Tutorial: Photo Dissection 2

Preface

People seemed to like the first dissection so why not write more? I couldn’t figure out an answer for that question not involving any worm holes and time traveling so I suppose I’m mandated to write another one. If you’re interested in the idea behind the series, go and read the preface to the first dissection although I think it’s safer that I repeat the disclaimer that these are the methods and ideas I happen to work with and these writings are not intended to be technical manuals on how to do stuff. Instead, think of these more like an in-depth “making of” documentary that you might watch solely for its entertainment purpose but where you still might discover something useful. There’s a some sort of primitive fascination in discovering how things are made. Some of the methodology I use I have learned from others and some I have discovered by myself. I believe that all experienced photographers have followed a similar path so pick the stuff that plays with your strengths or eliminates your weaknesses.

Photo Dissection

Intro

I believe I may have skimmed over the appeal of black & white photography a little bit too hastily in the first article. To expand on the topic, I chose this photo because I think it’ll illustrate my some of my points pretty nicely and in addition I can talk about composition some more:

It is a photo I took in 2006 in New York. The place is Central Park at the Great Lawn, facing south towards downtown. So let’s go and pick the picture apart!

On the field and picking the shot

I’m afraid there’s not that much to say about the exciting choices I had to make on the field this time or the hardships I had to suffer through to get the photo. One might say it was a walk in the park. But I won’t since it’s a terrible pun, even on a Youtube comments section -level. Anyways, there we were, walking in the park and BOOM, a field comes up, and BAM BAM, I take two photos.

Of these two, the topmost is more appealing to me. The one on the bottom doesn’t have that many interesting things to look at besides the Manhattan skyline. I usually am a fan of simplicity but this photo does need a little bit more to look at and maybe something that tells more of a story would be cool to have too. And those are provided in the other photo by the two characters clad in red in the corner along with the tree that frames the photo’s left edge.

Come to think of it, maybe I’ll have to take back the earlier “BAM BAM” since it might imply that I did not stop to think of the picture I was taking. I always have some ideas of the composition when I shoot a picture. In fact, I’ve found that I very rarely crop my photos afterwards since the composition I’ve framed behind the viewfinder on the field seems almost always to work best. Which reminded me that I dislike working with cameras that don’t have viewfinders to peer through. The viewfinder blocks you from seeing the rest of the world around the picture frame and lets you really concentrate on the composition and how it works and plays with the frames around it. It also helps keeping the camera more stable since you can keep your arms close to your body and you can even push the camera slightly against your face for an additional stability point.

Okay, back to the pictures in question. There’s a helpful guideline in landscape photography that I applied here: decide if you want to show more of the sky or the ground. Usually, but not always, having a composition where the sky and the ground take up equal space end up having very boring and awkwardly rigid compositions. Now this rule, like all other rules, have a million exceptions. For example, it might work nicely if there is some symmetry between the top and bottom halves of the photo, like for instance a tree sitting on the horizon, casting a shadow directly in front of it. I represent the school of thought where you got to know the rules before you break them. Admittedly, the choice was very easy for me to do here. The Manhattan skyline is a very important and dominant element in the scene and it needs some breathing space around it so it won’t feel cramped.

Composition can be an abstract topic at times. So what would be a better tool to analyze the composition than turning the photorealistic scene into something abstract! A lot of artists do it physically by squinting their eyes, reducing the view in front of them into a two dimensional canvas on which some entity or creature, probably of a malevolent origin, has painted an arrangement of vague shapes that have colors and value. I do pretty much the same thing but mentally. I reduce all the elements into simple shapes and try to appraise how the composition works. Here’s a visual representation I quickly whipped together of what is often going on in my head when trying to judge a composition:

With this kind of approach a number of things become more apparent that might have otherwise slipped under the radar. The city’s skyline is, as far as subject matter goes, the most central element of the picture but looking at this abstract composition it certainly does not seem to be entirely so. It probably is the first thing your eyes look at the picture but at some point they will gravitate towards the bottom left corner where the two characters are standing. But its not their shapes that are grabbing the attention. Instead, the gravity comes from how they are placed in connection to the other elements of the picture. They are the only shapes in the photo that cut the dominating horizon line so if your eyes travel along that line, that’s where they’ll end up. Also, if you are looking at the sky, you might end up following the tree on the left hand side towards the characters.

In other words, the characters are in the intersection of the largest dominating horizontal line and the largest dominating vertical line. The vertical line is less apparent since its shape is more vague and it twists and turns but it clearly travels vertically. Maybe the human mind also has a bias of identifying trees as vertical shapes too? Other things to note are how the two people to the right slightly balance off the two people on the left. Also that the red shirts along with the other points about the composition might just push the picture too far off balance to the left. But let’s get back to this issue in a minute.

The way you simplify scenes in your mind’s eye is probably very different from mine. You might want to try and look at the original photo now and form your own picture to see if there are any differences compared to mine. How detailed is your view? Is your treeline one fell swoop or is it a lumpy line? Do you picture in the clouds or do you regard the gradient in the grass? How do you see the people in the scene and is the tree on the foreground a solid part of the treeline in the back? Is the image in black and white? All of the answers are equally valid. What is important is that do you get some sort of useful data from this without thinking too hard so it’s applicable on the field so that your framing, shooting position, zoom or focus can be adjusted quickly while taking the pictures. I don’t go through the mental picture as analytically on the field as I just wrote, I merely take a gander and decide whether or not it makes for an appealing composition and then adjust if I realize some potential for improvement.

Processing the photo

I have to admit something. I often prefer black and white because it is easy. If we consider a b&w picture, it is essentially just values arranged on a canvas. That’s one dimension of data dropped on a two dimensional plane. As soon as you add hue and saturation on the picture, you’ll have to deal with an extra dimension of data. The arrangement of values have to work together individually but they also have to play along with the colors. As far as composition is regarded, they can easily make the picture less organized. And this picture is a fine example of colors messing it up somehow in my opinion. It’s fine that the composition gently draws the attention towards the two dudes in the corner but once we add in the red color of their shirts, they become too prominent. Red, being a complementary color of green, really pops out from the middle of the grass and the trees. It would probably have been great if there would have been a small blotch of red somewhere towards the right to ease the balance but the lone island of red is just too much to handle without upsetting composition too much. If the shirts were of a more stealthy color, the attention of the viewer would be drawn to the characters only after exploring the skyline and possibly other parts of the picture first instead of being violently grabbed by the crimson mafia and held hostage in the corner of the photo.

I could very well just mute the saturation of the reds or turn them into another color in Photoshop but then there would really be nothing exciting in the colors, bringing me back to the point I presented in the first dissection that if the colors don’t add anything of value to the photo, I usually decide to get rid of them. So let’s do that:

Much better already but I think we could still do more to make the picture more exciting to look at. And herein lies the second point about why I often resort to use black and white. You can manipulate the values of a black and white image much further and much more easily than a color photo. If you decide to increase the contrast in a color photo, the colors can easily oversaturate and color noise from the digital camera sensor can be amplified to intolerable levels. It’s just much harder to produce a natural result if you want to go very far with manipulating the values. In this picture, the sky has clouds but they are almost burned through to nearly clear white. There’s no hope of recovering them with natural colors. But with black and white, I can apply a relatively harsh levels layer to pop up the contrast in them and mask it on the picture and still produce a tolerable result. I also fine tuned the composition by emphasizing the lower left corner by having an overlay layer with a radial gradient that is centered to the two dudes standing on the corner, thus arriving at the final result:

As a side note, if you are at this point sobbing that how perverted photography has become with the invention of Photoshop, I remind you that many of these things have been done for many decades in traditional dark rooms. For example, the striking brightness contrast of Ansel Adams’ landscape photography was largely gained through the techniques of dodging and burning to adjust the brightness selectively in the photo enlargement. Dodge and burn are still a part of Photoshop terminology along with a lot of other tools (possibly most interestingly unsharp mask) that have inherited their names and functionality from old school photography techniques. In fact, to keep my post processing tasteful, I often have the mental guideline where I avoid doing manipulations that would be impossible to replicate with a film camera and dark room.

Conclusion

Even though the photo is not among my best ones, I do like it a lot. It’s one of those photos that are fun to look at and let your eye wander around since there’s lots of nice details and textures on the foliage, buildings and the sky. But the people are what makes this stand apart from what could otherwise be a rather unremarkable touristy photo. The topic of the photo suddenly ceases to be the beautiful park with an almost theater set -like city backdrop and it turns out to be a photo about the people observing said vista. However simple, there is a story in the picture now. The symmetrical poses of the guys on the left and of the couple walking on the right are rewarding details for the viewers to observe. In essence, the topmost reason why I like this photo is because there’s lots to discover in a picture that at first appears to be just a snapshot of the Manhattan skyline. The somewhat unorthodox and imperfect composition that emphasizes the lower left corner manages to be functional and appeals to me personally.

2 Responses to “Tutorial: Photo Dissection 2”

  1. Journey Says:

    I am totally wowed and pprareed to take the next step now.

  2. sigs Says:

    To an untrained eye, the first picture with rigid grid geometry seemed somehow, well, boring. I love minimalism, but especially maximally expressive minimalism; to make a (quasi)natural image like a photo minimally expressive just feels like making it minimally interesting. The second one is much more dramatic; I think it’s also cool when a photo seems to contain symbols; darkness growing in the right side (east?). Taste is a personal matter, but to me it feels like if a photo isn’t trying to “say” something, just “lets the eye wander freely”, it’s just… bland. Maybe I’m oversatiated by flashy youtube clips I:

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