Rules of vision – part II

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Upside down, or?

Continued from part I – hopefully the first part has had time to settle and digest; let us press on…

We draw temporal inferences from direction of shadows
The length and direction of shadows also suggests time of day: this is one of the indelible subconscious rules dating back to the very beginning. It is a consequence of observing sunrises and sunsets and being able to judge approaching darkness accordingly, by both overall luminance of a scene and the shadows cast by the sun. Sadly, for a lot of us, this is somewhat academic as there are far too many offices with hours that extend beyond daylight and further have no natural light whatsoever…

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Rules of vision (or, things we can’t help seeing) – part I

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Did you notice the sign above the man’s head? What about the house number? Or what appears to be a Cuban flag in the doorway? Or was the moving man the first ‘anchor’?

Regular readers will know that I hate arbitrary maxims labelled as ‘photographic’ rules simply because there is no such thing as a ‘universal scene’ or universal set of parameters for every image. Every composition is different, and every creative intention is different, which means the whole premise of there being a fixed set of laws that make a ‘good’ image or ‘image that works’ can only be nonsense. However, I do think there are some fundamental principles of human vision – and consequently psychological response to elements in an image – that we cannot ignore since they directly influence the response of our audience to the ideas we are trying to present. That is what I wish to address today: what are the autonomous/ subconscious/ reflex/ automatic – pick your preferred term – visual responses that we should be aware of and seek to utilise when we compose an image? Think of this post as the predecessor to The Four Things: it’s the underlying reason why some of the Things have to be the way they are.

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The Four Things, redux

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One image that appears to break the rules, but really doesn’t: relatively flat light prevents texture from being too harsh, but it’s directional enough to create the curved shadow between the mown and unmown grass, with the line leading to the yellow flowers – that stand out from the rest of the meadow. Order in chaos, guided nature.

In the past, I’ve written about ‘The Four Things’ – what I consider to be the cornerstone elements of a good image. I’ve also written about subject isolation and finding that extra unpredictable magic element that lifts an image to the realm of the memorable. I’ve not written about ‘the idea’ yet, but that’s in the works. What I’d like to do today is revisit the core structure of an image with the benefit of hindsight and simplify those four things as much as possible, with the background context of understanding how our brains work. It might seem like photography and psychology all over again; but remember that photography is really a conversation between photographer and audience – and like all forms of communication, the rules are both cultural and somewhat more deep-seated at an anthropological level.

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Creator or consumer?

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Entropy is the way of all things

I have a theory: there are only two kinds of people in this world when it comes to content and creative output. Either you are primarily a consumer, or primarily a creator. We also have to take two other parameters into account: quantity and reach; total impact is determined by both – little quantity and widespread reach is probably about the same as high quantity and narrow reach, with high quantity and high reach of course having the greatest net output. A consumer is a person who has little quantity or reach; certainly less than the media they consume. A creator is a person whose output exceeds their input (reflagging and distribution doesn’t count; that’s not creating anything new). Of course, a much simpler way of looking at this is by time: do you spend more time reading and watching, or making/ shooting/ posting/ writing/ sharing?

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Why photography satisfies

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A photograph is like food: endless in variety, universally appealing or an extremely acquired taste; easily obtainable and available at a different level to suit every preference and budget. You can cook eat the same thing several days in a row and still enjoy it, or you can do something completely different every day. You can make it yourself or subcontract. There are no rules about what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Moreover, both photography and food are something relatively limitless for us humans: both in the creation, and the consumption. Just as we need nutrition on a daily basis, we need regular visual stimulation – and though you can manage just fine if you never cook yourself, at some point, curiosity is likely to motivate you to create. The more effort we put in, the more likely we are likely to be satisfied with the result: many techniques or dishes are deceptive in simplicity: the fewer elements present, the more perfect they have to be. I frequently think of analogs like minimalist photography being similar to sushi: there are just four ingredients (fish, rice, wasabi, soy sauce) – yet each one can affect the final outcome drastically. An uneducated diner might not be able to say why a particular piece of sushi (or photograph) works, a skilled one will be able to say why. But both will appreciate it. And just as with food, good ingredients and good equipment help, but at the end, it’s still down to the skill and imagination of the chef.

*Masterclass alumni will know I use the cooking analogy a lot: if a finished print is like a plated meal, then the planning and ingredient-gathering process and pre-prep is scouting and seeing; cooking is capture; plating is post processing.

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OT guest contribution: The pathology of ‘fanboyism’ and a little advice to MT

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A representation of photographer logic; image suggested by MT.

A first for me: today’s post is an article courtesy of guest contributor, psychologist and photographer Dr. P.L., a London-based practitioner of some note who wishes to remain anonymous to avoid spam from said fanboys. I have asked him to keep the terminology as readable to the non-psychology layperson as possible.

I write this piece as a concerned reader and friend of MT: of late, I’ve started to notice a lot of hostility starting to creep into the comments, which must be addressed lest it be to the ultimate detriment of all.

Photography is a pursuit that is attractive to individuals who a) are creative, or believe they are creative; b) tend to be somewhat analytical; c) in general prefer to operate somewhat independently. As much as teamwork is required for a Crewdson-style production, ultimately there is still only one creative vision and one person aiming the camera. A) is necessary to be able to distil scenes of interest from the common. B) tends to be the case because some technical proficiency is required for the degree of control required to reliably translate vision to output. Photography is also an anthropological and psychological pursuit: we are reflecting ourselves in our observations, whether we share them with others or not. And more often than not we are observing others, too. I believe herein lies an explanation as to why photography seems to generate so many fanboys – and so much irrationality.

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The format matters, but not in the way you might think

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Having shot extensively with oue 645Z over the last few months, I’ve developed a new hypothesis: the format – i.e. the physical size of the recording medium – matters to the output, but not in the way that we’d expect. Naturally, we assume that the larger the sensor or film, the higher the image quality. Since so much of that is both subjective and perceptual and thus affects the final impact of the image, perhaps it’s important to understand exactly what’s going on.

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Being a photographer is an attitude

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There are a lot of people here. A few are taking pictures. How many of them are really photographers?

The media, commercial entities – camera companies, software companies, cellphone companies – are all trying to convince us that anybody can take great pictures, and is therefore a photographer. Right and wrong, I think. Being a photographer is far more than equipment, more than luck, more than intuition, more than practice…it’s an attitude.

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Film diaries: thoughts on the psychology of shooting film vs digital

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Would I do anything different in digital? Probably not, other than be frustrated at my inability to obtain this tonality.

Here’s an interesting question: why is one’s yield (or keeper) rate so much higher with film than digital? Let’s take the stats from my excursion to Europe, and keeping in mind I apply the same quality thresholds to both film and digital:

Ricoh GR, single shot: 137/1795, for a 7.6% yield.
Olympus OM-D, mostly single shot, some burst: 54/2370, for a 2.4% yield.
Hasselblad with B&W film (Fuji Acros 100): 76/168 (14 rolls), for a 45% yield.
Hasselblad with slide film (Fuji Provia 100F): 28/60 (5 rolls), for a 47% yield.

Digital overall: 191/4165, for a 4.6% yield.
Film overall: 104/228, for a 46% yield.

That’s ten times higher. What gives?

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The attraction of clouds, water, fireworks, trees…

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Over the last couple of years, I’ve noticed that there are a few subjects that tend to be universally attractive to a wide audience – and I’m not referring to cats, bikinis or brick walls (or strange combinations of all three). They tend to be of the type clouds, water, trees, fireworks etc. I’d like to explore that a bit more in today’s article.

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