Photographers Should Think Like Composers

Words by Scott Bourne - A Platypod Pro
Edited by Eryka Bagwell

Try imagining a musical score for your next photograph.

There is a relationship between music and photography. Everyone can hear music with their mind, regardless of playing any musical instrument. By "hearing" music while photographing, one can enhance their storytelling skills and pre-visualize the final image.

Many well-known photographers (including myself) are also musicians. Ansel Adams was a concert pianist. Contemporary photographers like Scott Kelby and Rick Sammon are also talented musicians. Conversely, several well-known musicians are also well-known for their photography - such as Graham Nash and Lenny Kravitz.

Often, (especially when I am working alone,) I hear music in my head that seems to go with the subject or location or situation I find myself photographing.

I have always edited my photos to music. I take inspiration from the music when I am making editorial choices in Photoshop. But lately I've taken to "hearing" something while I am also busy trying to "see" something, and happen to have a camera (instead of a computer mouse) in my hand.

Let me stop you right now if you are saying - "Scott, I cannot play any musical instrument."

It doesn't matter. If you can HEAR music with your ears, you can hear it with your mind.

I will oversimplify and then get back on track in a moment.

Imagine you are photographing bald eagles as they are fishing - they are predators in this moment - apex predators to be exact - so you might hear the score from JAWS in your head and have fun with it.

Now back to my main theme...

Whether or not you can play or compose music, you can "remember" music that might match your scene and if you are musically inclined, it gets even better.

I have always viewed myself as a storyteller first and photography is just a vehicle for telling the story. When I am in the field, I have to find ways to entertain myself (bird photography sometimes requires four to five hour stints where you just sit in a blind and wait.) So I write music (in my head) that fits the occasion.

I try to come up with musical themes that support my intended final image. (Read up on pre-visualization.) Knowing what I want to capture BEFORE I get my camera out of the bag is part of what makes me a successful storyteller. Adding music is just one more way to enhance the story. And if you don't think music is important, I'll leave you with this.

I was once in a room with John Williams, (at the AFI Tribute to John Williams.) In that same room were many mega stars of TV, sports, movies, etc. When Mr. Williams entered the room there was a standing ovation and then almost a hush. When there were breaks in the program, one by one, some of the most famous people in the world went to shake his hand or speak to him.

He's one of the finest composers of all time. He is an icon. He wrote the scores to “Jaws,” “Star Wars,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Jurassic Park,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Superman” and “Harry Potter," to name just some of his more famous works. He has received more than 50 Oscar nominations.

And no less than a fellow icon (Steven Spielberg) said of Mr. Williams...

"Without John Williams, bikes don't really fly, nor do brooms in Quidditch matches. Dinosaurs do not walk the Earth, there is no Force, we do not wonder, we do not weep, we do not believe."

I couldn't say it any better. But just in case you don't get it. What Mr. Spielberg was saying was that the movies he made simply wouldn't have existed (and certainly wouldn't have won mass acclaim) without the music - in this case - the music of John Williams.

It was then and there that it dawned on me that we (image makers) can score photographs like musicians score movies. We only have to score one frame. It is actually pretty easy once you get the hang of it and it is a further form of self-expression.

I should note that while I have been recording my own music for my slide shows for several years, I hadn't really considered the notion of "HEARING" that music even when I was in the field capturing the images so this concept is a little bit (eight years) old to me too. But it works.

I want to stress that you never have to play, perform or record this music - although it's cool if you can do that. It's just important that you hear it in your mind and let it take over your creative side as you work.

In case your interested, here's a piece I put together early in the pandemic with a little help from some friends. I played guitar on this video which was comprised of imagery I captured and collected over a five year period and just decided to cut together into a slide show. I am not saying its great but I am saying it demonstrates how this can work.


Give it a try. Put on your musical self the next time you go out on a photo expedition.

P.S. If you think this idea of mixing disciplines like music and photography is off point, ponder this. At that same AFI tribute, none other than the late, great Kobe Bryant explained that he’d approached Mr. Williams during his Laker career to figure out how the composer did it. “John’s music created a level of perfection that I wanted to replicate on the basketball court,” he said. “I thought if I could understand it, I might be able to replicate it.”

I don't care if it's the music of Mr. Williams that inspires you or if it comes from Tupac - find a musical voice in your head when you're composing your photographs. I bet you will come up with something great. I am rooting for you.

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