While studying photography at Queensland College of Art (in Griffith University) many moons ago, there were several core subjects which ran for the full four years… with each year becoming more advanced. Many of the electives that were on offer required these core subjects as a prerequisite before you could enrol. One of those core subjects was design.
Whether you intended studying graphic design, photography, printmaking, audio visual, multi media – and the list goes on – you needed to be studying or have completed a design course. It was during the course of studying design that I realised most artists did not compose a photograph or a painting either mentally or physically. We made selections. We selected which portions of a subject to include, exclude or partially include. Even when shooting a still life – where we started with an empty viewfinder – we made selections of what to place within it.
When making these selections, we made decisions on the use of various design elements, either consciously or subliminally, to coerce the image into conveying to the viewer what it was we were trying to tell them. Over the next couple of articles I will revisit my first year design class work book and enlighten you on various aspects of design I learned and now make use of every time I pick up a camera, open a digital file or send some work to the press. The use of point was the first technique we covered and this is simply a method of emphasising a specific point in an image. The classroom exercise was simple enough – place a round black spot of a specific size in an interesting manner on a white square. Actually, it’s easier said than done. It can be seen from the class workbook paste-up sheet (Image 1) that different placements of the dot can infer different connotations.
Not surprisingly, the centre placement is the least pleasing. Depending on the subject, the lower left illustration could infer the subject has just entered the frame. This assumption is more likely to be adopted by westerners because we read documents starting from the top left and finishing in the lower right. Apply some blur to the trailing edge of the dot and an assumption of movement may also be considered. Placing the dot in the lower right corner gives the impression of a subject leaving the frame.
Making The Point
Image 2 is another page of paste-up from the class workbook, showing examples of using point through the use of a wide-angle lens. Images that work using this technique need to have something interesting placed at the point of interest or the viewer’s interest will be lost.
Creating point in an image can be achieved several ways. The first and most commonly-used method is to create a steepened perspective through the use of a wide-angle lens positioned close to the main subject. Another is to use selective focus, allowing only the point of interest to remain in sharp focus. Portrait photographers often use this technique by only keeping the eyes (and specular highlights within them) in sharp focus.
Another technique is to allow all the portions except the area of point to drop below a certain level of illumination. With this lowering of the tonal values, colour in these areas will also become less saturated. This occurs because the two components of colour, being hue and saturation, are both contrast and exposure dependant.
Grouping objects can be another way of creating interest within a frame. Again it’s difficult to achieve when limited to using black dots in a white square. A group of dots with a break-away smaller group, draws attention to this smaller group. People viewing this arrangement will draw various conclusions from it. Some of the common deductions range from the idea that this is a special group of a higher order than the others, through to sympathy for these dots in the belief they have been segregated because they don’t fit in. In Image 3 the same astigmia is drawn when this technique is applied to real subject matter, especially if the subject is a living thing like an animal or person.
A different psychological profile is also adopted when viewing a black graphic against a white background when compared with more animated subject matter. For example, dark or black tones are usually associated with negative space and are often overlooked in a photograph. But in the case of these black dots – just like the copy on this page – it is considered to be a positive element. If this text was white on a black background we would be asking why the editor had used reversed copy which most people interpret as being in the negative form.
A class exercise placing points in an interesting position within a given space. A simple task that was not at all easy.
Grouping dots on a page is easy, but altering the apparent distance between subjects isn’t. The most effective way of achieving this is through perspective control especially when the subjects can’t be re-arranged... like buildings, for example. Altering how subjects appear to be grouped together can be an effective way of creating subliminal perceptions.
Usually when we contemplate how we want to photograph a subject we also combine various design elements with other forms. Forms can be texture, colour, tone or reflections. The lighting quality, quantity and direction will have a dramatic effect on revealing the surface texture of a subject. When using ambient light, choosing the time of day and the atmospheric conditions that prevail are your main methods of controlling texture.
In Image 6 an example of point has been used in combination with tone and colour. A tonal value called a highlight will gain a viewer’s attention first and foremost. In this case it has been combined with texture and colour as well. This technique is often referred to as emphasising. Image 7 is a page on the subject of emphasising from the class workbook and illustrating other types commonly used. With the introduction of digital imaging, emphasising such components as colour and tone can be achieved much more easily than it was using ‘analog’ film. Before digital, much of the emphasising techniques in this respect were dependant on the subject material.
Rhythm is another advantageous tool that can be used to convey your message to the viewer. Some of the terms that could be used to describe this element are ‘slow’, ‘exciting’, ‘lyrical free form’ and so on. Another page of paste-up – Image 8 – illustrates various forms of rhythm. Image 9 demonstrates what would be classified as ‘tranquil rhythm’.
Examples of using point in images and the methods used to achieve it.
Rhythm can be influenced by things like the shutter speed because this influences motion blur. Further control can be gained by combining the shutter speed with the effects of fill-in flash and how much ambient light you allow to bleed into the shot. But, for the most part, rhythm is subject dependant and all the photographer can do is ‘go with the flow’ and work with the subject.
To finish the first part of this article I would like to have a look at the use of repetition as a design element. One of the things human beings are good at is repeating things. It can be in the form of architecture, a theme or pattern, to name a few.
The image of the vineyards in Tasmania is a good example of the use of repetition of a theme combined with an emphasis on colour. There are deep-seated psychological reasons as to why repetition appeals to us, but this discussion is really outside the brief of a magazine such as this. Rest assured, though, it is a design element that also exists in nature and is often used by photographers and artists alike to create
More is not necessarily better. Some images that contain many different design elements and which you thought, at the time you pressed the shutter button, would create a strong image don’t work at all well when you see them on the monitor.
Even if the subject material itself is uncomplicated, the shot still becomes messy when the viewer tries to unravel the many messages they are discovering. I guess it comes back to the old ‘KISS’ adage... keep it simple, stupid.
In the next part of this series I will look at other design elements such as the golden mean, value, mood, centre ground confusion and symmetrical versus asymmetrical balance. In the mean time revisit some of the images you have taken in the past and that you really like, and see how many of the design elements outlined in this article you have used. I
don’t think you will have to study them long to identify more than one.
Thanks to photographers Pete Condon, Anthony Tyller and Chris Moody for the tear sheet images used in the work book.
Andy Cross is an expert in image prepress and printing techniques, both traditional and digital. He runs Visual Impact Photography in Brisbane which specialises in fine-art photography and making exhibition quality prints. He can be contact via email at email@example.com