Where’s Waldo? Finding the Hidden Elements in Your Viewfinder

(You can also read our Fuel Your Photography article in it's original place here.)

Growing up I loved getting new Where’s Waldo books. Opening the first page, I would scan the hectic scene looking for the prized Waldo.

As I searched, my thoughts tended to go something like this: “Well, there’s a red and white scarf, but no, that’s not waldo. A red hat with a white tassel rests on the ground over there… here’s a pair of blue pants… and oh look! It’s a mermaid helping a sailor from drowning, and there’s an ice cream cone with 15 scoops piled up. Mmmm ice cream. I want some ice cream. Wait! I’m looking for Waldo! Let’s try over here in this corner.”

And thus would the minutes tick away, and I would peruse my way through the book. Upon reaching the end, I would go back and find the extras that I missed completely the first time– a broken wagon wheel, a human pyramid, or a dancing fish… and thus I lost hours of my life to my quest for finding Waldo.

Years later, I am now a photographer. The true gift I love to give people is a glimpse into the way I view the world. The way the light falls on the little bridesmaid’s hair, or the gentle smile of the grandmother looking at her only granddaughter on her wedding day. I try to make my images show the specific thing I see; tell the story I want to share.

So often our photo students will have an image they are in love with because of a certain expression on a child’s face. Yet there is so much going on in the image, that all I see is the broken boxes and telephone pole coming out of his head and the logo on the shirt that is mismatched with the plaid shorts. If the magic they want to show is the expression on the face, that is what should be the first thing I see. The way you expose the photograph, choose setting for lighting, and elements included in the frame should all work towards the end of showing that goal: the expression.

Here’s an example of something I shot of my own kids one Saturday morning during cartoons:
You see my laptop, our kitchen table, christmas tree, coffee table, mug… your eye will be most drawn to the blank floor in the middle. Yet if i take a few steps closer i can create a much different experience for you as the viewer.
You know exactly what to look at; you see what I see. I don’t have to hunt anywhere. I don’t lose my train of thought on the way to figuring out the purpose of the image.

Looking at a successful image, my only thoughts will be something like this, “Wow. I love the way this draws me in. I feel peaceful. Look at the way that wave traces the sand directly leading to their feet. They look like they are having such a good time. I want a picture of me like this.”

Your goal may not be just an expression, but a body position, or a movement or interaction between two people or the shape of a tree in a landscape. But whatever it is, your viewers should be able to know your intent immediately. You can have depth and subtleties that aren’t noticed until further exploration, but the main idea should be immediately visible.

What makes good Where’s Waldo books? Enough distractions from keeping you from finding the focal point. Choose to be bad Where’s Waldo Photographers. Focus on your goal.

Good Photography = Bad Where’s Waldo Books.

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