A Photo Teacher |

Seeing Photographs

Posted in Lecture Materials by Paul Turounet on August 21, 2008

Light

As photography utilizes light-sensitive materials, whether analog or digital, the photograph needs light (and the lack of light) to reveal (and obscure) its visual sensibilities and concerns of content.  The presence of light and its level of intensity serve as visual guides in seeing what is in a photograph as well as affecting the feeling being suggested.

The direction of the lighting is important because it will determine what is revealed and what is concealed and left in shadows.  Light shapes the subject being photographed, emphasizing or diminishing description, texture and volume.  Consider the following lighting circumstances:

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© Joel Meyerowitz (left), Walker Evans (center), Gustave LeGray (right)

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Front lighting comes from behind the camera toward the subject.  The front of the subject is evenly lit with minimal shadows visible.

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© Imogen Cunningham (left) and Marion Post Wolcott (right)

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Side lighting comes toward the side of the subject and camera.  Shadows are prominent and cast at the side of the subject, emphasizing shape, texture and volume.

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© Edward Weston, (left), Doris Ulman (center) and Richard Avedon (right)

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Diffused lighting scatters onto the subject from many directions.  Shadows are relatively light and the subject seems surrounded by light.  Directional-diffused lighting combines the qualities of direct light and diffused light, allowing for shadows to be visible, but not as prominent.  Fully diffused lighting provides an even, soft illumination.

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© Garry Winogrand (left) and Emmet Gowin (right)

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Back lighting comes toward the camera from behind the subject.  Shadows are cast toward the camera and are prominent with the front of the subject in shadow.  Back lighting can make translucent objects seem to glow as well as create a strong contrast between light and dark areas.

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Compositional Organization

A central act of photography is determining where to place subject matter, the thing itself, within the space of the photographic frame. The act of choosing and eliminating forces a concentration on the picture edge.  Compositional considerations of line, form and balance extend not only in the four directions suggested by the viewfinder, but also the spatial considerations of foreground / background relationships, scale and perspective – the transformation of a three-dimensional world into the flatness of two-dimensional.  These relationships of the edges, in all directions, reflect the intentional visual and conceptual concerns in how photographic meaning is considered.   How the subject matter is organized within the frame is either energized or passive depending on how these edges are considered, allowing the picture to resonate within the edges and/or beyond them.

Compositional organization and balance suggests visual harmony and equal distribution of the various elements, the thing itself and details, within the photographic frame.  Such things as tone, shape, form and scale can provide a visual element weight.  The photograph can be balanced left to right, top to bottom or both.

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© Lee Friedlander (left), Walker Evans (center), Andre Kertesz (right)

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The rule of thirds, proposed in the 19th century by painters of the period, is a helpful compositional strategy for organizing the visual element in the picture.  The picture area, the frame, is divided into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, and where the lines intersect is where important visual elements should be placed as seen in the photograph by Lee Friedlander.

A simple way of achieving balance is through symmetrical balance in which similar visual elements appear in the frame, such as the photograph by Walker Evans.

Asymmetrical balance is achieved by balancing the weights of various elements such as tone, shape, form and/or scale as demonstrated in the photograph by Andre Kertesz.

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© Danny Lyon (left) and Robert Frank (right)

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An extension to balance and the rule of thirds is the placement and level of the horizon line.  Dividing the photograph in half by placing the horizon line in the middle of the frame can create an image in which the two equal areas compete for visual interest.  With the horizon line placed in the upper or lower halves of the frame, emphasis of an area is achieved.  The level of the horizon line is also a consideration as radically tilting the horizon can imply movement and disorientation.

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© Eugene Atget (left), Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison (center), Walker Evans (right)

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The perception of depth and perspective can achieve a sense of dimension and space within the photographic frame.  The perception of depth can be achieved through the use of linear perspective, such as the photographs by Eugene Atget and Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, where the scale of objects and details diminishes from the foreground to the background of the frame.  Depth can also be realized through variations of tone, shape and scale as well as overlapping objects, such as the photograph by Walker Evans.

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Photographic Description

In considering how to frame the subject and describe what is in front of the camera, the act of choosing the distance between the subject being photographed and the camera (and photographer) offers the uncanny ability of photography to reveal what our eyes would protest as unattainable with simple human vision – a point of view different from what our eyes perceive.  Where the photographer chooses to position himself/herself and the camera affects perspective creating the illusion of three dimensions in a two-dimensional photograph. Such considerations in where to position yourself and the camera include the vantage point or point of view, the sense of depth with foreground-to-background relationships, and figure-field relationships through separations of tone, shape or pattern.

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© Elliott Erwitt (left) and Graciela Iturbide (right)

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The vantage point of the camera reflects a point of view and can strongly influence how the subject is considered.  Shooting from the subject’s point of view can create a sense of intimacy with the subject.  Looking up at a subject can make the subject look bigger and increase the sense of space, while looking down on a subject can appear to flatten space.

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© Frederick Sommer (left) and Sebastiao Salgado (right)

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Gradations of tone, and/or repeated shapes and patterns can create a sense of photographic depth and description as well.  Such a figure-field relationship draws attention to the separation of the object(s) being photographed.  Objects that are close together can be seen as a single shape.  Multiple line, forms and shapes can create a pattern that unites the elements of the scene.

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Emphasis and Moments of Exposure

Not only does a camera see from a definite vantage point, it also creates a hierarchy by defining a single plane of focus.  This plane, which is usually parallel with the film plane in the camera, provides a sense of emphasis within the photograph as controlled by the literal focusing of the camera’s lens, depth of field, shutter speeds and the distance from the camera to the subject.

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© Diane Arbus (left) and Bill Brandt (right)

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The sharpness of a photograph is what is immediately noticed.  A photograph that is sharp overall will suggest that each detail within the image is given equal emphasis while the use of selective focus will suggest greater emphasis on the subject that is sharp in contrast to the rest of the picture.  The use of the aperture and consideration of depth of field will also provide emphasis of a subject in a photograph.  If you focus on a subject and utilize a larger aperture, for example f/1.4 to f/4 range, the depth of field will decrease with the subject being sharp and the foreground and background areas being less sharp.  With a smaller aperture, such as f/11 to f/22 range, more of the picture will be sharp from the nearest to farthest points from the camera, including the subject and foreground/background areas.

Emphasis can also be suggested through the use of shutter speeds in consideration of motion and moments of exposure (time). As suggested by John Szarkowski in The Photographer’s Eye, “immobilizing these thin slices of time has been a source of continuing fascination for the photographer.  And while pursuing this experiment he discovered something else: he discovered that there was pleasure and a beauty in this fragmenting of time that had little to do with what was happening.  It had to do rather with seeing the momentary patterning of lines and shapes that had been previously concealed within the flux of movement.”  Henri Cartier-Bresson defined his commitment to this new beauty as the decisive moment.

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© Henri Cartier-Bresson (left), Josef Koudelka (top center), Danny Lyon (bottom right)

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Motion and moments of exposure (time) can be photographed either sharp or blurred.  The use of faster shutter speeds, such as 1/125 up to 1/2000, will freeze motion with moving objects appearing sharp.  The use of slower shutter speeds, less than 1/30 of a second, will deliberately blur motion, causing the subject and details to appear less sharp.  This deliberate blurring can create emphasis as it suggests the nature of movement.  A technique that is helpful in suggesting motion is panning where the camera moves with the subject at the same rate of motion or speed.

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