As a photographer, your eye is your lens. This essay gives a basic understanding, why excellent pictures (paintings or photographs) succeed. After you start exploring the world with this mindset, you’ll find that you automatically begin to see things differently. I got the idea from an excellent book of the Swiss photographer Martin Zurmuehle, “The magic of outstanding pictures”. He explores, how you (or a jury) evaluates the quality of a photograph,and argues successfully, that quality methodology and communication theory can be employed, to plan, execute and select the best shot objectively. Photography teaches us to appreciate our world—visually at first, but also emotionally—in a whole new way. Actually that article started for my visual blog, but somehow it went on the psychoanalytic side, now a copied a clean version here.
Define the quality of a photograph
To judge photographs, and to do better ones,it is necessary to develop the skills to make careful visual analysis. While everyone can easily discuss the contents of photographs (“what you see”), most need more training to learn about formal analysis used in the visual arts. Formal analysis focuses on an artwork’s “formal” qualities, or those visual elements that give it form. Formal analysis provides a basic common language in the visual arts. However, a description of a photograph based only on formal analysis would be incomplete. Photographers make many decisions both about composition (arrangement of visual elements) as well as effect (meaning) when taking photographs. Consequently, it is important to consider the artist’s goals for making a photograph of a particular subject. Finally, the reception (historical and cultural context in which a photograph was made) must also be carefully considered.
There is no one unique answer when interpreting works of art. Art cannot be measured against a specification, but it can be evaluated in a structured and objective way. It is still more of a benchmark and must be based on experience. There are several ways to define quality of a photograph beyond personal taste, the latter more often than not utterly misleading:
- Intuition Based: Photographer, artist or experienced person just knows;
- Balanced Score Card: Structured evaluation based on pre-defined criterion (such as a quality system);
- Model based: Interaction evaluation (effect/impression) on viewer, such as a visual communication paradigm.
Professional photographers with a trained eye, indeed can judge the quality of a photo within seconds. But so do fools or pseudo-experts, which reflect only the inconsistent view or are slaves to Zeitgeist and marketing. If you are neither, but like me. understand that one must “measure” quality to get better, read on. Maybe you also agree with me, that digital photography moves into fine art, with more ambitious quality standards than contemporary art. I am fascinated, how psychoanalytic structures and energy clusters are expressed by digital photography and new way of movie making. That is one of my goals, to express myself this way.
Objective supported by
To make myself clear, I am not a professional photographer nor an artist. However, I want to understand, why some pictures move the viewer, fascinate or shock us, others let us cold and indifferent. Comfortable with a familiar methodology, which I used in consulting in complex business situations, I see a benefit in formulated objectives with qualitative measurable controls and its structured evaluation.
What do I mean? Like any business or technical endeavor, you start photography with a clear vision and objective, select the right strategy and the needed resources. To reach the goal of good photo (or painting), we need the right idea, a suitable motif and a positive reception of the viewer, jury, market. The reception is, I dare to say, like fashion and hipness or Zeitgeist, sometimes of the chattering class.
A nice motif – the subject or dominant theme (e.g. model, landscape) – may trigger an idea, but still you need to formulate a goal – otherwise may or may not succeed with an accidental good shot. In in any case, you still need technical skills to handle the camera and post-processing as pre-requisite, more than in fine art nowadays. but taken for granted in this essay.
A good idea – is one which is possible to implement with photographic means. They can be carefully planned or evolve spontaneously. It is pretty much between a flashing genius, formal process or brainstorming process:
- spontaneous idea
- associative idea (from others)
- methodical design (formal guidelines)
- brainstorm and select
The ideas should be simple, but need visual potential and creativity. Dont be a copycat or follow the trampled path. Last but not least, the idea should speak for itself – it needs to be recognizable.
A good idea makes the difference to the mediocre picture.
The reception takes the viewer as a market opportunity. Reception needs to understand trends or better presume them. If you just care for yourself, you can ignore them. If you want to succeed in competition or make your living as photographer you can’t. Thing of how you dress, being to fashionable is adverse to the classical quality of your style over the time. Be yourself, at least be critical or aware if you cater the Zeitgeist.
A landscape photographer wants to capture the emotional essence of a place and show it to others. Their goal is to inspire people to travel and better appreciate the world in which we all live by showing them places that they may never have known even existed. That’s the difference between a vacation photo and a landscape one: vacation snaps are mementos; landscape shots are more advertising.
As a landscape photographer, you need to be aware of two basic concepts: what to look for, and how (and if) to shoot it. Not all great landscapes make a great photo. You need to search for strong focal points and interesting details, and apply the classic rules of photographic art—natural frames, the rule of thirds—if you want to create beautiful works out of the world. Ansel Adams was, and is, the leading landscape photographer and also an environmentalist revered for his black-and-white landscape photographs, and his commitment to the conservation of nature. Adams felt an intense commitment to promoting photography as a fine art and his images became the symbols and icons of wild America. I I backpacked lot, so I embrace his fight for new parks and wilderness areas, for the Wilderness Act, for wild Alaska and the Big Sur coast of central California, for the mighty redwoods, for endangered sea lions and sea otters, and for clean air and water. An advocate of balanced, restrained use of resources, Adams also fought relentlessly against overbuilt highways, billboards, and all manner of environmental mendacity and shortsightedness. Adams was often criticized for failing to include humans or evidence of “humanity” in his landscape photographs. Interestingly, Adams was ready for digital photography he once said “I believe the electronic image will be the next major advance. Such systems will have their own inherent and inescapable structural characteristics, and the artist and functional practitioner will again strive to comprehend and control them.”
Portrait photographers are after emotions as well but, they have to go beyond the Persona, the mask.There was once a photo shoot of Russian president Vladimir Putin, which later became an infamous icon. When the world leaders at a 2009 United Nations General Assembly meeting, the were intercepted by an enterprising portrait photographer named Platon Antoniou. They could not control the results of his portrait session: in essence, they were at his mercy: “Every head of state has to address the General Assembly, and there’s a podium where they all stand to make their speeches,” said Platon, the British-Greek. “[For five days], I stood a few feet away from the podium backstage… and since everyone had to pass me on their way to and from the stage, I had two chances to secure a portrait session with each person.” Having one’s portrait taken is an intimate experience. As Shakespeare put it, “the eyes are the window to the soul.” For Platon, it is an intimate collaboration and a visual interview—both in front of and behind the camera. Having photographed world leaders, celebrities, our men and women in the military, civil rights leaders and human rights champions, Platon seeks to answer the question, “Who is this person?” His photographic portraits have graced the world’s most influential magazines including Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ and The Sunday Times. Platon developed a special relationship with TIME magazine, producing over 25 cover photos.
Reach for hidden cultural pattern
Cityscape photography is, in many ways, a natural counterpart to landscape photography. The same general rules apply: consider skyscrapers as mountains, roads as rivers and city lights as a lower version of starlight. The best cityscape photographers understand that cities are symbols. That is right, symbols, Buildings – churches, today banks – are symbols of power, of transcendence and so on. Look at the city paintings of Kirchner, good city photographers also understand that cities are kind of terrifying: they’re monsters that consume us in violence and loneliness. Cities change at night. A mountain is a mountain any time of day, but by night, they challenge the stars, roads light up with moving dots of red and yellow, neon lights line the streets in attempts to catch your eye. Visually, cities come alive at night. In cities, there are people. With symbols you refer to an ancient cultural pattern. Left is one of my pictures. I began experimenting with infrared, or IR, photography (mostly city landscapes). Besides normal photography, I am astro-photographer with a Canon 60Da camera. All I needed was an Hoya ND72 infrared filter. Infrared photography shares a lot of philosophy with astrophotography – patience, careful planning, accurate execution and post-processing with Photoshop. Essentially I went on a bike tour, to discover, how Munich would look, had all people and cars disappeared. How fragile a city is. Formal the road was the line. I wanted to have the lamp post in the for ground as a symbol of violence. it reminded me on an art construction I saw once in front of castle in Italy.
I am influenced by Edward Hopper and Ludwig Kirchner. One of my favorite is Hopper’s Nighthawks, inspired by “a restaurant on New York’s Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet” . The carefully constructed composition with a narrative of loneliness, has a timeless quality that transcends its particular time and place. The painting depicts an all-night diner in which three customers, all lost in their own thoughts, have congregated. Fluorescent lights emits an eerie glow, like a beacon on the dark street corner. Hopper eliminated any reference to an entrance, and the viewer, drawn to the light, is shut out from the scene by a seamless wedge of glass. Reworked and parodied countless times, Night-hawk has become an icon of American culture. Another one is the most talented and influential of Germany’s Expressionists. Motivated by the same anxieties that gripped the movement as a whole – fears about humanity’s place in the modern world, its lost feelings of spirituality and authenticity – Kirchner had conflicting attitudes to the past and present. He was inspired and intimidated by the modern city at the same time. When the Nazis rose to power in the early 1930s he was also a victim of their campaign against “Degenerate Art.” Depressed and ill, he eventually committed suicide in Switzerland. The human figure was central to Kirchner’s art and art symbolizes future and past. Kirchner’s Expressionism opposed the French Impressionism, that was dominant in German painting, Edvard Munch ( another favorite of mine – Symbolistic) was clearly important in shaping his style. Kirchner believed like C.G. Jung, that powerful forces – enlivening yet also destructive – dwelt beneath the veneer of Western civilization, and he believed that exploring the depth of humanity an the richness of cultures offered a means of harnessing them. This outlook shaped the way in which he depicted men and women in his pictures, as people who often seem at war with themselves or their environment. Now, what is art anyway? To me art works are symbolic patterns, which have connotations that are unclear or hidden. They may have interferences with the Zeitgeist and references to the past, both integrated through and with the individual artist’s situation at a given moment. Art, like the symbol has a future in a psychoanalytic sense. To the psychoanalytic C.G. Jung, a symbol is a real instance of a collective or personal archetype from the past. I am too shy to make pictures of people in circumstances. which interest me, but I have many pictures in my mind. Come to think of it, with this blog, I sort and evaluate the many pictures my mind captured during business and private travel…
Tell a story
Photojournalism, or documentary photography, captures time and place better than any other form of the art. It it’s an extremely demanding form of photography, possibly the most demanding, because it requires a quick mind, careful attitude and the capability to see and tell a story. Photojournalists have to understand a wide array of photography and are close to spontaneous street shooters.Street photographers and photojournalists deal with candid shots, planned or unplanned, spontaneous moments found on public streets or political events. Documentary photos are best when they’re unfiltered, raw and human. They are cruel, like the picture of left, an iconic photo taken in Trang Bang by AP photographer Nick Ut, but the may change the world. Realist photography is an interesting art form as it doesn’t seek to “create” but rather to document intensity exactly as it is, without embellishment. Dorothea Lange took the above photograph called, “Migrant Mother” which became one of the most iconic photographs documenting the dustbowl era during the Great Depression. Interestingly Lange didn’t go to college (as was more common then) and trained herself in her style of photography. This emphasis my point you don’t need a formal education to become a huge success at a field you are passionate about. It takes empathy to photograph suffering. Lange had polio and her father deserted her at an early age. Composition of realism is often more powerful than effect, technique and Zeitgeist. If you look closely, the focus of the picture is on the hair of the child, not on the eye of the mother. That is considered as as technical flaw. Did it matter? Not only that, the picture would be powerful today, but would not be taken today. Not in Greece, with an unemployment of 25% nor in Syria, where weapon sales are up. Then the year was 1936. Unemployment was at 18%. The Dow Jones went UP 24% that year. Misery and stocks are often reciprocal correlated. Too often the headlines in the newspaper look the other way misery does not fit the narrative. Dorothy Lange took six pictures of this woman, who is named Florence Owens Thompson, but did not select a picture with all seven because she thought that would actually reduce sympathy people… Judge today’s realistic pictures – the ones, which are not taken and their substitutes.
Effect – Interaction evaluated with Four Eyes Model
A classical way to analyze communication is by the “Four Ears Model” by the German psychology professor and expert on inter personal communication Friedman Schulz von Thun. We used it extensively for communication and moderation training. Let me explain the model in a few words. For simplicity, let’s talk about a ‘sender’ saying something and a ‘receiver’ who is listening. Schulz von Thun postulates that there are four channels that we communicate on simultaneously, namely:
- Fact channel: the facts communicated
- Self-revealing channel: what the sender says about him or herself
- Relationship channel: what is being said about the relationship
- Appeal channel: what the sender wants the receiver to think or do
This communication model can relative easily mapped to our visual sense, the most important one, for photography anyway. The Interaction Effect of a photo can be evaluated with the Four Eyes Model:
- The Storyline Eye maps to the Appeal channel. Every picture telling a story, may want to persuade and influence us. The Vietnam picture is of course, also an emotional appeal, but if you look closer the smoke and the soldiers in the background are hard facts to back the story in the foreground.
- The Artist self disclosure Eye maps to the Self-revealing channel. Every photo is an artists interpretation of reality and reflects his or her personality and personal style.
- The Formal Eye maps to the Fact channel. Lines, patterns, structures, the three-part rule, all guide the viewer.
- The Emotional Eye maps to the relationship cannel. It wants to connect to the viewer’s unconsciousness, his emotions and cultural background. Advertising or propaganda pictures are prime examples.
Ask yourself if you want to document or to paint. Use styles, like play with blurred or sharp areas. Reduce your picture to the essentials. Be tedious, accurate and consequent. Use opposites and to the limits: Dont be afraid of HDI, HDR or composite pictures.
There are eight differences in how the camera and humans see the world;
- The camera flattens – use perspective, contrast and different focus areas to counter.
- The camera frames – get the most powerful (maybe reduced) cropping.
- The camera stops the time – use exposure time to work out or symbolize movement (e.g. waterfall).
- The camera focuses – use depth and to emphasis or reduce visibility.
- The camera changes contrasts – play with light
- The camera changes the colours – play with filters
- The camera changes the view angle – play with different lenses.
- The camera changes lines – correct with lenses and view points
You may hear the word “composition” a lot when it comes to fine art and music. Composition has its roots in the Latin word “compositio” and refers, simply, to the way you combine the visual elements of your photo and define their relationship. This is the geometrical concept in the image, whether an object is touching the far end of the frame or in the center of the photograph. Like a music piece, a photography thrives with forms, harmonies and contrasts. Composition is a key component of photography, and art in general. There are a few ways to define them—generally, by arrangement of objects, lines, shape and color and light contrasts. Depending from your goal, static or dynamic patterns, harmonies or disharmonies, repetition or opposites will be utilized. It’s our job, as photographers, to know what designs work—what lines and circles automatically soothe or upset our minds—and find them in the real world to support our goal.One great way to find closure in ever-expanding landscapes is to look for leading lines. Leading lines are self-explanatory: they lead our eyes, usually from somewhere in the bottom of the frame to somewhere in the top third, or from one side of the frame to another.
Visual elements of an photograph:
- focus: what areas appear clearest or sharpest in the photograph? What do not?
- light: what areas of the photograph are most highlighted? Are there any shadows? Does the photograph allow you to guess the time of day? Is the light natural or artificial? Harsh or soft? Reflected or direct?
- line: are there objects in the photograph that act as (leading) lines? Are they straight, curvy, thin, thick? Do the lines create direction in the photograph? Do they outline? Do the lines show movement or energy?
- patterns: are there any objects, shapes or lines which repeat and create a pattern?
- shape: do you see geometric or organic shapes? What are they?
- space: is there depth to the photograph or does it seem shallow? What creates this appearance? Are there important negative spaces in addition to positive spaces? Is there depth created by spatial illusions?
- texture: if you could touch the surface of the photograph how would it feel? How do the objects in the picture look like they would feel?
- value: is there a range of tones from dark to light? Where is the darkest value? Where is the lightest?
How visual elements are arranged within a photograph creates the a composition.
- angle: the vantage point from which the photograph was taken; generally used when discussing a photograph taken from an unusual or exaggerated vantage point.
- background: the part of a scene or picture that is or seems to be toward the back.
- balance: the distribution of visual elements in a photograph. Symmetrical balance distributes visual elements evenly in an image. Asymmetrical balance is found when visual elements are not evenly distributed in an image. Where to place subjects may Golden Rule, Rule of the Third (canvas section partitioning(.
- central focus: the objects(s) which appears most prominently and/or most clearly focused in a photograph. Background toned down by shallow depth fields
- composition: the arrangement or structure of the formal elements that make up an image.
- contour: the outline of an object or shape.
- contrast: strong visual differences between light and dark, colours, varying textures, sizes, etc.
- framing: what the photographer has placed within the boundaries of the photograph. A frame inside the image itself adds dimension and closure.It can be natural or later chosen by cropping. When we talk about natural frames, we talk about anything that creates a frame within the shot—vines, branches and trees are typical; buildings or streets sometimes work.
- setting: actual physical surroundings or scenery whether real or artificial.
- vantage point: the place from which a photographer takes a photograph.
How visual elements relate with each other within a photograph, also creates the a composition.
- Emphasis – is someone or something – the major motif – placed at the end of the line?
- Movement – lines arranged static(vertical/horizontal) or dynamic (diagonal)?
- Conflict – do your lines intersect?
- Depth: make your canvas look larger with a shallow depth of field.
- Opposition – are some of the subjects opposites?
- Geometric pattern – triangle combination, symmetry or asymmetry?
- Infinity – if your lines circle inside the frame, what visual effect does it create?
Negative space is another crucial aspect to photographic composition. Often black or white, is the space not filled by anything—a clear blue sky, or a blank wall. Often it can be a powerful statement on its own, or simply accentuate the subject of the photo. If the the subject isn’t centered, lines need to lead.
Composition is one of the thing, where you can your personal style.
I compared digital photography with painting, the checklist is the learing curve and method of all painters:
- Study the theory,
- practice what you learned.
- Select – this is critical. (select in more than one session and keep only 5%).
- discuss then with others – show them.
- Study the master photographer and,
- get inspiration by practical exercises to redo masters,
- Creativity – after you are good enough with composition and selection go your own way and
- choose specific area and set goals.
Now, anyone can buy a Canon EOS 5D Mark II – which I happen to have – and take shots on automatic, but if you want to really delve into what makes the photo special, you need more to understand its points of autofocus, its full frame sensor and its white balance modes. To take good photos, you need to control only three things aperture (f-stop), shutter speed and light. Aperture controls depth of field.
- The wider your aperture, the shallower your depth of field—f/1.4, for example, is a very wide aperture, so your camera lens will be wide open, if you want a deeper depth of field, you’ll need a narrower aperture—something like f/16, which will create a consistently detailed image. Typically, when capturing cities and landscapes, deeper depths of field are more desirable, so every detail of the frame appears in focus. This calls for a narrow aperture, or high f-stop. Portrait is the other way around. A standard f-stop is f/8, in photojournalism called: “f/8 and be there.”
- Shutter speed, then, is the length of time that the shutter stays open for. If the object moves you need high-speed, in dim light, low-speed (long exposure). There is a limit what one can do without tripod. No photo shop trick can bring a wrong focus or blurred picture.
- The last major factor is the sensitive your camera sensor to light measured in ISO. It is a crucial control to image quality under variable lighting conditions. Outdoor during the day, it’s easiest to leave your camera on the lowest ISO possible. When shooting indoors, you’ll need a higher ISO—anything higher than 3200 becomes susceptible to noise. In astro-photography noise can be handled. But for regular shoots, ISO should be as low as possible, and as high as needed. Under dim conditions you are better of with a grainy, but a blurred picture.
- Photography is often referred to as painting with light. When we talk about painting with light we talk about the process of creating a photograph. Photography derives from the Greek where photo means light and graph stands for painting. Quality, quantity, direction and how we can manipulate light to our advantage makes exceptional photography.
- Every light is tinted a different color, which is adjusted either by automatic white balancing or with RAW pictures (standard) during post processing. As I said, technique is granted, but has to support your idea, motif, composition and so on.
Photography is art, which moves actually into the realm of painting and needs a not only technical skills, but solid visual analysis and understanding of psychology. Extensive equipment and post-processing capabilities may enhance technical quality and effect. That may satisfy the Zeitgeist, but creates not nesscerarily art.
The following words are the basic vocabulary I use in describing photographs.
- composition: formal elements (line, shape, etc) in a photograph.
- content: the subject, topic or information captured in a photograph.
- direct approach: confronting a scene in a straight-forward manner, without using unusual angles or distortion.
- documentary photography: photographs whose main purpose is to record a place, person(s) or event.
- expressive: concerned with communicating emotion.
- geometric shape: simple rectilinear or curvilinear shapes found in geometry, such as circles, squares, triangles, etc.
- goal: reason(s) why the artist made a work of art.
- landscape: an image that portrays the natural environment.
- motif – the dominant subject or theme in a photograph (e.g. model, landscape)
- objective: a point of view free from personal bias, which attempts to consider all available information with equal regard and fairness.
- organic shape: shapes based on natural objects such as trees, mountains, leaves, etc.
- representational: an image which shows recognizable objects.
- subject: the main object or person(s) in a photograph.
- theme: a unifying or dominant idea in one work of art or in a collection of works.