What makes an interesting image, part two: illusion and reality

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Inversion I

In the previous article, we distilled down the two components of an interesting image: subject and presentation. We looked at the theoretical implications of both; today we’re going to attempt to address practical application. It will be in a very limited subjective way, as there’s simply no way to do it at an absolute level; I suppose it will be as much a snapshot of my current state of interpretation of the purpose of photography as a medium as much as anything. I certainly would not have had this line of logic two years ago, nor will I probably agree with everything again in another two years. The more we see, the more we experiment, the more our own vision evolves together with the creative philosophy behind it.

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What makes an interesting image, part one: subject and presentation

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A traveller’s view. We have the required visual cues to say ‘airport’ – the aircraft, boarding gates, apron, terminal, bits of ground hardware. But also the vertical bars that suggest perhaps we are being imprisoned or limited in some way, and the lack of clarity or definition from the plastic windows making it unclear if the view is a reflection or perhaps the illusory product of jetlag…

In previous articles, I’ve explored what makes a technically good image; what makes a visually balanced image; what makes an emotional image, and of course what makes an outstanding image. But at no point have I really addressed what makes an interesting one. I’m going to attempt to tackle that today; but bear in mind this is an extremely subjective topic, and opinions may diverge enormously.

You have been warned.

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Understanding native tonal response

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Sunrise over Lake Michigan

Continuing this little series on tonality, mood and monochrome, I’d like to explain a little about the idea of native tonal response: it’s something I’ve frequently referred to in reviews, but never fully explained. Unfortunately, there are a very large number of variables, so bear with me.

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Repost: Aspect ratios and compositional theory

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Round plate in a square frame. The composition is ostensibly balanced, but a little randomization is created by the uneven lighting. Leica D-Lux 5

Today’s article is a repost of a classic from two years ago (has it really been that long?) I bring it up again on the back of an interesting offline discussion I’ve been having with one of my email school students. How many people think about the relationship between idea, subject, composition and the final presentation format before hitting the shutter? The missing link is usually the last one – and almost always results in a necessary compromise in composition. But, there are ways to fill the empty space, as you shall see…

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Paranoia and suspicion: photographers are not terrorists

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I’ve been wrestling with a bit of a contradiction lately. On one hand, the proliferation of mobile phone cameras and social media has meant that there is no end to the number of throwaway images being generated and instantly shared online; on the other, it seems to be harder and harder for somebody with ‘serious’ looking equipment to take an image of anything without arousing suspicion. Is it just me, or is the world’s paranoia entirely misplaced?

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That medium format ‘look': what is it?

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Four

Today’s article attempts to answer a question which I’ve been asked quite a few times, both in comments and offline correspondence: what is the ‘medium format look’, and why do we find it attractive?

We must first assume that the output medium is sufficient to identify differences. Beyond the obvious very large print or Ultraprint, if you’re judging images at web sizes on a computer – or worse, a phone – sorry, you’re just not going to see it. A typical web image is less than 1% by area of a 40-50MP medium format camera. There is simply no way you can oversample that much resolution information in a meaningful way to those sizes, unless you’re heavily, heavily cropping, I suppose. How large would you have to go to see the difference? I’d say at least ~4MP (2560×1440, most 24”-30” monitors) or better yet, 4K. And that assumes the downsizing has been done in an optimal way, of course. It’s quite possible that some methods will completely throw away any resolution advantage whatsoever (line skipping, for instance).

What I’m going to attempt to do is break it down into five main categories – for digital – and please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments if you feel I’ve missed anything.

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It’s all about light: making mood and strong images in monochrome

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Rush hour

A couple of days ago, we looked at the inexact science of color and emotion: I don’t think anybody is going to argue that the mood and feeling of an image is influenced heavily by the dominant color palette, both in terms of the color of incident/reflected light and the color of the subject elements themselves. But how does this translate to black and white images? Obviously, it’s very possible to do since not every monochrome image feels the same. Even within the same sort of general lighting – say low key – it’s possible to produce variations in mood. How?

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Repost: The inexact science of color and emotion

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What makes this photo identifiable as dawn instead of sunset? Hint: it’s the color. We expect sunsets to be warm, but mornings to be cool and clear.

Today’s post is one from the archives; back nearly to the beginnings of the site. I’m pulling it out again to set you up for what comes next. 

A series of experiments was done many years ago that showed humans have been conditioned to expect certain things in the way of color: blue ketchup just doesn’t fly, for instance. The theory is that it’s a primeval subconscious response to warn us of danger. Think of it this way: rancid meat looks a certain way, and has a certain color. Even if we can’t smell it – looking at a photograph of vomit or something decomposing makes us go ewwww. Such examples are to be found in nature all the time – think of those brightly colored poisonous beetles, for instance. In fact, the link between color and range (and thus emotion) is so strong that many species mimic the coloring of more dangerous species to warn away predators, but at the same time rely solely on that as protection because they pack no venom or toxicity. (Toxicity is energy-consuming to produce, and in food-scarce environments, you want to waste as little of your nutritional intake as possible producing something that’s only going to help you if you’re eaten – and thus probably going to die anyway.)

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Being prolific

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The images in this article are unconventional compositions: products of long periods of experimentation, sometimes the result of a single fast grab, or several iterations of adjustment and refinement. I think they suit the theme well.

Today’s essay is a slightly odd one. Consider for a moment: is it better to be a prolific photographer, or a slow, methodical, considered one? No matter how you slice it, there are advantages and disadvantages to both. And I honestly haven’t been able to figure outs which works best, so I’m hoping the comments are going to spark an interesting discussion depending on the approach of my readers.

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Picking a tripod

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This article continues from a discourse of why a tripod is the most underrated piece of photographic equipment.

There is a lot of obsession online over whether camera and lens A is better than camera and lens B – forgetting entirely that the creative vision and shot discipline of the photographer using the equipment is not just a great equaliser, but can very well turn the tables entirely. Tripods and heads are one of the very few areas in which this is not actually true – i.e. better equipment is better equipment and there are no equalisers – and are almost completely ignored. No amount of creativity or technique can make up for a poor tripod, but poor technique can certainly spoil a good tripod.

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