In a conversation, sometimes what is left explicitly unsaid reveals just as much as what is – and the same is true in photography. Whilst much fuss is made over extended dynamic range, highlight and shadow recoverability and similar technical aspects, the question of what we’re going to do with all of this latitude is seldom addressed. In a practical sense, there is of course the desire to replicate the tonal range of the human eye especially for very literal images like most landscapes, but to move beyond that requires a bit more conscious consideration of the end intention.
Negative space can represent both a physical gap and a cognitive one.
There is a place for literal photography, and there is a place for ambiguity. With the exception of some work whose impact hinges on transparency and the ability to present the illusion of being there/ removing the implied effect of the photographic process, I personally think it’s important to leave something to the imagination of the audience. This both encourages further contemplation of the image as well as offers the possibility of satisfying a wider audience since it is the imagination of the audience themselves that ‘fills in the blanks’. There is of course a balance between too much ambiguity and just enough to guide the thought process of the audience in the desired direction.) Think back to the four things: we require interesting light (or specifically, light that presents the subject in the desired way); decent subject isolation so the elements make themselves seen in the intended order of priority; a balanced, aesthetically pleasing composition, and a unifying idea or story to link the elements together. We’ve got a large number of options to integrate ambiguity here:
- Exposure – what you can see, or not
- Obstruction of sight – the subject blocked by something in front of it; we cannot change our position of observation when viewing a photograph
- Camera position, leading to lack of pattern recognition – an unusual angle may result in a common object not being recognised because it isn’t usually seen from that position
- Depth of field – basically, if it’s blur enough you can’t identify it
- Prominence of other elements – other objects in the scene that have better subject isolation will of course divert attention away from those that are effectively camouflaged into the background
In the Idea of Man series I deliberatley use a lot of silhouetted human figures to remove defining individual characteristics because I do not want the audience to restrict themselves to a literal interpretation of that specific individual person in that specific situation; the intention is for imagination to bridge the gap to universality
The easiest one to work with is exposure: by placing the subject in light that is quite a bit brighter or darker than its immediate surroundings, we draw attention to it by virtue of higher contrast. If we take this one step further, exposing so that the subject appears natural – i.e. appropriately bright or dark to an average matching our vision or thereabouts – then the rest of the scene changes accordingly since exposure affects the entire image. (Changing exposure of course also requires adjustments in composition so that balance is adequately maintained.) The challenge here is that it is is quite unusual for us to consciously make adjustments to exposure based on subjects in very different light for the simple reason that our eyes a) typically compensate for these differences in brightness, and b) this makes it difficult to imagine the resulting image.
What happens between the pools of light?
This means we are familiar with scenes of relatively uniform brightness – this is what we routinely encounter – and still somewhat familiar (but less so) with low key scenes (corresponding to night), but we rarely consider scenes so dark that portions are completely black and ambiguous, or scenes so bright that large areas blow out to white because our subject is heavily backlit. Furthermore, most cameras and lenses do not handle extreme backlight well – metering aside, we land up with unnatural looking images because of the way the sensors clip, the lenses lose contrast very quickly, and the interaction between all of the optical elements resulting in purple fringing or chromatic aberration. In short: we see the artefacts before the image. Regular readers will know that I don’t find clipping to be a problem as much as abrupt clipping because it draws attention to itself, and thus the wrong parts of the image.
This technique works for controlled lighting/ still life, too: it focuses the audience on what matters, and suggests the rest is there but isn’t of consequence. It also helps that we tend to associate low key mood lighting with a certain level class of establishment, product or event
For many reasons, it’s easier to work with low key images. Firstly, they’re somewhat easier to visualise; secondly, they’re easier to find – at night, or in places that have large amounts of shade such as alleyways, or places with extremely high contrast. Secondly, assuming your subject is in the highlights, you instantly draw attention to and isolate it. Thirdly, we buy ourselves some latitude in execution – underexposing a stop or two helps lower ISO and allow for increased image quality or stopping down for more depth of field. Fourthly, all of the unintended or unimportant elements can easily be hidden so that they don’t distract from those that matter.
Management of shadows gives a hint as to the form of the buildings and that they might not be a continuous wall
I had never seriously considered this approach to photography until I saw the early work of Magnum photographer Alex Majoli, from around the early 2000s; he preferred to work with small-sensored cameras in warzones for stealth, depth of field, cost and risk reasons but these came with heavy compromises in image quality etc. The result was low key and high contrast to preserve sufficient shutter speed since there were significant penalties of exceeding say ISO 200-400 or so. I suspect this is a good example of a style being developed through working around technical limitations: look for very contrasty light; put (or wait for) your subject in the brightest highlight, spot meter/focus, and recompose – then shoot. Blacks were really 100% black and contained zero information, but what remained was sufficiently evocative that even though only a few elements are clearly identifiable, they are enough to form a chain of causality and thus a story. The audience is then left to project their own emotions onto the result. Important note: you must leave enough negative space around the highlights to suggest the area that would be occupied by what isn’t explicitly shown, e.g. the area behind a facial profile would be the head; the area below it would be the upper body. Without these implicit size cues, the brain has trouble interpreting what it’s seeing.
Even though we have moved on considerably since then – today’s camera phones are capable of far better results in lower light – using very low key images and managing your negative space is a worthwhile technique to be familiar with when working in very, very dark or high contrast conditions, or when you are faced with a subject in a busy scene that doesn’t add anything to the story. What we do have now with some cameras (notably those with extended dynamic range and very smooth shadow transitions such as the D810, D800E and 645Z) is the ability to neatly manage shadow zones such that we can still leave in subtle hints of texture and complexity in a scene without dominating it. We can work in super low key without having to have incredibly precise managed lighting, and shift white balance to control dominant color and mood. (I am of course talking about the cinematic style of photography here.) We can of course apply these techniques to mask the shortcomings of smaller sensors, too.
So here’s your next creative experiment: go find light so contrasty you have to squint; put your camera in spot meter; look for subjects in the brightest highlights, and see what falls out. MT
Ultraprints from this series are available on request here
Visit the Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including workshop and Photoshop Workflow videos and the customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!
Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved