What’s my motivation?

Playing around with developing film has brought a bit of enlightenment my way.  I have a hint of what photographers mean when they speak of the “tone” of an image. Keep in mind this particular use of the word isn’t concerned with the grey scale range, or the Zone system, or the exposure, but rather the sense being offered by the image.  What it feels like, in essence.

And it helps me realize there are some technical aspects of image quality that are simply not relevant, as only film can portray.

Here are two examples.  First, a landscape image.  For this I expect sharp focus throughout the image, good exposures and colors, a composition that gives a sense of perspective and dimension.

Half Dome from Olmsted Point

I intentionally waiting until someone walked into the composition to give a frame of reference to the scene.  It helps show that the subject – Half Dome – is quite a ways off and that if she is thinking of walking there it’s going to be a bit before she gets there.

The second example is less of a landscape image and more of a setting.  This is B&W film, ISO 400 (about 5 years past expiration date), developed by me, scanned and processed digitally.  This is the image that caught my attention and started me to thinking about “tone”.  This image is grainy, not color, no sense of perspective, and exposed only moderately well.  By the standards of the first image it is not as technically “good”.  Yet it has a quality about it that is engaging, at least to me.  Whereas the landscape above gives a place, the image below gives a mood.  Maybe you sense the same mood I do or perhaps you get something different, but it does elicit a sense of something – something different from the image above.  And that something is independent of the technical quality of the image.


And this is what got me to thinking.  Technical quality only carries an image so far, that without the “tone” I’m talking about the picture is really just a documentary about a point in time.  Nothing wrong with that.  But the really interesting photos, the memorable ones, they have something else about them.  And that something is contained in the essence of the scene, not the technical aspects of the image.  The most perfect exposure, focus, contrast and color is important for the first image, but it would be essentially wasted on the second one.

The first glimmer I had of this notion was going through an exhibit of Pulitzer Prize winning images.  Many of them would be instantly recognizable and equally memorable.  They are part of our collective visual consciousness.  Yet looking at them enlarged, framed and hanging on a wall, critiquing them like the fresh photography student I was at the time, I said to myself, “these are really crappy images.”  Poor focus, harsh exposures, odd cropping – many technical reasons that would fault an image as part of a portfolio.  Nonetheless, looking at them as a person, the “tone” of each image jumped off the wall to make an impression.

Maybe it’s something about B&W that encourages this.  Without the seduction of color it’s possible to pay more attention to what the composition says rather than what it looks like.  Maybe digital has actually exceeded film for technical quality, and I’ve gotten so caught up in chasing that razor sharp resolution I’ve lost sight of one key purpose of photography – to tell stories – that returning to film enables me to recover.  All I know is I’m starting to see compositions and worrying less about the technical aspects and more about the content.  It’s an interesting evolution.

What to leave in, what to take out

Composition is all about making an image interesting to the viewer.  It might be the subject, the story behind the subject, the overall beauty of the image, the processing – any number of things that simply render an image “look-able.”  For me, composition is about the hardest part of this image creation thing.

Hang around photographers long enough and you’ll hear them talk about what’s important in the picture.  Since an image is a static thing, having just the right elements – and no more – in the frame is crucial to a great photo.  Rules of thumb, hearsay, myth, you name it – there are all sorts of ways to approach this aspect of composition.  The final judgement, though, is the photographer’s.  What’s in the photo is there because the photographer wanted it there.

Part of the psychology is about keeping the viewer’s eye in the frame of the image.  The longer you look at a photo the more about it you will see, which usually leads to looking longer for more interesting things.  With that, compositional elements that ‘block’ the eye from leaving the image are usually suggested.  But are they always necessary?

Consider the following:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYour basic autumn image.  For the second image I lowered my camera just enough to capture the next row of lighter color, essentially ‘blocking’ the lower edge of the image.  Does this indeed keep your eye in the photo?  In doing so, however, I lost the strip of white cloud visible at the top of the first image.  Was that keeping your eye in the image?  Does losing it now ‘open’ the top of the image?

My opinion is the lighter strip in the second image distracts from the subject, which is the colorful trees.  For me, the first image starts with a monochrome bottom, with horizontal strips leading my eye up to the trees.  Subtle as it is, the white strip at the top actually does halt my scanning and I return to the trees.  The bottom of the second image feels like a false frame that doesn’t really support the upper part of the image.

So, as the photographer, I prefer (and would display) the first image.  Which would you choose if it were your viewfinder?

Does culture bias our dynamic perception?

The vast majority of people in western culture perceive visual information from left to right, generally because that’s how our written language is displayed.  Confronted with a new scene, we usually look to the left first and scan to the right.  Research has also shown that we have a lower vs. higher bias – we tend to look downward before looking upward.  Knowing these biases exist reveals a little about the “power points” discussed in photography.

An image with the main subject in the middle of the composition is usually perceived as being static rather than dynamic, a documentary recording of what was in the scene at the time.  Photography instruction emphasizes compositions that are more dynamic, that imply motion in the scene or tension among the elements.  Applying the above biases, you can see where a subject that is toward the left and below the centerline of a scene will be perceived first in an image, standing out initially from the rest of the scene.

This image obeys those biases.  The milkweed pod is indeed below the centerline and to the left of the image.  Yet it feels not that interesting, not as dynamic as it could be.  I’ve made many images that followed these two rules and still disappoint.

There’s another aspect of certain subjects and that’s how they guide our eyes through an image.  A symmetrical subject will encourage our eye to stay focused on it but a subject with any directionality to it (a point, a bulge, a curve) tends to lead our eye along the asymmetrical part.  In the image above, the pods curve into a point, and that point is – well – pointing to the left.  Our eye wants to follow that point and does so right out of the image.  In order for the viewer to look at the right side of the image they have to re-enter the image.

Essentially the same scene but here the milkweed pod is more on the right side of the composition while still below the center line.  The “point” on the pod leads the eye to the area of the composition where the majority of the space is located, giving the eye plenty of room to explore within the image and return to the subject without leaving the frame.

Does it seem silly that a small bias like this might influence how we view images?  Does it seem annoying that visual artists exploit such biases to control how we enjoy their work?  Does it mean all I need do in order to create a “masterpiece” is to follow placement biases?

Well, artists work to show the world as they see it, sharing that vision with us but not compelling us to buy into it.  Great visual art has more subtlety about it than simply obeying (or breaking) conventional rules and I feel most viewers acknowledge that, perhaps even subconsciously, when they look and enjoy.

It’s important to understand that we have these internal biases and fun to know or speculate on how they evolved.  As a starting point in visual creation be aware of them but rigidly following them usually doesn’t reveal the artist’s real view of the scene.  For that one has to incorporate some form of expression – what is the scene saying to you, how does the scene make you feel, what compelled you to look at the scene and what compels you to continue looking at it?  Incorporate those expressions in visual art, working the known biases in favor of maximum function, and your images will start standing out from your prior efforts and those of others.

Look up sometimes

A new location is so much fun to scout for new compositions.  And you find them in the most unexpected places.  Here we’ve got a place in the mostly rural area with a real forest behind, and I find this interesting repetition under the deck.  What caught my eye was the repeating trapezoid shape of the light coming through the spaces between the decking, and the random irregularities of the wood across the length of the boards.  Color was pretty much not relevant to this composition – the grey tones give all the contrasting light and dark needed to see the subject.

Stable balance left to right

Visited the geographical center of the US once just to see what was there.  It was interesting to think about how you would determine such a site.  Of course it would involve surveyors, transits, complicated instruments and calculations by men huddled around a table littered with maps and such.  Right?  How else would you pinpoint the exact center of the country?

Simple – balance a cut-out map of the US on a pin and where the map balances flat is the center.  And that’s how they determined it.

Elegant solutions are so great if for no other reason than here’s one that can be repeated by any class of 4th graders in the country.

We generally crave balance, a position of moderate force in all directions acting equally on each other.  It’s so important to many things in our lives from bicycles to skyscrapers to bridges to ballerinas that we take it for granted, as if nature continually moves toward finding balance.  Not exactly.  Physicists tell us the universe strives toward unbalance, a state of disorder measured by an increase in entropy.  Still, we continue to find a sense of stability where balance is provided.

Photographers generally prefer balance as well, guiding a viewer through a scene in an expected way, allowing the mind the dwell on particular aspects measured against other elements.  There are even rules about this, advising where to put dominant subjects and how to use design elements to highlight or diminish certain parts of a scene in order to push the viewer to or from that area in the image.

ISO 100, 80mm, 1/400 sec., f/8

ISO 100, 80mm, 1/400 sec., f/8

This scene was intentionally balanced as much as possible.  I saw the scene emerging as the ship moved across the horizon toward the breakwater opening and the sunlight moved across the water as the clouds blew by.  The horizontal lines are easy – the line of the horizon (which is never to be in the center of a picture unless it needs to be), the lines of dark and light on the water mirrored in similar lines in the sky.  The line of the ship balanced against the line of the breakwater.  There’s even a balance between the light on the beacon and the ship in the shade of a cloud.  It took three shots to get the sunlight on the water just the way I wanted but the wind was blowing briskly and I could see the openings for the sun would line up in the space of just a few minutes to get the beacon in just the right spot.

Sunlight has been absent here for a week so it was great to finally have some contrast to work with.  Might be all we get for a while…

By the way, if you’re in the Milwaukee area drop by the Art Museum to see the special exhibit on color photography  Color Rush.  It’s a great historical look at the development and use of color from autochromes to Kodachrome.  In it you can see how balance has played an emerging role in photography once color became an alternative to B&W.

Lines, subtle and otherwise

ISO 100, 93mm, 1/100 sec., f/8

ISO 100, 93mm, 1/100 sec., f/8

Our eyes love to follow lines.  They entice us to gaze along their stretch, luring us from point of origin to point of ending.  They enclose objects of interest or carry our sight away from places the photographer wants us to ignore.  Multiply them and their seduction becomes overwhelming, taking an act of will by the viewer to look elsewhere in the frame.  This image is full of lines – lines that curve around the middle, lines that stand straight to the sky, lines that disappear into the distance, horizontal lines that ground their part of the scene to the earth.  The content becomes secondary to the myriad of lines.

ISO 100, 62mm, 1/320 sec., f/8

ISO 100, 62mm, 1/320 sec., f/8

Here are lines real and possibly imagined, skewed and angled, straight and level.  The breakwater comes out of shadow to shine warmly against the cool lake water, which defines a ruler-straight horizon behind it.  The sunbeams (are they really there?) point upward to the sun, angling their vectors to bring the viewer down into the space below them and on through the horizontal barrier and into the lake.  The cloud layers imitate the horizon in a ragged manner, putting multiple ceilings across the sky to hold the view in place.

We are sensitive to lines and to patterns that break lines to stand out.  Evolution has programmed us to survive by being this sensitive, aware of the normality of pattern and sharply attentive to the pattern breaking danger.  For civilized man art has broadened our appreciation beyond the glance necessary for survival to see the expression essential to a fuller life.

The shape of things to see

Went out yesterday specifically to look for patterns at the edge of melting snow.  The idea just popped into my head as I was wondering how to do a better job of capturing the texture of snow, since simply making an image of a snowbank doesn’t give me what I want.  As it turns out, the exercise became a study in negative space (of a sort) as I saw that what was around the melting snow was equally as interesting.  Let me show you.

ISO 100, 35mm, 1/80 sec., f/14

ISO 100, 35mm, 1/80 sec., f/14

I started seeing some sort of yin/yang compositions where the snow had melted off high spots and remained in the depressions.  Not only is there a contrast between the light and dark areas but since I was looking around in a sandbox, there is a contrast of textures as well.  The sun is about a hour from setting so the low angle cuts across the top of the peaks and reveals the snow texture as well as the sand pebbles.

ISO 100, 53mm, 1/125 sec., f/10

ISO 100, 53mm, 1/125 sec., f/10

Light and dark, shadow and highlight, edge and pattern.  What is the subject of the image?

ISO 100, 35mm, 1/160 sec., f/11

ISO 100, 35mm, 1/160 sec., f/11

Where the snow has thinned enough for the darker sand to start showing through I’m able to see the snow’s texture better.  Light requires shadow in order to illuminate?

ISO 100, 100mm, f/14, 6 image HDR

ISO 100, 100mm, f/14, 6 image HDR

The last image is simply to practice capturing the subtle gradations of tone as the sunlight curves along the gradual slope of the snow.  The transition from light to dark is a fraction of a degree of angle, and right at that point you can see the irregular surface mottling where the snow has melted at different rates.  Macro textures and micro textures – snow has it all.