Getting to the image - how people see and how the photographer can use that. Pt 1

November 22, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

This is the first of a series of posts that deal with how viewers of any level of photographic sophistication actually process images. I will post them so they will appear on the blog in actual order.

My hope is that at least one post a week will be added to this thread.

Any images used in these posts will either be mine or be used under the Fair Use doctrine of the Copyright Law of the US - as objects of critical discussion.

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The "RULES" of Photography

Beginners hear two seemingly conflicting axioms about photography. First, “one should use the Guidelines (rules) of photography until you know enough to break them.” And then “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.” said by that avatar of photography, Ansel Adams.

Well which is it?

Are there Rules or are there 'Guidelines' as people like to say? And these same people go on to say that 'Follow these Rules/Guidelines until you know enough to break them.'

If the 'Rules” (or Guidelines) aren't important because, even if we know them, we can break them, what is important?

I think the 'Rules of Composition', as we think of them, are wrongly constructed because, in an attempt to simplify complicated issues, they become essentially unrelated pieces of information and don't take into account some important truisms. 

A photographer must know how people see and interpret and comprehend images, must use this knowledge to construct images that are meaningful to the viewer.

The Rule at the top

Let's ignore all the simplistic Rules of composition for a moment and look at the issue afresh. There is a hierarchy of real 'Rules' that shouldn't ever be broken.

Alone at the very top of the hierarchy is “Know what you are taking a picture of.

Every photographer should know what actually caught their eye,  the center(s) of interest, what they are attempting to catch on the sensor and then should consciously compose the image around the center(s) of interest.

If the photographer doesn't know what he/she is taking a picture of, the viewer won't know either.

The Axioms that follow from the Rule at the Top

Below that most important Rule are three axioms that govern making successful images.

  1. Everything in the frame must have a purpose

  2. Important things should be in important places

  3. Elements that add to the image should be maximized and elements that detract from the image should be minimized.

The main rule and the three axioms that descend from it comprise my entire philosophy for making images. 

I want to make the point that these are my rules for how I think and how I believe photographers should think; they are not RULES describing how to structure pictures.  Pictures succeed because the maker knows how viewers see, think and respond and the maker creates the image to take advantage of that, not to conform to any (silly) rules of composition.

There are many smaller observations which cluster around these statements. Like gravity, there are principles that exist and are used by every photographer that they don't yet recognize. I'll attempt to explain them in the following posts. These observations or principles won't be difficult to remember or use because every skilled viewer already uses them but may just not be sufficiently aware of them to have named them yet.

As photographers we capture what we see in our mind's eye and then we present that image in a way that other people can see and understand it also. We take pictures for ourselves but, if we expect other people to be able to see and understand what we are trying to show with our camera, we need to understand how people see and understand.

Does that mean that images can't be mysterious?

No, an image doesn't have to be obvious but it must speak in the language that the viewers can parse so that even a puzzle is conveyed.

To be able to share our ideas, we must understand how people understand and interpret what they see.; we must know the language of images.

Like most high-level Rules of behavior, nothing I've written so far is of any help to actually taking good pictures, but these ideas are important to understand the rest of the real actual workable guidelines of taking pictures.

(this below is a simple understandable image. Converted to B&W so that the bright colors of the cyclists' clothing don't pull the eye. Shot at a slow enough shutter speed that the cyclists are blurred but distinguishable and the photographer is at the center, still)

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Next Post: The Semiotics of Photography


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