Photography as Designed Experience

Although I love my work helping organizations deliver more human-centered experiences, wildlife photography is what feeds my creative self.

In many ways, it could not be more different from UX. Tracking gorillas up muddy jungle slopes or creeping up close (but not too close!) to a polar bear makes even the craziest user research seem tame. Unlike in design, there is no need for team consensus or commitment; my vision is the only one that matters. However, there is in some way less control of the outcome: Mother Nature decides what the light or the wildlife will do, and her constraints are non-negotiable.

Although photography is far more art than design, a photo is still very much a designed user experience. Before I click the shutter—sometimes even before I go out in the field— I know what story I want to tell, what feeling I want to share, and where I want the viewer to look. This drives my choices about exposure, composition, and timing, just as you make decisions about layout and copy and defaults to drive conversion on a page. If you ever use photos in your work, understanding these choices can help you create or select images that tell the right story. Here are a few examples.

Hidden at the edge of an oasis in Botswana, I watched and listened as a flock of thousands of quelias (small songbirds) swirled about, zooming down to the water for a quick drink or bath, then fluttering away again en masse. I wanted to capture the sense of being surrounded by chaotic motion, so I slowed down my camera’s shutter speed just enough to blur the birds’ wings as they flew, but fast enough to show the trailing water droplets. I adjusted the depth of field (the amount of distance in focus, determined by the aperture or f-stop) to leave the impression of many more birds in the background. The lack of a single focal point in the image helps create that sense of not knowing where to look.

 Quelias at an oasis in Botswana. Image © Kim Goodwin.

It’s amazing to see the tight, loving bonds between lions and their cubs. Very young cubs, especially, cling to mom even tighter than nerds cling to our smartphones. To tell that story, I composed this image of small cubs crowding around their mother’s back legs, nearly clinging to her as she walks. Her legs are between her young and the possible danger posed by the human viewer. You don’t need to see the whole mother lion to understand the story; the tight crop and monochrome treatment ensure that the image is about the cubs and their relationship to the lioness.

 Mother lion and her cubs. Image © Kim Goodwin.

The Arctic pack ice near the North Pole is vast and eerie. However, it’s hard to communicate scale in a landscape without some point of reference, provided in this case by a polar bear. Standing on her hind legs and looking toward the horizon, she seems to share our wonder at the endless, empty view. Composing with the bear to the right of the frame emphasizes the distant horizon she is looking toward. And although a 50/50 split of land and sky is usually not an ideal composition, the contrasting band of lighter-colored clouds emphasizes the cold bluish-gray of the sky.

 Arctic pack ice and a polar bear. Image © Kim Goodwin.

Watching chimpanzees in the wild, it’s not hard to believe they are our closest relatives. Their behaviors, gestures, postures, and facial expressions make them incredibly relatable. I wanted to capture that sense of connection, so when I saw this chimp posing a bit like Rodin’s “Thinker,” I crawled up close for a tight portrait that would focus on the most “human” aspects: the hand and face. The direct eye contact says, “I’m watching you as much as you’re watching me.” Shooting from close by and at eye level increases the sense of intimacy.

 Chimpanzee in the wild. Image © Kim Goodwin.

A walrus on land is awkward and slow, but in water, it deserves a great deal of respect! Having the lens just above the water’s surface makes it clear that a 2000-pound bull walrus is headed straight for you; being up higher in a boat wouldn’t achieve the same effect. The high-contrast black and white treatment emphasizes the powerful wake he makes in the water.

 Bull walrus and his wake. Image © Kim Goodwin.

These are just a few examples of how choices about perspective, composition, color, shutter speed, and depth of field can tell a story. Whether you’re shooting your own images or selecting stock, consider the impression you want to leave the viewer, and how each of these elements either reinforces or undermines the experience you want to create.

Kim Goodwin

Kim Goodwin

Kim Goodwin is the bestselling author of Designing for the Digital Age. She has spent over 20 years in UX, both consulting and in-house. She helps organizations build their internal design capabilities through coaching and organizational change management. Previously, Kim was VP of Design & General Manager at Cooper, a leading design and strategy agency in San Francisco. She was also VP of Product and User Experience at PatientsLikeMe, where she guided designers and PMs in combining a patient support network with a medical research platform. She now speaks and teaches regularly at UX conferences around the world. Kim is based near San Francisco, but often in another time zone; whether herding cats in a conference room or photographing wildlife in places with no Internet access.

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