Photography as a visual language
Photography is a really dynamic medium. It doesn’t really matter how the photograph has been taken. But digital photography seems to be where we’re heading.
Photography is a core experience of the 21st century. We see, consume, and make photographic images all of the time using a variety of camera devices from phones through to advanced digital SLR cameras. And photography has a real indictable relationship to the world that we see. Everything that we see can be photographed. Everything that we experience and the way that we engage with our world works as a photographic image. But the extent of that photographic image is being challenged with contemporary technologies that allow us to tag faces and geo locate certain positions and do all sorts of things with photography that have a different relationship to how we engage with the world.
In less than 2 minutes, 215000 photos have been uploaded to the internet through any of the various devices, like Facebook or Instagram or Flickr. So photography is an all-consuming product of the 21st century. And it’s an exciting medium through which to explore the things that we’re interested in.
As photographers, we have four basic or four formal ways that we can think about our images. The first one is our vantage point. This is where we stand in relationship to the subject that we’re photographing. The second device we have is our framing. This determines how we crop or what we position inside our frame. Our third option is optical drawing. In photography, light always travels through glass or through a lens or some type of device that shifts and pushes that light around to draw the image on our frame. And our last one is time. Time operates on two levels– when we choose to expose the image but, also, how we use that shutter speed to determine how long our image is exposed for.
But is it photography?
Photography, at its heart, is a mechanical process. Light and a device are used to record an image. It’s reproductive, which means that multiples can be made, and it has a particular affinity with the way that we create images. It’s unparalleled with any other creative application.
The eyes are one of the core components of a photographic portrait. We’re looking to them. They stare right back at us.
Photography is all about capturing light, capturing light onto a sensitive surface. Now that surface used to be silver emulsion. Now we’ve moved into that surface being pixels or being transistors that record information as pixels. So digital photography is still photography. It’s the same type of image-making, but we have some completely different options about what we do with those images and an expanded notion of processing and post-editing that we’ve not really had before in the history of photography, which goes back maybe further than you might think.
In the 1970s, NASA were developing ways of capturing images electronically so that they could be transmitted back from satellites. In the 1980s, that transitioned into different magazines and editorial organisations using digital images to remove blemishes, decrease waistlines, and do the sorts of things to photographs that we now take for granted.
Now photographs that are born digital have an interesting relationship to the history of photography. You could argue that the framing device, in and of itself, is the very thing that defines whether something has a value of truth attached to it or whether in fact it is an interpretation.
Pixels provide a very interesting way of thinking about photography, and they do give us a new way of conversing and just asking those questions about is it photography and what is photography. Pixels are an amazing tool, and they certainly provide interesting ways of editing images and changing the actual content of an image, but it’s still captured through a lens. It’s still light, and it’s still that sensitivity and that photographic frame.
But is it photography? This gives us a whole way of looking at photography that asks those very simple questions.
Is it truth?
Does it reflect reality?
And just whose reality is it actually reflecting?
French documentary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson is famous for his line, “the decisive moment.” But the question now is, whose decisive moment are we actually talking about?
Is it real?
Is it constructed?
Is it in fact even composited?
What is that decisive moment?
When you think about all the processes, I don’t know how much that really matters.
It’s important to just understand that photography is photography, light is light, and that is essentially what we’re capturing.
Photography and Light
Light does amazing things to photographic images. It’s how we create shape. It’s how we create texture, dimensionality. All of those things that we experience in the world– light is what makes that a photographic image. If you think about it, what we’re doing is we’re taking a three-dimensional subject with depth and distance and texture and feel to it. And we’re flattening that down and making it a singular two-dimensional image. Light is the way that we create that dimensionality.
Despite being a creative medium, photography also has a series of rules that we need to understand in order to make sure we know what’s happening with our images. The first rule is that light always travels in a straight line unless we put something there to bend it.
Light will travel in a straight line. It’s good to think about light in two ways, or that there are two types of light. We’ve got hard light, and we’ve got soft light. Now, hard light and soft light can come from the same source. They can certainly come from the sun. It’s just dependent on the position of you as the photographer and what time of day you might be photographing.
Landscape photographers will always tell you, never photograph in the middle of the day. The sun’s directly overhead and the light is too hard. The shadows have edges. The definitions on people’s faces become harder. Highlights become more pronounced. And it generally provides a much more harsh atmosphere than at either ends of the day.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t photograph at that time of day. It’s just worth having that awareness so that when you do, you know that the light is going to give you a certain effect.
Soft light, morning or evening light– or early morning, mid-morning, and late-afternoon light– provides a completely different aesthetic. And it gives us a way of thinking about light with spectacular highlights. It gives us a way of thinking about light as being softer, as being more gentle on the image. And it can create more dimensionality because the harshness of that light doesn’t cast those strong shadows.
Lens Optics & Seeing
The reason that technical aspects are important is I don’t think you can fully have an appreciation of what you’re trying to do as a photographer unless you really understand as much of photography as you need to.
There’s an interesting comparison here. Think about it in terms of language. Technique is like vocabulary. The more technique you have, the more you understand different ways of working with photography, the greater your vocabulary for expression, the more you can explore through photography, and ultimately, the better you will be taking the kinds of images that you want to take.
We’re going to start talking about lenses and optics because the lens is how photography draws our image. The thing about lenses is that they bend light, and light needs to be bent so we can focus on different picture planes as we’re looking at the thing that we want to photograph.
This is obviously one point of focus, and that becomes a critical area of focus from what it is that the plane is being captured. Now, there’s something else that the human eye and a lens do differently. As you focus on a particular point, your sight is quite small, and the acuity and spatial awareness that you have, and your peripheral vision, they’re all defined on that one particular point. In order to look at, or focus, on other areas, you simply just need to move the eyes around. We don’t notice this because we do it so quickly.
A lens, however, has a different set of parameters in the way that it sees things. It can see the whole perspective, or the whole peripheral of what it’s looking at, with the same level of acuity and spatial awareness.
The other wonderful thing about lenses is that we can use different types of lenses, and the longer the lens, the bigger the subject appears in that frame. So consider a 35 mil lens. If I double that, I’ve got a 70 mil lens, which means that any subject that was in the 35 mil lens is going to be twice that size for a 70 mil lens. Focusing can also be how we preference certain parts of the image over others and allows us a level of creativity that we can really explore to our fullest potential.
There’s one other thing that we need to be really conscious of with focusing. Digital sensors are so minute and have such small levels of tolerance that it’s really difficult to manually focus accurately using some of these devices. I recommend autofocus, not because of any aesthetic relationship to the camera or anything else, purely because of accuracy. Autofocus on digital cameras is really important.
Vantage Point and Framing
So we use our lens as a way of determining the scale of objects and subjects in our frame, and we use our focus to determine the kinds of things that we’re preferencing. But then we also have our vantage point.
It’s much more interesting in looking at different ways that you can frame and different ways of where you can stand to how you photograph. You don’t always have to stand where you’re most comfortable. Sometimes, you need to stand so that you can see something else and that you can explore your subject in a range of different ways.
Remember, even though photography is an instantaneous medium, we need to patient, and we need to be considered in the way that we frame and compose our images. So when you look at images from other artists and images from other photographers, just take a moment to think about where they might have stood in order to take that particular photograph. Some photographers have tall ladders with tripod heads mounted on top of the ladder. Other photographers may only ever use waist level finder cameras so that they’re always looking slightly lower than their perspective. However it is that you might see the world, explore it through the lens from different points of view and different vantage points.
Now, the other really interesting thing about vantage point and focal length and framing is the idea that the viewfinder, the device that we use to look through the camera or at the image, is a really important part of that process. Optical viewfinders are an interesting way of looking at things, but sometimes the image can seem far away in the viewfinder. Other times, it can seem quite close. The other sorts of viewfinders that we have now are the EVF viewfinder, the electronic viewfinder, which takes the image from the sensor and projects it onto the viewfinder. There are some good ones and there are some bad ones, but you just have to make a choice. I don’t really find that an interesting way to take photographs. I’m much more interested in having that camera, the device that you use to photograph with, being an extension of our eyes. So just take a moment to think about the viewfinder and how you look through or at a camera.
Aperture and Shutter
Apertures and shutter speeds are the two primary ways that we control light in our camera. But they also allow us lots of creative options in terms of how we use the light and also how we control the projection of the image onto the sensor.
And there’s a couple of things that we need to be really mindful of with aperture. And it’s a little bit mathematical. But it will make sense. Here I’ve outlined each of these apertures; everything doubles down for each of those major f-stops. And the way that that works is that for every one of these, that’s twice as much light as the previous one, twice as much light, twice as much light, as we keep going along that aperture scale.
So using aperture determines the amount of light that comes into the sensor through the lens. And if we look at a lens here, you’ll know that sometimes you’re told what the maximum aperture of a lens is or how fast a lens might be. That maximum aperture is quite a simple calculation. It’s the diameter of the front of the lens, which, in this case is 49 millimetres, divided by the focal length of the lens, which for this one is 35-millimetre lens. That will give us 1.4 or a focal stop of 1.4 or f/1.4.
Just to sum up what an aperture does, if you look at f/8, that setting determines the exact amount of light that comes through the lens diaphragm and makes contact with our sensor. And so if you need to control exposure, if there’s more light, for example, we need to use a smaller aperture. If you want to let more light in, you need to use a bigger aperture.
You’ll notice that the numbers go in reverse. So the bigger the number, the smaller the aperture. The lower the number, the bigger the aperture.
Shutter speed determines how long that light is in contact with our sensor.
You can see that each of those shutter speeds doubles and halves, which gives us twice as much time or half the amount of time that light is in contact with our sensor. The world, by default, simply moves forward in time. A photograph creates a static captured moment that we can keep forever and return to next week, next year, in 20 years and remember that moment. But if we get creative and if we start using our shutter speeds in ways that extend beyond the normal use of creating that static moment, we can create and make new moments that we would otherwise not be able to see as we move through the world.
For example, something simple like using one of those longer shutter speeds and moving the camera through the frame creates this new effect that we would not see normally with our own eyes. Likewise, if a subject is moving and the frame stays still but we capture that for a long period of time, again, maybe half a second or one second, we can start to see them move through the frame. The reverse of that is if we use a really fast shutter speed, maybe 1/500 of a second or even faster. And you can start to capture things that you would never actually see, like the stillness of water being projected from a statue’s mouth.
Aperture and our shutter speed are the two primary devices through which we control light and we control time. And when we start to control both of those things, we open up a whole new way of dealing with photography and a whole new way of making all sorts of really interesting images.
Everything in Photography is a Trade Off
We’re going to be talking a little bit about exposure and that relationship between our shutter and our aperture and that idea that when we control how the light comes into the sensor, we get to control the amount or length of time, which determines the accuracy of our exposure and whether our image is too bright, too dark, or just right.
Everything in photography is a trade-off, and especially when it comes to exposure. So there’s some terminology here that’s useful to help us understand some of these. If a focal stop of f/8 at 1/125 of a second gives me a correct exposure, that means that the way the light is rendered in that scene means that the highlights are highlights, and the shadow are shadows, and my midtones are midtones.
If I use the wrong setting – for example, I keep the aperture on f/8, I use 1/250 of a second – that means that the time of the light is half the time of what gives me correct exposure. So my image will be underexposed. That means that my shadows will be too dark. My highlights won’t quite be highlights, and my midtones will probably look more like shadows. So that’s not the sort of exposure that we want.
Likewise, if I set it the other way, keeping the aperture on f/8 and just changing the shutter speed to 1/60 of a second, that means that the light hits the sensor for too much time. Therefore, the shot will be overexposed. The highlights will be too bright. My midtones won’t be midtones. They’ll be more like highlights. And my shadows will be lifted up and probably look more like midtones. So the overall image will be probably too much contrast, or it’ll be lacking in definition.
The inverse would also have the same effect. If I left my shutter speed at the same and shifted my apertures, I would be doing the same thing. I’d have a correct exposure, it would be underexposed, or it would be overexposed.
Our cameras are very good at determining this for us. But when we want to get slightly more creative, we need to understand this process so that we can have some control over it. Now, this concept might take you a bit of time to get used to. And it’s a bit abstract, because it doesn’t really feel creative. And it doesn’t really feel like it’s about the camera or about the thing that you’re photographing. But it is at the core of what photography is, and that is getting that balance between the time that the light hits the sensor and the amount of light that comes through the lens.
Most cameras give you control over this: it’ll have some kind of readout or some way of telling you whether you’ve got it right. If you’ve set an aperture and a shutter speed that gives the balanced exposure, it’ll tell you by having that indicator in there being in the centre. If you’ve got it wrong – if you’re either letting the light come in for too long with a wrong shutter speed, or if you’re letting too much light come in or not enough light come in with your aperture – it will tell you or give you some kind of indication that that is the case.
If you are going to try different shutter speeds, just remember one simple rule: it’s about compensation.
So if you’re going to lower your shutter speed and increase the amount of time that the light is in contact with the sensor for, then you’ll need to reduce the amount of light in order to get that balance. Likewise, if you want to use a fast shutter speed – if you want to capture someone jumping through the air or if you want to capture the water coming out of a statue, for example – you’ll need to use that fast shutter speed, which means that you’ll need to let more light in in order to compensate.
So it’s a trade-off. You have to work out that balance in order to get the kind of image that you want to get. Now, there’s one other concept that affects this relationship and this trade-off, and that’s ISO. The ISO is the sensitivity of the chip. So each of our sensors have a range of values that you can dial in to determine just how sensitive they are to light. In most cameras, 100 would be the minimum. And then, it would literally just double from there to 200, 400, 800. Some of them even go higher than 6,400.
And what you’re actually doing is you’re saying to that sensor, the light is lower. Therefore, I need you to read or to be more intensified so that you can measure that light in a different way.
There’s a trade-off though. There’s always a trade-off. The higher that number, the noisier your image is going to be.
Remember, there’s no such thing as the perfect exposure. The perfect exposure doesn’t exist. It depends on what you’re looking for from your image. Sometimes, those readings that the metre give us, those kinds of combinations, they might not be right. Just be mindful that those three numbers give us a balanced exposure, but it’s not always the correct exposure. The correct exposure is how YOU see the image and where YOU want to place certain values.
The Order of Things: Image, Composition and Structure
Let’s talk about some conceptual things. The world has no edges. Composition and framing is defining edges in the subjects that we see using the camera that we’re using. And it sounds like a really easy thing. But in order to get really good, strong, dynamic images, we do need to be quite mindful of how we compose and how we frame our world.
Using the focal length is one of the key ways that we can manipulate and set our image within the confines of that frame.
There are two ways that we can talk about framing and two types of frames that we can consider: the passive frame and the active frame.
A passive frame is one where the edges of the device or the edges of the thing that you’re photographing, is not outside the frame of the camera. It’s not outside the frame of the image. It’s fully contained. That means that the subject in there rests and sits by itself and is not in competition with anything else.
An active frame is not necessarily the opposite of that, but it does have a different treatment in our image. And an active frame, is one that extends beyond the framing of our image and it has a different relationship to the edges and the corners that we’re dealing with in our images.
We can think about composition and framing in the way that we think about order and structure. Photographer Stephen Shore has a really wonderful way of articulating this. He makes comparisons between a photographer and a painter. A painter, he says, starts with a blank canvas, then creates order and structure. The opposite of this is a photographer. A photographer starts with the messiness of the world and finds order and structure in that image, and imposes their own value or our own idea of what we consider to be important, and defines that and uses the camera and the lens and the focal length and all the things that we’ve talked about as a way of creating that order and that structure out of that messiness.
We need to take our time and think about how we might want to compose and frame the thing that we’re looking at. Messy compositions, or compositions that don’t work, they’re really obvious. And it’s more than just having a lamp pole sticking out of someone’s head or things not quite balancing out correctly.
It doesn’t take much to just shift yourself off to the side, stand up on tippy toes even or just change your vantage point and look at how you want to see that image and just consider the order and structure of that frame.
The final thing is that relationship with our corners in the image. We’ve got four of them. We’ve always got four of them. It doesn’t matter what sort of camera you’re using, what sort of lens or whatever it is. There’s always those four corners.
And they act as the levers in our field of view. And there’s always the longest visual cues and visual levers in that field. Check your corners: What’s happening in the corners of your image?
- Is there a balance?
- Is there symmetry?
- Does it make sense?
- Do those corners complement relationships that are occurring in the frame?
- Do they contradict those relationships?
Just think about what’s happening in those corners and it can really make for a concise, well-framed image.
Translating: The Ordinary & Everyday
One of the great things that photography can do is it can translate different ways of seeing and allow us to see the sorts of world that we experience in new and exciting ways.
We’re going to talk about photographers who have looked at exploring that idea of the everyday, the mundane, the object, as a way of translating the ordinary into something different and framing the everyday to give it that new meaning.
Sometimes, these things occur on an abstract level.
Sometimes when you pay attention, and you use the device that photography offers us – the focal length, the framing, the focus, the sorts of things that our eyes don’t do – we can compose and construct really interesting images.
Through the use of photography, we can take those moments and convert them and translate them into special moments that are worth keeping and certainly those ideas and moments that are worth taking photographs of. There are some wonderful photographers around who have used this idea of translating the ordinary and taken it to mean a whole range of different things for their subject matter.
The photographer can do whatever they want to what they see in front of the lens. They can frame. They can have things out of frame. They can manipulate. You can do all sorts of things to the photograph, but what you can never do is change the intentions of the photographer. And sometimes, the actual subject of the image is the photographer themselves.
How we see the world is always a reflection of ourselves. And that inevitably will come across in the photographs that we take.
The mundane and the everyday can be a really interesting subject and a really interesting way to explore things that you might never have considered. I don’t think it’s for everyone. But I do think that it’s quite challenging to take a camera and, rather than wait for an event or wait for someone to be there for you to photograph, to actually just walk around your own spaces and the things that you assemble for yourselves, the worlds that you create – whether it’s inside your home or outside in the street – and just isolate and find certain things. And see if you can’t photograph them in unique and interesting ways.