The concept of ‘visual weight’

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Heavy, but with light inside bits. Translation: transparency

I keep getting asked about this, and then remember I’d already covered it. Here goes the gentle reminder!

We acknowledge that every medium of expression has its strengths and limitations relative to others. Yet our basis for discussion and understanding of concepts and ideas is very much a written/spoken language-based one, this remains our benchmark – more so when the concepts become more complex and less intuitive – or the opposite, so simple and basic they’re entirely intuitive and not at all logical. There are of course severe limitations of language when it comes to describing the visual properties of expression and composition, yet it’s usually easy for us to see when something isn’t quite right. Why, how, and what do proportions, weight, balance, composition and aesthetics have to do with each other? Is there a somewhat more objective way to handle these concepts? I’m not certain, but today were going to try.

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Balance beyond photography

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I’ve always thought there were more senses beyond the obvious physical ones – perhaps they’re synergistic, perhaps otherwise. I suppose to call it pure aesthetics would be not really accurate, either – but the upshot is of course a result that is either pleasing or not. In the course of many discussions with a wide cross section of people on the topic, it seems that the ‘sense of balance’ is either there, or it isn’t. It doesn’t necessarily mean that those with a heightened sense of balance can consistently create strong images – arguably, in some ways it’s the opposite – but there’s definitely at least recognition of what works and what doesn’t. Two immediate thoughts follow: why? And more importantly, how can we use this to make a better image?

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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…

[Read more…]

The concept of ‘visual weight’

H51-B0007349 copy
Heavy, but with light inside bits. Translation: transparency

We acknowledge that every medium of expression has its strengths and limitations relative to others. Yet our basis for discussion and understanding of concepts and ideas is very much a written/spoken language-based one, this remains our benchmark – more so when the concepts become more complex and less intuitive – or the opposite, so simple and basic they’re entirely intuitive and not at all logical. There are of course severe limitations of language when it comes to describing the visual properties of expression and composition, yet it’s usually easy for us to see when something isn’t quite right. Why, how, and what do proportions, weight, balance, composition and aesthetics have to do with each other? Is there a somewhat more objective way to handle these concepts? I’m not certain, but today were going to try.

[Read more…]

Tension and balance

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Two of the most common words I hear used when describing images are ‘tension’ and ‘balance’. I’ve got a good idea what the latter means, and how to translate it into an image – but the former is much more nebulous. A brief look around online also showed that they’re both not that well understood, or badly defined, too. At the risk of putting my neck on the block, I’m throwing my contribution into the ring, too. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comment section…

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Commercial work vs personal work vs experimentation vs development

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This shot was the result of creative white balance use, and getting up early because I wanted to try it. Nikon D700, 28-300VR

One thing I’ve noticed since turning to photography full time is that the amount of personal work I do has greatly reduced. It’s not because I don’t have time to do it – on the contrary, I should have plenty more opportunities to sneak out and shoot for half an hour or an hour here and there – I think it’s because I’m starting to fall into the trap of complacency. Or perhaps I’m reaching a photographic saturation point of sorts.

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This shot was the result of experimenting with large amounts of blu-tack to keep the watch in place for the shot. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G Micro

I definitely still enjoy shooting, and I still feel the same rush when I nail the frame – what I’m missing is the feeling of wanting to go out and do it in the first place. I think a large part of it is because once you start running your own business, there are always more things you can be doing on the development front – either sending out feelers to potential new clients, following up on existing ones, or doing post processing from jobs past. And that doesn’t count this blog, either.

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Up to this point, I’d never used dinner plates as props for watch photography before. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G Micro

It’s odd, but equipment choice paralysis also seems to be a contributing factor. I’ve now got three systems – Nikon FX, Leica M and Micro 4/3 – each for a specific purpose, but also each with enough lenses to make a general purpose kit that I can comfortably go out and shoot anything with, be it an assignment or a holiday at the beach. And that doesn’t count the various compact cameras, either. Sometimes I honestly stand in front of the equipment cabinet before going out and feel plagued by indecision – even if I pick a system, which lens(es) should it go with? What do I anticipate shooting? What kind of look or style am I going for?

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Divisive symmetry. One of those experiments. Nikon D3

Constantly planning shots and thinking about the end result does make you a more conscious and prepared photographer, but it also means that to some extent you’re either paralyzed by indecision, or micromanaging everything in your control to the point that it doesn’t become fun anymore. Perhaps the most frustrating thing is the feeling that you definitely have the wrong piece of equipment on you, but the right one is sitting in the cabinet at home. (At that point, the best thing you can do is figure out what you can do with what you’ve got and just shoot, but that’s an entire post on its own for another day).

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The ephemeral missing sushi. One of my favorite near misses – even though nothing is in focus, you can make out enough of the shot to know that there should be something between the fingers and on it’s way to the diner’s mouth. To my eyes, the blurriness of it all actually helps to reinforce the implied surrealism. Olympus E-PM1 Pen Mini, Panasonic 20/1.7 G

So what’s the upshot of all of this? Well, not doing as much personal work means that that the times you do shoot are mostly bridled by the requirements of your clients, and frequently do not result in you pushing the creative envelope – especially if you have conservative clients. The importance of photography for yourself is that it gives you time to experiment and develop your style and technique; without it, it’s too easy to stagnate into a creative rut and consequently land up being unproductive, or worse, uncompetitive. Not having an end client to please takes the pressure off you, and leaves you free to try things that you might not have time to do while on assignment, especially if time is tight and shot list is long – which it almost always is.

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It was extremely dark, and empty – there were no people to fill the frame and provide context, motion and life – I didn’t even know if the shot would work technically, let alone aesthetically. I’m very pleased with the result, though. Leica M9-P, 50/1.4 ASPH

Inevitably, the early results of any experiment result in failure, or at best, partial success. Whilst this may not be acceptable in a client scenario, it’s a crucial part of the learning and development process – if you succeeded at something straight away, chances are you will develop that style far less that somebody who has to work at it. The reasons is down to understanding: assuming we don’t give up, humans understand things by doing them; the more times you have to try something, the more parameters you have to change, the more complete a picture you will be able to build up of how things work. This in turn results in better control over the end result, which of course culminates in better output.

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Same with this shot – one of those surreal, but fun experiments that came to mind after passing by the gorilla for sale in a store window. Leica M9-P, Zeiss 28/2.8 Biogon

Without this experimentation, one stagnates creatively; it’s actually very obvious in the work of various ‘famous’ wedding photographers in this country. Many of them revert to the same portfolio of five or ten compositions and apply them to every shoot – which has several consequences; firstly, they are increasingly pigeonholed into a particular style or look, and that’s what clients expect; secondly, they can’t take the risk of doings something else because of client rejection; finally, they can’t break out of that way of seeing because they’ve been doing it for so long, and the creative process has atrophied. It’s a dangerous cycle.

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Reflections – another experiment. By this point in the shoot (shooting a launch gallery for the Leica V-Lux 3) – I’d had a whole card full of standard shots, but nothing different and interesting – there wasn’t any clean water in sight for a neat reflection, so had to try and make do.

What I always find interesting – and inspiring – is the work of serious amateurs; Flickr is one of the best places to see this. Whilst there are a good number of pros on the site (myself included), it’s also home to a lot of people who fall into the former category. Serious amateurs are in an enviable position – one I didn’t appreciate myself until recently – most of the time, they have the skills to be able to make the shot they want, the lack of pressure to execute it, and the lack of cynicism that stops them from trying things that might fail in the first place. The result is that browsing uploads from my contacts shows me a wide cross section of work; some of it really quite excellent and inspiring; some of it utter rubbish; however, the most interesting to me are the experiments that are near misses, or clearly out of style for the individual: you can almost see how the compositional mind of the photographer works, trying to adapt their old way of seeing to a new style. It’s almost like seeing how something is made.

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If I hadn’t brought the D-Lux 5 along, and packed the light panels on a whim, then this series wouldn’t have happened, and I wouldn’t have known that it’s very possible to make commercial-grade food images with a compact.

I often get ideas through looking at other people’s images, period – especially of places I’ve been before, or things I’ve shot before. This gives you the ability to see things through the eyes of another person – and find what you might have missed from your own perspective, which in turn makes you want to go out and shoot again to try and perfect your vision once more, and capture the essence of that particular subject…

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Making do with the relatively slow f2.8 aperture of the 28/2.8 ASPH and the limited low light capabilities of the M9-P resulted in long shutter speeds, and the slight softening which lead to this rather surreal image – and the hidden gorilla in the shadows.

Creativity is an iterative process; one that must be built on, nurtured, and continuously pursued. Without it, it’s impossible to develop as a photographer. At the same time, it can’t be forced – something that a lot of people (our government included) don’t seem to understand; you can’t just throw time and money at it and hope that new ideas sprout. It doesn’t work that way – the inspiration, or the ‘ah ha!’ spark has to be there in the first place. The tough part is creating an environment for yourself in which you feel inspired and inclined to experiment. Stress, expectations and tight schedules aren’t conducive for creativity. But over-relaxation and laziness isn’t, either. It’s a tough balance, this one. And that’s one of the reasons why from now on, I’m going to make sure there are a couple of days a month – usually tacked on to the end of location-based assignments – which permit me to go off, explore and experiment. I highly recommend it. MT

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Balancing content and technical perfection

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Base jumping off the KL Tower. There are no do-overs for either the shot or the participants. Nikon D200, AI-P 500/4

Suppose you had one opportunity to get the shot: what do you do? The obvious answer is go for broke; who cares if it’s slightly overexposed, out of focus or the framing is a little off. Maradona is probably only going to use the ‘hand of god’ once; the millennium is only going to roll around once in your lifetime. Bigfoot will probably only appear once, and only in out of focus or foggy areas*.

That’s one end of the spectrum: it’s all about the content rather than the execution.

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Benzinger Skeleton. Full control of everything, full repeatability. The second, third, fourth and fifth shots would look exactly the same.

The opposite end would be fine art still life: any one of the aforementioned photographic sloppinesses would probably get you thrown out of the gallery, unless perhaps you were very, very good at explaining why out of focus images represent the current zeitgeist of society, how rushing around and achieving complete form and ‘just getting it done’ rather than doing it well – quantity over quality – are also paradigms of modern corporate living.

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What’s this? A situation in the middle: you can anticipate what’s going to happen and be prepared, but you don’t get a do-over. You should be able to get a perfect result with practice.

Enough sarcasm. Basically, if you’re going to create a still life, you’d better damn well be in control of the elements, or it just makes you look sloppy and incompetent as a photographer. There’s no way you can excuse compositional errors, slanted horizons, overexposure or things intruding into the edges of the frame. Studio commercial photography also falls into this category; it’s 100% controlled, and if you can’t get your image right when there isn’t anything left to chance – and the shot is repeatable – then you should probably hang up your camera.

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It wouldn’t have worked without the man. Schonbrunn Palace, Vienna. Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

And that’s where the dilemma comes in: for photography that isn’t clearly at one end of the spectrum or the other, where do you draw the line of acceptability? If there is no expectation to create perfection, is there any necessity? In fact, if the expectation is of something slightly imperfect – to capture the chaos of reality – then perhaps perfection would actually weaken the impact of the overall image.

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I like the lyricism and movement in this image; in fact, nothing is perfect. It was underexposed because the meter gets fooled by backlit situations so I went manual and got the exposure slightly wrong; then the limitations of my equipment meant motion blur in the subject was a certainty, so I decided to work with it; finally, none of the verticals are straight – it bothers the perfectionist in me, but I bet you it wasn’t the first thing you noticed about the image. Malastranska, Prague. Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

That last point isn’t immediately obvious. In fact, it’s quite counterintuitive; I was only made aware of it because I personally tend to drift towards the technical perfection end of the spectrum, and various clients have commented that my images look a little too perfect in some ways, especially for photojournalistic work. For studio photography, on the other hand, my clients love the attention to detail.

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If This Looks Too Perfect, That’s Because It Was Staged. Artfully constructed scene for a promotional video. Nikon D700, Zeiss ZF 1.4/85 Planar

A year or two ago, I would have thought that the ideal combination would be to nail content, composition and the technical aspects of the exposure to produce a perfect image; however, this is not only nearly impossible to do, but somehow also results in slightly lifeless images. The soul is missing – or perhaps it’s not so much soul per se as humanity represented by the slight imperfections which impart the character of the photographer onto his or her image.

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More lyricism. Malastranska, Prague. Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

Perhaps I’m just confusing myself with the philosophy now, because this is my current photographic worldview:
1. We strive for perfect images.
2. Technical perfection isn’t perfection per se, because that slight bit of imperfection humanizes an image and gives it personality.
3. This means that we must have skill and ability to achieve technical and compositional perfection, even under spontaneous circumstances.
4. However, we need to have even more control than that, because we need to have the ability to add imperfection at will.
5. Go out and create, with this brief of perfect imperfection in mind.

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Just your average slice of life. Olympus E-PM1 Pen Mini, Panasonic 20/1.7 G

I hear questions from the back of the room. Does this apply to every situation? More importantly, how much imperfection should we apply?

The answer to the first is obviously not; if you can do this in a situation where you have little or no control over the subject – think war zone photojournalism, for instance – that probably makes you one step removed from God, and a clear notch above the great PJs like Capa, HC-B et. al. Remember from the Magnum Contact Sheets book, even they had to work the scene a bit to get the final composition they wanted.

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The foot. The one aberration in this abstract urbanscape is actually to me what makes the image. Nikon D800, AFS 24/1.4 G

The answer to the second is nowhere near as clear cut. And frankly, I have no idea how much is too little, how much is enough, and how much is too much. The only way to determine the answer to this conclusively is to experiment, and get your work out there and opined-upon. Modern Japanese photographers tend to be at the very haphazard end of the spectrum – some of their work seems almost random, albeit very carefully constructed random – and the other end I suppose are the environmental portraitists who bring lights and modifiers and everything else with them even into the middle of conflict areas.

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Flambe. Repeatable, but not controllable. You can set up the shot and do it again, but you can’t control what the flames are going to do. And this is the interesting thing that gives a little variation and makes each shot different. Seascapes are another good example. Nikon D700, AFS 60/2.8 G Micro

Personally, I’m going for something in the middle; but before I even get there, I need to shoot more – to have full intuitive control over my camera so that whatever adjustments I make come to me as second nature. And at this point something has to be said about good cameras, bad cameras, and too many cameras; good cameras are intuitive to use and require little training or practice to master. They do what you want them to, nothing more and nothing less. Bad cameras are ones that you never feel fully in control of, no matter how much practice you have. And too many cameras is just that: if you have too many cameras, you’re bound to eventually forget which button does what. And that could cost you at the most critical moment. This is why I’ll continue to use my D700 for reportage assignments until I’m fully comfortable with the D800; I know exactly habit will do under every situation, born of seventy thousand frames of experimentation – not counting the fifty thousand I shot with the D3, which is pretty much the same camera. MT

*Did anybody get the Futurama reference?

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Would the burger be as appetizing without that juicy pickled onion marmalade peeking out? Probably not. Nikon D700, AFS 60/2.8 G Micro


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