chosen, and all excess must be removed.
Even though you’re a photographer, and you tell your stories with photos, that doesn’t mean you can neglect the importance of the written word. Whether captioning a photo, or writing a blog post or an email to a clients, being able to communicate efficiently and effectively is a critical skill to always be working on!
Light is one of the most important aspects of photography. It is literally how we are able to make photos! And, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, it’s just as important in comic books! What’s particularly interesting is studying how the artist uses light to create mood.
A comic book artist doesn’t have the same tools as a movie director. Often music and voice create mood, but for the illustrator, all they have is the image. So they make very good use of light to help them out. And there are lots of aspects of light to consider! What’s the source of the light, is it hard or soft, what colour is it, the shadows it creates—all of these factors can be manipulated to create a completely different feel to the same scene.
Exercise: Take a look at the excerpt from The Watchmen at the beginning of this post. Think about all the different ways light was used in those panels, and what sort of mood it created. Identify the light sources, the directions, the quality, and study the shadows. Now think about how the scene would look if it was sunny and bright. What difference would that make?
5. Body language and expression
As photographers we have to capture body language and expression. Comic book artists have to create it. The jury is out on which is more challenging, but there’s certainly a lot to learn either way!
In a comic book, the illustrator has to convery a lot of emotions and feelings to help carry the plot line along. And though words can help, the expressions and body language communicate so much more. As you flip through a comic book, pay attention to these elements, and see just how subtle the difference may be, but how much they tell you about feeling!
Now, as photographer we might not be able to completely control the expression of our subjects. We can encourage a genuine smile, but only real emotion can produce it. So instead, it is important to become accutely aware of your subject’s expressions and body language, and focus on capturing them at that moment when they are most clearly communicating their inner feelings!
So now you’re ready to head to your local comic book store and see what your favorite super heroes are up to! If you
don’t have a comic book store nearby, check out a big book store—they often have a fantastic selection of graphic novels. Your library will also be a great place to browse. Keep the above lessons in mind as you flip through, take notes, and let yourself get lost in the awesome visuals and amazing story.
Can you think of any other important lessons photographers can learn from comic books? Share your thoughts in the comments below!