The biggest mistake people make is not learning to read photographs.
You don’t agree with me? OK. Let me ask you this. How well can you write if you can not read what you just penned down? See my point now?
While doing research for this blog entry, I came across an article by Ian Jeffrey published on The Guardian, in which he stated, “Understanding photographs has never been straightforward. Not all photographs – including some of the best known – were taken with a clear idea in mind. Even if they were, the idea was soon overlooked or forgotten.”
That is one reason for learning to read photographs.
While everyone can easily discuss the contents of photographs, to formally examine the visual elements were used to make up one photograph isn’t that simple. Only if you’re trained to read photographs, you can learn how the photographers exploited the angles, scales, focuses, colors, tonalities and contrasts. Beyond those technical analyses, you can easily read the stories as well as different ways the photographers used to communicate with their viewers.
Let’s take a break from street photography and look at one of Bill Brandt’s photographs this time.
At first glance, I see Bill Brandt used a wide angle lens to create a sense of bewilderment to arouse the viewer’s inquisitiveness. Beautiful lighting. Great composition. Blahblah, blah…
My statement above reminds me of what Christina N. Dickson from Digital Photography School wrote in her article, Reading a Photograph, “Photographers like to critique photos – deliberately pointing out how the photo could have been improved by this or that. But what percentage of the time do we look at a photo and allow ourselves to get lost in it? How often do we take a moment to really evaluate what the creator intended to communicate?”
I’m going to spend 100% of the time and allow myself to get lost in this sensuous image.
WHOA! Suddenly, the shapes, the lines, the curves jump out from his photograph. Bill Brandt brilliantly pictured a quiet room in the visual aspect of the model rather than of the photographer. The contrast between the light and the shadow adds music to the scene while the shapes, lines and curves define the melody.
In this composition, geometric shapes play an important role. Without these shapes, the viewers can’t predict the size of the room or the distance from the subject to the window. On the other hand, by breaking down the photograph into shapes like the image below, I can clearly see the position of the camera, where its lens pointed at and whether it’s tilted up or down.
As you can see in the third image, the vertical columns break out the heavy block shapes to balance out the entire photograph; from another standpoint, those columns also exaggerate the height and distance. This shows the different of a well planned photograph in opposition to a lucky-shot-photograph.
Do you see how Bill Brandt arranged one layer on top another in his composition to create the sense of depth of field in a two dimension space? This, my friends, is what perspective all about.
Perspective is the condition of the relationship between different subjects seen in space. It adds realism to a photograph. The size of an object doesn’t mean much until another object gives it the sense of comparison in sizes and volumes.
Remember how we learned in school to use perspective to draw the viewers into a visual?
The visual elements in this photograph is much more complex than just smooth legs and good lighting. Brandt cleverly used light and shadow to cast the curves to soften the repeating vertical pattern. The strong highlight also sets off the main subject, distinguishes it from the background and instantly captures the viewer’s attention rather than letting the viewer’s eyes wander from left to right.
Knowing how to control your viewer’s visual perceptions —the function of eyes and brain— so that they can perceive the visual elements within your photographs is a complicated process. Not only you need to have a strong foundation on composition, lighting and other techniques, you also need to train yourself to view your photos as an audience. Once you have the strength to look at your work without any personal bias, you will see the weakness of your work. It took me a whole six months learning to view my photos as an audience. I ended up hating every single photograph that I made. Another six months to correct my mistakes and strengthen my weakness. I still don’t like my any of my photographs.
Another brilliant aspect that Bill Brandt had given to this image is the direction. Every object in this photograph take my eyes to a certain point yet my mind can clearly sees the entire room as well as feels the mood and the space.
The direction element helps me to distinguish the central focus since a small aperture was employed in this shot. Beside, it plays a vital role in the use of a wide angle lens. Without direction, a wide angle lens would render a photograph with no sense of height and depth.
Everybody wants a wide angle lens these day; however, most people share the same common misconceptions, only a few understand the unique characteristics of a wide angle lens and know how to take full advantage of this uniqueness.
This photograph is a perfect example of the effective usage of a wide angle lens.
The last two images are examples of the visual balance. Basically, there are two type of visual balance; the formal balance and informal balance.
The formal balance —symmetrical— is when you place your subject in the center of your frame, fold your photo in half and you get your subject equal on both sides. An example of informal balance —asymmetrical— is when several smaller subjects on one side are balanced by a large subject on the other side, or smaller subjects are distantly placed from the center of of your frame, away from the larger subjects. It can also be darker subjects balanced by the lighter ones.
I dissect this photograph in two different ways so that you can see how perfect Bill Brandt composed this image as well as the way he applied the informal balance technique into his work.
Informal balance is more dynamic than formal balance and it usually keeps the viewer’s attention focused on the visual message. As a visual design principle, the visual balance element is used to place the subjects in an aesthetic pleasing arrangement. The informal balance may appear more casual and less planned; however, it is more challenging to use since you have to carefully plan your composition to ensure that it is still balanced. An unbalanced photograph often gives the viewers the feeling of tension.
After reading this blog entry, I bet you will find all elements in any photograph would hold a visual weight as well as a visual direction.
Concisely, if you know how to read photographs, you’ll gain control over several principles of composition, most notably visual balance. One way you can benefit a greater sense of visual weight, visual direction, and visual balance is to read photographs from your favorite photographers. Pay attention to all the details and elements in the photographs, note down which elements are being used to counterbalance others and how the combination of elements balances the composition as a whole. Then…
Forget everything you have learned and invent your own guidelines and techniques.
Remember this, you want to be the best photographer, not just another photographer.
“I am not interested in rules or conventions. Photography is not a sport.” - Bill Brandt