Balance and composition beyond photography

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A combination of arts and senses in the appreciation: the feeling of weight; the design, composition and balance of visual elements; the subtle sound of the movement and even the sensation of temperature when you pick it up. Yet I doubt few will home in on any single one of these elements – but if you did, and only looked at the design for typography or prose, for instance, you might find quite a lot lacking…

I have a little hypothesis which I think many of you will appreciate. It’s somewhat off topic, so those of you expecting a how-to or review may want to skip today’s post. The creative person is not limited to one field: often, they have interests in other subject matter, and will try to apply themselves in a similar fashion. Musicians who enjoy photography or painting; chefs who sing; singers who cook. And often one tends to be not only good at the other, but there’s also a translation of style of sorts between the different disciplines, too. I can’t cook, or play music, but I do appreciate those two skills and can comment to some degree, in the same way that I can comment on design work which I do in addition to photography. And like my photography, people have noted my design work tends to be balanced, precise, and structured, but not necessarily simple…

The first piece of the puzzle is realising that all of our senses are continuous, dynamic inputs: our brains adapt very quickly to static situations or stimuli unless they are extreme. If we did not do so, we’d be overcome by pretty much everything and unable to function. A good example is this: any chair is fairly comfortable and you don’t really notice the shape of it unless there are significant pressure points; you may not notice major changes to a place you’ve only briefly visited twice, but you’ll notice the smallest change to a familiar environment you see every day. We can live in a place for a few months and get used to significant temperature shifts; 15C might mean t-shirt and shorts weather to somebody living in Canada, but it’s down jackets and gloves for a tropical person. long story short: humans can acclimatise.

This also means that anything designed to stimulate us – food, music, art, designed objects – must necessarily be dynamic. That dynamic can be achieved by motion (e.g. video, cinema) or change in pitch (e.g. music) or change in texture (food, haptic objects) or taste/smell. There are of course also other sensations which underpin this, like pressure, temperature, wet/dry etc. We only really notice absolutes because of the changes: without the delta, we can never have that sensation of expectation nor can we hit limits and define hard stops. Change is necessary for both sensory input and calibration.

In a photograph, this change is achieved when your eyes scan through an image; our eyes are never really static, and can only take in a very small portion of the entire visual field at simultaneously. We must scan the entire area of interest and rely on persistence of vision and some sophisticated mental processing to make up for the discontinuities. When we shift our conscious observation from one portion of the image to another, luminance, hue and spatial frequency of information all vary depending on the subject under our immediate focus; this creates change. The more abrupt the shift in these parameters, the greater contrast we perceive, and the more that portion of the image stands out. Consider this: a plain grey background is going to be far less interesting than an area within it that abruptly transitions from black to white; we’re going to notice the zebra. But if the whole image is full of zebras, then yet another single transition isn’t going to stand out.

Still with me? Good. I’m going to now introduce approach to the concept of balance. I’ve written about this previously, but looking at it from the viewpoint of masses and a set of visual scales, if you will. This time, I’m thinking of balance as a change that’s countered by another change of equal magnitude. This means, if you have a sudden shift towards one luminance or color, you need to have an equally prominent shift in the opposite direction before you run out of observational latitude, i.e. before you run out of image. If there’s no reverse shift, then you’re going to land up feeling thrown off.

This may be easier to understand from the concept of food and music: if you’ve got a very sour primary element in your dish, you’re going to need something sweet to counteract it. The thing with food of course is that you cannot completely neutralise something by the addition of something opposite – unlike, say, black and white adding to grey. Both sour and sweet will continue to persist in the same mouthful of food at the same time, but the sensation of out tongues simultaneously experiencing both is enough to keep us from feeling one taste is too dominant over the other. In music, if we’ve got a track with a very loud element on the right side, we’re going to feel disoriented unless there’s something equally dominant on the left: but much as with food, the two don’t cancel out to get quiet: you just get something uniformly loud, without that contrast creating an uncomfortable sensation. In fact, very few stimuli cancel each other precisely: even heat and cold. If you touch an object composed of alternating warm and cool elements – your body will get rather confused and think you are about to be burned precisely because of the perceived change in temperature.

Of course, an interesting overall experience can be built up by the use of many layers of stimuli that don’t quite fully counteract, but rather hold each other in tension; I’m thinking of something along the lines of a ship’s rigging or a symphony or a morsel of food that has warm/cold/salty/sweet/wet/dry/hard/soft elements in it. It is precisely that huge variety of stimuli that keeps our brains engaged and attempting to parse what’s going on. However, the more simultaneous stimuli in any – object, I guess – the more of a challenge it is going to be for the audience to appreciate the arrangement and individual elements. Not only is the whole thing providing an experience that’s far greater than the sum of its constituent sensations, but we may not even have the time to process all of that stimuli fully before it fades and transitions into something else – you can’t hold ice cream in your mouth for long before it melts and offers a different sensation, for instance.

In the same way that it requires some experience to understand and identify all of the individual flavour elements in a complex glass of wine in that inhalation and sip, some experience is required to fully read an image or understand a piece of music or artwork. It is for that reason that the credibility of the person commenting is quite important – the opinion of the critic is limited by his or her experience and exposure. You cannot identify a flavour as aniseed if you’ve never tasted it before; the validity of the opinion is limited to like or dislike. Such credibility can be given either through the critic’s ability to deliberately and consistently produce their own work in the same genre, or their ability to explain their opinions; certainly not by how loud they can shout online. The more complex the work or product, the more experience it’s going to require to appreciate; and the smaller the potential audience pool becomes. In some ways, this is inescapable for the artist who is producing at an extremely high level: they have to wait for everybody else to catch up. It’s like having a racing car that’s faster than anything before, but which nobody has the skill to control – until they practice with it first…

Of all the creative arts – and I use this term in the broadest and most general possible sense, including the culinary arts, music, architecture, writing, music, the visual arts, the production arts, design, engineering, even coding and performing and public speaking – and no doubt more – the easiest and hardest simultaneously are the ones that only engage a single sense at a time. Music must stand on hearing alone; a piece has to work without a live performance (that will be variable anyway) – but a meal has visual, olfactory, taste, temperature, and even sound that goes with the ambience of the location in which it’s consumed. You have a lot less latitude to get something wrong when there isn’t something else to cover it up: it’s possible that meal tastes so good you don’t mind it has to be eaten next to an open drain at a roadside hawker somewhere in Asia (that’s pretty common, actually). But if there’s one discordant note in a piano concerto, it’s going to be rather obvious. By the same token, if the composition and execution are sublime – it’s almost as though that single sense can take over for everything else. A good photograph evokes far more emotion than the literal and immediate visuals; it triggers elements of our own memory that may well rouse smells, temperatures, sounds, emotions (this of course is not predictable as it is dependent on the memory of the audience). It almost allows us to punch far above the weight of the composition: two or more sensory experiences for the price of one. It’s also somewhat easier to control in execution. The more I think about it, the more I think this is what makes photography so appealing…MT


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  1. Ming,

    I am finally finding someone who “thinks the same thoughts” with me. Word-for-word these are the concepts I constantly ponder over. I teach my children rules of composition, as equally applied to visual arts, cuisine, music … operating a car in style, executing maneuvers to perfection and so that to keep the fourth derivative smooth. I know things and concepts have value only in comparison, measured against reference points, also always adrift. I find infinite number of dimensions in John Cage’s “4:33” and it never gets tiring for me to explore its seeming vacuum again and again. Malevich’s black square (the ultimate single-pixel image), nuclear deterrent – are of the same kind and too can be explored infinitely. I apply everything you talk about to the field of fine precision mechanics in which I practice as a design engineer. This too is art, if you decide to make it that.

    On the topic of disorientation associated with noise cancellation – I hate to drive a “nice” car with sealed windows in complete isolation from the elements. I suffer from sensory deprivation that is taking away from me as the pilot. Or – have you tried to sample fine food in a loud dance hall where the music volume is pushed to the pain threshold? I have not, but I guarantee it – your taste buds will not serve you well. Try the same while standing at the edge of a cliff – no wind, sunshine, perfect weather – you will not be able to taste your food. Countless other examples can be thought of.

    What you are also saying – a bit awkwardly – is that the concepts you are trying to bring up do not have a well-established place in language. Hence, awkwardness. I feel the same way, and I am on a quest to develop my own vocabulary. Maybe, one day, we will be able to say what we are trying to say in a few words?

    Dmitri Serdukoff (just launched – very sparse, but is being worked on)

    • Thanks – there’s probably the same kind of art and style that can be applied to everything; I think of it as a sort of balanced efficiency, of the kind that comes with practice and deliberateness and thought – like a Japanese tea ceremony, for instance. It’s the art of mastery, if you will.

      Sensory deprivation: I agree. We have a limited capacity to concentrate on stimuli, and something must give. We simply cannot take in and consciously process all stimuli simultaneously. Perhaps this is one of the remarkable things about an image: it often forces to focus on one thing, and ignore the rest…

      Vocabulary to describe what we’re discussing can only be developed if there are enough people talking about it to develop it. Whilst it’s not impossible, I have to say honestly I think it’s highly unlikely…

  2. Ming,

    What really rings in my mind (using the sound related term on purpose here) is that very often photographs associate with music in my mind. It is as if I have an emotion that can be expressed in music and in picture and so both combined would amplify each other for the observer (I cannot use terms viewer or listener, because they are one-dimensional).

    The more I read your blog, the more inspired I get about photography! Many thanks and it seems to stand to reason that I would have to thank you so many more times in the future.

    • Music: Yes! It’s a visual soundscape or symphony or chorus, though unlike music it doesn’t always play in the same sequence for everybody 🙂

  3. Carlos Polk says:

    The greatest advantage to the noise cancelling headphones is that when in an aircraft, I can listen to music at a much lower volume. I hope that is helping preserve my hearing.

  4. This important article reminds me of the concept of “Unity of Effect”. Here is Stapleton Kearn’s (a contemporary American painter) take on it: “Unity of effect is that quality, which all great art possesses, be it a painting, a Hiroshige woodblock print, a Richardsonian Romanesque public library, a piece of Attic red figured ware or a Goddard-Townsend kneehole desk. The thing holds together. It is one cohesive statement and not a handful of conflicting and individual parts . If I can teach you only one thing. Learn this.” Edgar Allen Poe (American writer) also discussed the concept as it applied to writing. I do believe this to be crucial to design and artistic excellence. That particular Rolex watch, and your photograph of it, both honor the concept and that is why they “work” so well.

    • Consistency instead of design by consortium? That may explain why a lot of modern objects just don’t ‘work’ from a function or design standpoint: the point of reference is not consistent even during their creation.

  5. Hi Ming,

    A commentator on Youtube said that a camera’s photosite size should be at least 5 microns (?) or larger to obtain optimal output, especially re. dynamic range. I believe the new Hasselblad mirrorless meets this requirement, while the Sony A7RII does not. If you have access to both, it would be great if you would do a study of this issue and write an article on. Thanks.

    • I think this comment is on the wrong post 🙂

      Everything else equal, larger photo sites will give more dynamic range. ‘Optimal’ is such an unspecific term that could cover a very wide variety of possible parameters, and I’m not sure Youtube comments are really a trusted source…

  6. Hi Ming
    For me this post is a bit similar to your “The-concept-of-visual-weight”post in that the descriptive semantics or syntax conventions can be a bit confusing or incomplete.
    For me the way you have presented your balance and tension arguments seems to work better for the standalone objects such as an watch, painting or photograph, or items that can be appreciated to some degree independent or the environment and context that they exist.
    The more immersive/ environmentally experienced creation such as music, food or architecture are usually interacting and changing the context/environment in which they are appreciated, and that difference is fundamental to me. In addition these creative endeavors are often experienced in a particular temporal and or climatic context which adds another layer of complexity. For me the more complex the object/creation to environmentally interaction the harder it is to analyze, but the experience can be much richer when it all comes together.

    This is why Gallery’s need to be such neutral places, if you like the work there is more chance of you brain to work independent of the environment and be fully immersed on the exhibition. It also simplifies the experience which is good for comprehension, though to some extent can make it a bit more of a packaged commodity.

    • Well, we do our best around language that was never meant to describe these things…I don’t even know if there’s anybody else attempting to address the topic at all.

      Galleries are never neutral. There’s already a huge curation bias involved…

  7. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Wildly complex concepts, Ming. Here are a few random thoughts.

    First – acclimatisation. Yes & no. When I left the south to live in the tropics, I was fully acclimatised within 3 months – and needed a jumper in the evenings, and a blanket to keep warm at night. When I later returned south, I couldn’t believe I’d last that first winter – it was as if I’d been left on an ice floe in the Antarctic, and it was to be some years before I was “fully” acclimatised – in fact 50 years later, I still find winter harder than it was before I went to the tropics.

    Before moving on – that shot of the Rolex is one of the best “watch” photos I’ve ever set eyes on – and I’ve seen plenty. 🙂

    Not arguing with your thesis. But it’s not altogether true that noises can’t cancel each other out – there is an anti-noise “noise machine” which balances the noises in the area with a sort of “everything else but that noise” noise that it produces, and when added to the existing noise, everything apparently falls silent. Dunno any more about it – I’ve seen various references to it – I don’t know how effective it is – but it’s supposed to be quite successful. Of course that’s not quite what you were referring to – I just mention it in passing.

    Classical genius has spawned a heap of examples of what you are referring to, in the way of multiple fields of interest – Michelangelo is primarily remembered as a sculptor, but of course he was also an extremely gifted painter – Leonardo da Vinci did heaps of different things.

    Wrong notes in a piano concerto? – one of the world’s greatest pianists once said, when he was in his 80’s, that (between practising, recordings and performances) he still played the piano for at least 8 hours a day – if he missed an hour a day, he noticed it – if he missed two, his wife noticed – if he missed three hours a day, the whole world noticed – but then he smiled and added that if he made a mistake, nobody cared. That IMHO is “genius” at work.

    • Plenty of examples of active noise cancellation – it’s the same sound but out of phase, and the kind of thing that exists in noise cancelling headsets. I always find it rather disorienting because without that bit of background noise, you can no longer use your hearing to help determine a sense of physical balance. (The latter of course doesn’t quite hold photographically speaking.)

      “…but then he smiled and added that if he made a mistake, nobody cared. That IMHO is “genius” at work.”
      It’s also the effect of perceived genius: nobody questions it even if the genius thinks he/she is wrong unless they say so…

      • Mosswings says:

        Interesting sidenote on NR headsets – a lot of folks can’t wear them because the “silence” that they create has a pressure offset that is detectable. Certainly there’s a perceptual component – a claustrophobic component – to this, but the sensation of constant pressure on the eardrums is real, and I’ve noticed it myself. There’s been nothing written up about this that I’m aware of, but it when you consider that how NR headsets work is by playing one large amplitude tone against another one, just out of phase and slightly delayed, there could be a net pressure differential that arises. It also shows just how sophisticated the controller mechanism needs to be to avoid hearing damage.

        • Anybody heard about NR headsets cancelling tinnitus, `cause I got some, seriously.

          • Noise cancelling headphones can’t cancel tinnitus, because the sound you hear with tinnitus is usually caused by misfiring nerves – there’s no physical sound to cancel.

          • They can only cancel external noises sadly. It might actually make your tinnitus more obvious because there would no longer be any white noise to cover it.

        • I can’t wear them either. The pressure is part of the reason, the disorientation the main one. I suspect that instead of cancelling to precisely zero – it’s a little bit more or less than that, and that’s what causes issues. I find custom-fit in ear headphones much better for comfort, sound and portability in any case.

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