The Photographers Eye: Visual and Intuitive Elements That Go Into Making a Photograph

Richard Martin_Head shot
Progress beyond the technical and better understand why visual design and a perceptive eye are essential to making great photographs.

At a time of rapid technological advancement in equipment, one thing still remains true. The most valuable decisions that a photographer can make are those concerned with the image itself—the reasons for making them and, ultimately, their final appearance. Although equipment is essential to help realize the photographer’s ideas and perception, the development of skills such as visual awareness and design are key to making a good photograph. The text and images in this blog post and my main presentation demonstrate a variety of insights into the methods, actions, or processes involved in making them.

The Power of Tones

This monochromatic image demonstrates the expressive power of tones. Enveloped in warm early morning sunlight, the atmospheric conditions mixing together with strong backlighting produced powerful contrasting tones with a limited range of colour. The tonal character of the luminous street provides the central theme in this photograph. The tonal contrast, a result of strong backlighting, serves to strengthen and emphasis the people walking, establishing dominance, the illusion of depth and visually defining the centre of interest.

As a photographer it is particularly important to have an ability to recognize tonal values and contrasts and the role they play in composition—establishing mood and contributing to the structure of the photograph.

Nikon 70-200mm (set at 150mm) f14, 1/60 sec ISO 400

 Photo ©Richard Martin

Motion

Attracted by the vibrant atmosphere and brilliant colours during the early morning hours in Santiago Cuba, I immediately wanted to convey a dynamic sense of action. My approach to this composition was to break away from the idea of accurately reproducing detail or the ordinary illusion of reality and create a more evocative and exciting style of picture—one that reflected my experience. In this image the ‘transformation’ was a result of using movement blur combined with panning the camera, handheld with a shutter speed of 1/15 of a second.

Contrast of colour or tone is a vital ingredient in motion studies—the coloured bands and whirls separate different elements that would otherwise merge confusingly in the absence of sharpness. Life is in motion, so making use of panning or zooming to emphasis movement, or enhance dramatic pattern effects, is a natural choice when a photographer wishes to symbolize action and drama in their pictures. Ultimately, the decision to employ any technique should come from the need to express a particular idea through the medium.

Nikon 24-70mm (set at 70mm) f16, 1/15 sec ISO 50

 Photo ©Richard Martin

Anticipating Structure

The streets in cities or urban areas where people live and work, present a kind of theatrical stage, presenting a regular performance of activities. Unexpected opportunities for making images are frequent and the streets unpredictable nature makes them inspiring to photograph. A flexible approach with a healthy measure of spontaneity is a prerequisite to successful compositions.

A technique I have employed for several years is to compose a street scene in advance and then wait for a person or moving object to complete the image. Anticipating the final position is key to the overall picture design as the final placement influences visual balance in addition other design relationships.

Initially drawn to the contrasting blue wall and white columns in Guantanamo, Cuba I began making compositions of the architecture devoid of people. For the period of time I spent making exposures, from a viewpoint across the street, people began to enter and exit the composition. Eventually this man curious of what I was looking at became an important element in the overall design—providing scale and balance.

Spontaneity played an important role in the execution this image.

Nikon 70-200mm (set at 150mm) f10, 1/60 sec ISO 100

 Photo ©Richard Martin

Form and Colour

The power of colour to evoke an emotional response is undeniable. A color photograph gives you a chance to study and remember how things look and feel—Colour is always part of experience.

Form and colour, the two basic elements of visual design, play very different roles in our perception. Form affects the intellect and can be interpreted as a tangible entity. By contrast, colour is purely visible, intangible and can evoke psychological reactions. Colour sensation can be examined on three basic levels: visual-objective, expressive-emotional, and symbolic-cultural.

The best way to emphasize a colour or shape is to place it next to a dark monochromatic foreground or background. In this photograph, the dark tones of the mooring poles in the foreground, silhouetted against the city at sunset, accentuate the single colour and strengthen the overall design. The use of a medium telephoto lens (100mm) emphasizes the graphic qualities of shape and line, creating more of a two-dimensional design. While often overlooked, neutral shades (black, white, and grey) are fundamental components of colour photography.

Nikon 70-200mm (set at 100mm) f14, ¼ sec ISO 100

 Photo ©Richard Martin

Monochromatic Colour

It is particularity important to be able to recognize tonal values and contrast and the role they play in composition—how they establish mood and contribute to the structure of the photograph. The intuitive process of visualization can only be learned through consistent study and practice.

Monochromatic colour arrangements, using one colour in a range of tones or values, can be both powerfully expressive, yet restful to the eye. A large percentage of my own photographs are composed of monochromatic colour—emphasizing the expressive power of tones, in addition to the emotional power of a single colour.

Studying colour interaction will help you refine your intuition and judgment, allowing a greater understanding of colours creative potential. As a photographer, beware of getting too caught up in ‘colour theory’. Colour is a relative medium and theory alone cannot develop sensitivity for colour, although having knowledge of it may enhance the experience. How you use colours in a photograph depends upon what you are trying to achieve. Ultimately, design should never follow rules; intuitive judgment is the only method that that enables an imaginative approach.

Nikon 24-70mm (set at 35mm) f11, 1/8 sec ISO 50

 Photo ©Richard Martin

Colour and Structure

In creative hands, colour can be a powerful element, contributing to both aesthetic appeal and meaning. Colour can be dramatic, lyrical, sensuous, romantic, harsh, delicate or subtle. It has an immediate bearing on our emotions and captures our attention. Colour, as a design element, should be regarded as a major component in composition, since it has an enormous impact on our emotions.

I consider myself a black and white photographer working in colour because structure is extremely important to my compositions. In other words, not relying on colour alone to carry the picture design. There are times when colour impedes the central theme in a photograph, by competing for attention or dominating certain elements in the picture space. I love the two mediums and feel fortunate we have the ability to work in both.

Nikon 70-200mm (set at 200mm) f14, 1/8 sec ISO 100

 Photo ©Richard Martin

The life experience you bring to your work along with your personal approach make your photographs unique. By being open-minded when learning your craft, you’ll develop a better understanding of how photography can enrich your creative life as you continue to develop your vision.

 

 

Richard Martin_Head shot

Richard Martin is one of Out of Chicago’s diverse team of world-class photographers. To learn more about Richard and our photography conferences he’s teaching at, click here.

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