Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Finer Points Of Seeing

There's a whole chapter in my book on "seeing" with tools and exercises, but after yesterday's shoot I thought I'd try to better describe what one is doing when seeing.

For many novice photographers, the definition of seeing is probably "looking for something pretty".

At its simplest level, a photograph consists of shapes and tones. Shapes are determined by the real world characteristics of the subject matter and by the position from which it is photographed. Unless you are going to use Photoshop to distort, that's it, there is no other way to change the shape.

Tonality is a bit more flexible in that exposure and focus can affect the tonality, as well as lighting (including bouncing a little light off a white sweatshirt to fill a deeply shadowed rock. it is even more dramatically affected by printing manipulation, whether in the wet darkroom or in Photoshop. If you have been following Bruce Barnbaum's series of articles on printing in Photo Techniques magazine, you will be aware of the degree to which even a traditional image can be manipulated. With more precise and greater control as well as things like local contrast adjustment the power of digital image editing is even greater.

So, we have shapes and we have tones and the former is fixed when we plant our feet, the latter can be substantially changed once we are home with the image.


The process of seeing is simply a matter of looking for shapes which have potential, and tonalities which with adjustment as needed can provide suitable tones. In the past I might have argued that photographing in bright sun might have been pushing it, but Uwe Steinmuller on Outback Photo has been merrily doing so, hand held no less, with his HDR techniques, so even there... Still, the closer the tonalities are to something which will print well the greater the chance of a good print, and the less work you will have to do to get there.

Correct Order

So, should one be on the lookout for interesting shapes, or surfaces which photograph well? From experience I can tell you that it works in either direction. I might see some great metal shapes sitting on a shelf, and though they tonalities are boring, I know that with work and can deal with that (see prev. blog entries on editing including one on adding roundness and depth with image editing). On the other hand, water provides great tonalities and usually the shape comes second.


A month or so ago the Lee Valley Woodworking Catalogue came in the mail and I was very impressed with the cover photograph. Some photographer or designer had shown a lot of ingenuity in photographing tools on black rectangular blocks, stacked up in a staggered hill, both sideways and backwards, creating a series of small flat areas on which to sit the tools. The blocks were all painted a textured black which the photographer had managed to capture perfectly. The tools were metal and wood, many of them hinged rulers forming a series of L shapes on the ledges. The whole thing was photographed from above and to the right so that all the rectangular blocks formed parallelograms and the L shaped rulers all matched. A sign indicating 30th anniversary was in a colour which matched the aged wood of the tools s there were really only three colours in the entire image, aged steel, black and an orangish yellow wood. Obviously it impressed me, after all it was just a catalogue.

The image works because of the powerful shapes chosen in the first place, the placing of the camera which turned rectangles into vertical and a series of matching diagonal lines.

The above illustrates the selection or the finding of the shapes, combined with positioning to modify the shape to meet our needs.

It's possible that one is born interested in shapes, or one is not, but I strongly suspect that anyone can learn to improve their powers of observation. Certainly my own experience is that my own skills have improved hugely even in the last five years.

An Exercise To Try At Home

Go to your tool drawer or even the junk drawer and find some intersting shapes. Take them with you to a comfortable chair with decent but not too harsh lighting. Put on some suitable contemplative music of choice and sit down for an hour looking at each of the objects for at least five minutes each. Inspect it from every angle, from really close to arms length away. Pay attention to the way that light reflects from the surface and how lines change as the object is rotated in front of your eye. Look at shadows on the object and pay attention to how those shadows change the presentation of the object. Are there any positions from which it's hard to identify the object? Why?

The more you do this, the greater variety of objects you study, from vegetables to eggs, to a cloth duster to a pair of scissors, the sharper will be your powers of observation when out photographing and you spot a similar shape or surface.

Spend time with these objects cataloging which shapes are more interesting. It's likely not the whole object, rather one part that has an interesting line to it. Do you like sensuous curves or zig zags, tidy rectangles or triangles?

What An Object Is

The actual material or function of an object is really only of importance if you are doing advertising or photojournalism. For fine art, the object's function is completely irrelevant. This can be hard to get past but remember Edward Weston's use of toilets and dead bodies (animal and human) to provide fodder for his image making.

My image of round rubber gaskets hanging is a good example of the material and use being quite beside the point.


Perhaps the one encompassing theme to looking for suitable shapes to photograph is order. The shapes have to be arranged in a cohesive way, whether by human hand or natures, whether the photographers or some metal worker from 50 years ago. There are times where even the randomness of objects can form a pattern - for example my image of a recycling plant below.

Order can be the way a garden hose is coiled, or the way cloth drapes from a breast or the repeated way that light reflects off of skin in a nude. Can you imagine the human body if each area reflected light differently, left from right, top from bottom, and so on - not nearly as effective in an image.

Shapes Bounded

Remember that whatever shapes we discover, we need to encompass it within the edges of a rectangular print (well usually and traditionally). Shapes which gradually peter out, like the end of a branch, exposing more and more of the background towards the edge of the object can be difficult to frame and the background becomes ever more important. Shapes transected by the edge of the image don't have that problem but now we have lost part of the shape and what is left has to work against the horizontal or vertical line of the image edge. Not all shapes are suitable.

1 comment:

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Peace ~ John