Structure

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I’ve put off writing this article for a very, very long time for the simple reason that there are visual things that I have to figure out how to explain which somewhat transcend the limits of the written language to describe. Even defining the meaning of ‘structure’ in a photographic sense is tricky: we understand it to be a system of support that is not necessarily seen but underpins what we see on the surface – both physical and metaphysical. It is the means by which order is created out of chaos. Photographically, I like to think of ‘the structure of an image’ as the flow or visual rhythm of elements. Controlling the structure of an image controls the order in which the elements are read, and in turn the idea or story implied by those elements. Without conscious management of structure, it is therefore very difficult to consistently create images with anything more than a very literal impact.

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We can identify an image with structure almost instantly, usually because it has a clear subject and various feature that pull you inexorably towards a single point or points, in a certain order. This is not be confused with subject isolation, though the two are inextricably related. Subject isolation merely defines how well distinguished an element is from its immediate background – it’s how well we manage to translate three dimensions into two. However, the order of reading of an image is much more complex. Given a uniform background, an image will flow in order of decreasing subject isolation: the eye will first go to the most outstanding element, then follow to subsequent elements in order of separation. Reality is quite different though: you almost never encounter uniform backgrounds for multiple subjects, which means that the background itself* now starts to play a role in directing the eyes of your audience.

*Arguably, in a good image the background is a critical element in itself since it provides context; the definition of ‘background’ therefore becomes what we consider to be the subject of least importance and therefore with nothing to be isolated against.

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Backgrounds contain textures, patterns, lines, changes in luminance and colors that can all serve to both call attention to themselves and lead the eyes of the observer in a certain direction; the term ‘leading lines’ exists for a reason. We pattern-recognise the line – whether explicitly solid or implied by a sequence of staccato objects – and follow it to the terminus. It is not something you can easily consciously control; our brains are just wired this way. It is therefore important to be aware of this when photographing to both actively use the line to draw the attention of the audience to a desired element in the composition, as well as avoid unintentionally misleading to an unimportant element. These visual flow lines can cancel out or reinforce each other – in a way, much the same as vectors in conventional physics or math – except here, the magnitude of the vector is analogous to visual weight and determined by contrast and color. One very important thing to note is that in almost all cases, the resultant net vector follows the orientation of the frame – more likely to be vertical for portrait, and horizontal for landscape. Anything else frequently results in empty space and visual imbalance.

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In order to create an image that works without conscious consideration by the viewer, we must actively think about the way the subconscious brain works to ensure that we do not include any contradictory elements; the artist has to do his or her best to put themselves in the place of the audience, including removing as much subjective bias as possible. We are typically drawn to a certain element in a scene first, and then arrange the other elements around it – hopefully in a way that both clearly isolates the primary element and then uses the secondary remaining elements to imply some sort of story or causality determined by the spatial positioning of those elements. Oh, and it should be aesthetically pleasing, too – or at least able to achieve the emotional impact intended by the photographer (repulsion may well be the objective). The question of what is ‘aesthetically pleasing’ represents a minefield unto itself: there’s simply no way to answer this objectively because it depends on the preferences of the audience, too.

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The trouble is, most photographers never quite get beyond considering the elements immediately proximate to the subject or gross structure; either there isn’t the time in fast moving situations, or conscious awareness is not yet developed. This is the reason you see so many images that have distracting elements that break the flow of a composition, and frequently the reason an attractive element or subject failed to translate into an attractive photograph – something distracted the audience and in turn broke concentration on the subject. It is therefore necessary to move from the subject-first process of composition to considering the background structure and subject(s) in tandem, plus of course the implied relationship between then and the causal flow suggested by the background.

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In fast-moving situations, I find it necessary to almost be continuously aware of the background, contextual elements contained within, light direction, and then only actively look for a subject suitable to my narrative intent to place within that stage. It is of course necessary to leave an opening in the stage for the actor, too. Further complicating things are possible differences between the quality of light on background and subject; it’s also possible to be overly focused on background and neglect subject isolation.

I think at this point it’s clear why this is a very tricky topic to explain; we had best go to some examples.

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The reason I chose these particular images to illustrate the article is because they are a mix of structural strength; whilst all have a clearly defined flow, not all have clear leading lines or dominant visual pathways. In fact, several are the opposite and reflect images that on hand have no structure: abstracts are actually more difficult to compose than appearances suggest because we have to deliberately ensure the lack of any structure at all; balance must be perfect. Making an outwardly random arrangement of elements is nowhere near as easy as it seems. With these points in mind, let’s look at the images again, this time with some explanation. The red lines are dominant underlying structure, with thicker lines representing areas of higher prominence.

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For this abstract, note how there are plenty of leading lines but nothing dominates: if anything, they cancel each other out. Dominant lines flow orthogonal to each other and diagonally through the image; verticals in the right and centre portions offset the chaotic upper left.

 

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This image is a good example of ‘net direction’ – I think the triangles formed by the light are obvious; the triangles formed by the three foreground heads and flow of people further down the escalator echo that form, with the apexes adding to create the blue line of flow. The right side is somewhat empty, but the eyes are prevented from leaving the frame by that reflection on the right wall, which creates a further suggestion to lead back towards the foreground man on the right.

 

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I think this image is quite straightforward: strong lines of contrast flow from left to right and use the full width of the frame to draw the eyes of the audience to the subject, which is tonally coherent with the other elements in the frame, but clearly isolated against a very plain background.

 

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The strongest two elements in the image are the black line that both leads the eye to the woman and the high contrast line formed by the woman herself; there are further diagonal lines formed by the shadows on the building and the kerb to guide you through the empty right portion and to the secondary subject, which itself is not as well isolated as the woman in white, and therefore not as prominent.

 

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This image is much more complex and chaotic: on the face of it, the human elements are not that well isolated (there are both high contrast elements and text elements that can be pattern-recognised) but for the fact that we pay attention to human elements first. However, the vertices of most of the elements have been carefully positioned to lead your eyes to the centre of the frame; the coloured elements are mirrored  on each side of the centreline (e.g. the red lanterns, the orange signs) and cancel out, leaving you back in the middle – where the true subject really lies.

 

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Though the immediate response is to think of this image as an abstract, that’s not quite true. The triangular lanterns and the approaching front of the moving bike both form strong lines of contrast or area, and divide the frame into two. The man on the bike is of low contrast and saturation, but the motion streaks create their own dynamic and once again pull you back to the middle, where the diagonal zigzag flow of the lanterns creates momentum that encourages your eyes to look at both halves of the frame. Note composition in portrait orientation: this image would not work as a landscape because there are insufficient horizontal elements compared to vertical ones to encourage exploring the frame laterally.

 

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The final image is a strong one because not only are there explicit lines leading to the central subject, but there are also implied lines formed by the vertices of various points (shadows, heads) that reinforce the explicit lines and balance each other off diagonally. This image deliberately employs geometric distortion created by the wide 21mm perspective to further enhance visual concentration towards the centre subject, which herself has a strong isolating and supporting line created by the shadow on the left.

If you look carefully, there’s one more thing beyond just lines: notice how the eyes are drawn through a progression of luminance, too: light to dark, dark to light. This is also a deliberate flow to help orient the viewer within the image. Dark at the top suggests night; light at the top, day. I do consciously adjust my composition at  the time of shooting to make the most of these structural elements; at the same time, it’s important to be aware of what doesn’t belong and apply the principles of conscious exclusion to avoid including potential distractions in the scene. This is not something I have always done; in fact, I think I only became actively aware of it in the last five years or so. I suspect this may be the reason behind people finding my images too ‘clean’, ‘clinical’, or ‘ordered’ – the chaotic distracting elements are usually not present or not obvious; why  would you want them to be unless chaos is your objective? MT

Learn more about subject isolation, balance, structure, exclusion, leading lines and the flow of an image in the Making Outstanding Images video series – episodes 1-3.

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. John Brady says:

    Hi Ming, this is one of your most thought-provoking articles, which is probably reflected in the low number of comments compared to your Hassy gear posts 🙂

    “It is therefore necessary to move from the subject-first process of composition to considering the background structure and subject(s) in tandem, plus of course the implied relationship between then and the causal flow suggested by the background.”

    This. I saw this at work in your “How to see” posts; you will find an interesting scene with the right structure, and then wait for the right subject to move into view. I found it an interesting insight into your shooting process. You aren’t snapping away; you are patiently waiting for the right combination of primary subjects against a carefully chosen background.

    Thanks for sharing your insights.

    • No problem. Perhaps another way of looking at it is seeing a scene and imagining a) what’s needed to complete my imagined ideal of it, b) where, and c) how – assuming feasibility, of course.

  2. Such an eloquently written and thought provoking article. My background in Physics and Mathematics brings an inherent fascination with trying to find order or structural constructs within chaos, wild woodlands in particular! An interest in, and experiences of, art in various genres brings a fascination with aesthetics, the interplay of light and shade on form and textures. I find photography to be for me the most intriguing meeting of art and metaphysics, with which one can hope to create narrative, pose questions, engage emotional or visceral response and more besides. The hardest thing I find is to ‘switch off’ ‘seeing’ and interpreting the world, rather than just idly ‘looking’, when I am out and about without a camera… sometimes I just wish I could!

    • 🙂 I can’t switch off seeing, either. I think once you have the ability to observe, notice and compose in your mind, it’s impossible to not have it. But since it also brings with it a much stronger appreciation of aesthetics and transient moments, why would we want to? 🙂

  3. jimaustin says:

    Agree with training our brains to look for structure. Well-written, Ming.

  4. Wayne Melia says:

    Thank you for providing this.

  5. Superb. I’ve been anticipating an article like this for as long as you’ve been putting off writing it; it was worth the wait. Going to take quite a few reads to fully digest all the information in here…

  6. Casey Bryant says:

    I hope you don’t take the critiques of your work as too ‘clean’, ‘clinical’, or ‘ordered’ as negative. Your ability to find harmony and order from entropic daily life is stunning. It encompasses your style–which I would argue as a huge compliment. It’s one of the strongest reasons I follow your work so closely. My primary project is photographing my kids; your teachings have had the greatest impact on improving my own images.

    • Thanks Casey. I was asked to describe my work/style in a nutshell once; ‘precise’ was the term I came up with. I don’t know if that necessarily fits every situation, but it’s just the way my brain works…

  7. Andrew T Molitor says:

    Have you seen the eye tracking experiments on how people look at pictures?

  8. David Lupton says:

    I tend to think of structure as the thing we hang the image on, it is not the image, nor is it always obvious yet it could be.

    Structure can get in the way of the image, I think good internal design is one thing but the bigger question is where does your eye end up and what is the quality of that visual journey is it pleasurable, enriching, boring, spiritual, informative etc.

    In the image of the escalator the longer I look at it, the dark triangle above the heads… this becomes the non escapable black hole my eyes are sucked into…this is a descending image and yet you never can go down and out. The triangle is the image not the content intended I feel, is that darkened triangle shape enough for the eye mind to be happy with, I am not so sure, is that triangle used in a way that adds to, empowers the image or something else?

    In one way this obvious design in all these images is fantastic as a teaching tool and yet some of the best images shot have these elements and yet they are hidden at first glance. There might not be a single line in an image and yet the weight of colour tone light and so on create other kinds of balance and design that are subtle and yet very powerful, not so obvious. Creating obvious designed images in the end may be striking at first glance however I suspect without substance, something that is somehow interesting, deeper, mysterious, evocative, simpler elegant beautiful random, violent… whatever, they visually quickly fall by the way.

    Things that seem to randomly break in from the edge of the frame or from within the image itself can create unexpected beautiful visual juxtapositions, or rubbish ones…out of the chaos new intrigues possibilities are born.

    The discordant could it be a possibility structure?

    In many ways the subject for us may be a given and yet what we surround that thing with, light, foreground, background sides layers front to back framing height angle lens F stop shutter speed ISO etc can all change empower make or break an image. Whether we see quickly as a street photographer might, or a little slower for a still life or landscape. We all are gathers of space excluders and includers of stuff of time as we grasp light and hang the thing on internal visual frames of all kinds.

    What we do not see is often more important in an image than what we see, one speaks to the other revealing what is not there in silver inks or pixels this is another kind of seeing, the reality of illusion. How to create this structure of elements that speak of the unseen?

    I feel if that visual thing we snatch is truely discordant it is broken, if its over obviously structured it may become boring quickly, likewise if its too clever, out of sorts tonally colour or weight wise if it has no mystery resonance or lingering substance that tantalises pleases the eyes or soul, it is quickly forgotten.

    If structure is a coat hanger it is then the thing we can hang all sorts of different visual and emotional possibilities on, things that let the eyes linger longer with deepening satisfaction.

    • “Structure can get in the way of the image, I think good internal design is one thing but the bigger question is where does your eye end up and what is the quality of that visual journey is it pleasurable, enriching, boring, spiritual, informative etc.”

      They’re not separable, in my opinion. Structure must be built around subject, which has to still obey the principles of isolation in order to stand out first.

      “…this is a descending image and yet you never can go down and out.”

      That was the point: if you did go down and out, then you’d never be forced to revisit the rest – your eye would transit and move on to the next image.

      I don’t generally create images that are immediate one-trick ponies: I want you to really look, and be rewarded for doing so – persistence is the only thing that’s going to make an image memorable in the long run because you were forced to really think about it 🙂

      “The discordant could it be a possibility structure?

      This is actually Japanese street photography in a nutshell. If you try to replicate the chaotic style, you quickly find it’s a lot harder than it looks – I’ve tried on many occasions and just can’t do it because I think my brain is simply tired in a more orderly manner.

      Thanks for the detailed thoughts!

  9. Very good written. In most things you are totally right. I just read the book “the geometry of art and life” of matila ghyka. there are also some aspects explained that you have in your article, only a bit more scientistic. this aspects truly work in a lot of photography genres. but in real street shooting fast situation you just dont have the time for things like that. i talked with a lot of good street photographers they all described their composing as “intuitive” in the situation and that just do not have the time. only after photographing you can see what you did in geometrical aspects. and this is something you just have to learn and practice but also need some talent and “eye” for. some will never reach that. even Bresson explained in his book that in the most photographers he worked by his intuition. so it is great how your photography sense developed ming. i like your images. they are well balanced and arranged.

    • Hmm, I’m not sure I agree with that – yes, observation is intuitive, as is timing, but you can train yourself to find structure – or at least make that intuitive, too. I know I’m consciously looking for it all the time – and after a while, you realise there are only a few fundamentally different types of spatial arrangements that work for each perspective/focal length…

      • That would be an interesting topic for a future article (possible spatial arrangements for different focal lengths).

  10. Great article, and supporting images Ming. Along with the concept of “Gesture”, I think “Structure” is one of those elements of an image that can be considered part of one of the “Four Things” (Gesture fits into Subject, Structure into Composition) but are something important enough to warrant a “Thing” of their own, or at least a “Sub-Thing”. It becomes more important the more chaotic a scene becomes…think Alex Webb, for example….always so much going on in the frame, but control of Structure means the final result is harmonious to the eyes.

    • Actually, I think ‘gesture’ goes into ‘the idea’ – it envelopes the concept of subject, timing, emotion and HCB’s decisive moment. Hmm, on second thought, maybe the whole thing needs to be revisited…

  11. Jianchen Tao says:

    This is a great article, especially you wrote it at the time that I am learning how to frame and compose. While I was reading one of your earlier article “principles of conscious exclusion”, which is mentioned in this post, I came up with this below question and hopefully you can give me some hint or guidance: that is you were suggesting us to “think of firstly what bare minimum elements are required to tell your story”, but I am confused whether you have the intention or your story first or you start off with observing the background and then composing the story? Thank you very much in advance, Ming!

    • Depends: if I’m on assignment and have a clear objective, then it’s story first. In every other situation, observe first and then see where it goes.

  12. Well written and informative

  13. Thanks Ming for this article! I think our eyes is more than capable of seeing things. It does take time to develop our brains to see things in an extraordinary way. Definitely an eye opener!

Trackbacks

  1. […] layering and the more complexity can be built in. Of course it then becomes difficult to create structure in the image that allows space for a clear primary subject, and then find a physically/spatially […]

  2. […] upon it by the object it represents. The following pair of images is a demonstration of that: same structure, same overall texture, similar mood despite a change in color, but very different subjects. Which […]

  3. […] create a particular impression, but also where one can control local weight to create the desired underlying structure to the composition, and thus dictate to some extent what order in which the image is intended to be […]

  4. […] what I’ve found so far, and their implications on the underlying structure of an image – there may well be more that I’m not consciously aware […]

  5. […] few outside cinematography actively seek to use out of focus foregrounds as part of the underlying structure of their compositions. I think that’s a shame, and here’s […]

  6. […] Of course, this can be used photographically to great effect in creating abstraction, geometry and structure – without shadows, we have no way in presenting the illusion of three dimensions in a medium […]

  7. […] Deconstructing Structure in Photography – Ming Thein […]

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