“I need a hero,
I’m holding out for a hero ’til the end of the night” – Bonnie Tyler
Back in the 80s when we wore our hair BIG and our jeans acid washed, Bonnie Tyler had a hit single called Hero. I know every word off by heart because I used to sing it into my hairbrush and pretend I was an 80s pop star.
The word “hero” applies to many different things. The fireman that rescues the kitty stuck in a tree is a hero. The footballer who kicks the winning goal in overtime is a hero. And late at night after a long hard day, vanilla ice cream with Nutella is my hero (the ice cream’s organic – don’t judge me).
In the photography world, the word “hero” is used to describe the shot, it could be the cover image of a magazine or the opening shot of an editorial spread. The hero shot is the best image, the one that captures the vibe or mood or best tells the story.
Within the hero image there also needs to be a hero. It’s the one thing in the photo that stands out. Every powerful photo has a hero, without a hero, a photo is reduced to a snapshot.
Creating an image with a hero can be tricky sometimes, and easily missed.
When I’m in a new location and see an epic landscape, I’m always tempted to shoot wide and include everything I see in that shot, because I want to show it all; the river, the sky, the grass, the mountains and the birds (I’m obsessed with birds in flight).
The problem with trying to show everything is I end up with a photo that is too overwhelming. I call this the “gelato effect”. Whenever I go into an ice cream shop that has 50 different flavours of ice cream, I can never decide which flavour I want. There are too many choices. They all blur into one. The rich chocolate flavours, the fruit sorbets, the vanillas all become one confusing mess. It’s exhausting. There is never a stand out because I have too many choices. It’s called “ice cream fatigue”. This is not the official term – I made it up – but the kind of fatigue we suffer when offered too many choices is real.
Studies have shown that when the brain is given too many options it becomes overwhelmed and struggles to make a decision. When the process is simplified and fewer choices are offered, the brain has an easier time deciding what it likes and making a choice.
When I was a kid my folks used to buy a three-flavoured ice cream tub; vanilla, chocolate and strawberry. The choice was a no-brainer, vanilla stood out. It was the hero in the neapolitan ice cream pack.
A photograph that is rich in detail but lacking in one strong element, a hero, becomes overwhelming to look at. Think of the effect this is having on the poor image-weary viewer who is bombarded by thousands of images each day. If you want your images to get noticed and stand out, consider simplifying your message and making one thing in your photo stand out.
Here are a few of my favourite techniques to create a hero in each of my photos.
Depth of field
Lighting, contrast and angles
Adding a small “dook” of light to the face draws the viewer to that spot.
Underexposing the background, making it darker than my subject, also helps draw the eye to my hero in this portrait.
The final technique I’ve used in this image is to lower my angle of view. Shooting from a lower viewpoint makes people in your portraits look heroic. This only works with a longer focal length of 70mm+. Attempting this low angle with a wide lens distorts the subject and I’m yet to hear a model say “wow, I love how big my chin, hands and feet look with that wide angle lens!”
Keep it simple
This image was taken at an epic location and I could have easily photographed Lucy among the columns or included the entire historic building in the photo. The problem with this is the background would have overpowered Lucy and she would be dwarfed in the frame. I instead opted for a simple background and used the lines of the stairs to create a simple canvas where there is no doubt that Lucy is the hero of this shot.
Have you been photographing the entire ice cream shop or just one flavour? Now if you’ll excuse me, all this discussion about ice cream is making me hungry… “I need a heroooooo….”