Meltdown – analysis of an historic picture

They say this image will go down in history. It probably will. But not just because of the moment, the people involved and the potential ramifications. Even all of that wouldn’t be enough if it wasn’t a great photograph. There’s a renaissance-like quality to it that suits the significance, and it works as a piece of art. Why? It’s all about the geometry and, of course, the lines.

Leading lines

Maybe the most striking geometrical aspect of the image is the leading lines formed by the items on the oval table, particularly the white name plaques, but also the glasses, the papers, the edges of the table itself and the people sitting round it. These lines draw the eye in from the ‘front’ of the image to where the action is, and gives a great sense of depth.

More subtle, perhaps, is the shape of the light cast by the chandelier at the very top of the image. The light falls on the wall at the back in a triangle, coming down towards Pelosi and Trump, helping to direct the eyes to them and also stopping the eyes from continuing up once they’ve followed those leading lines from the bottom.

Eyelines

Eyelines always create strong compositional elements, and here the dominant line is that created by Pelosi and Trump looking at each other. This line cuts across as the viewer’s eyes reach the ends of the leading lines from the bottom, and forms the base of the triangle formed by the light coming from the top.

In fact, the elements create two strong triangles in the image as a whole, drawn here in red and green, and this gives the photograph a solid grounding so that it feels real, almost as if you’re there, as well as energy from the diagonal lines.

Going back to that eyeline, it’s backed up by the direction in which everyone else is looking – the people on each side are looking into the frame, leading you back to those leading lines, and/or at the main characters, leading you to look at them.

The rule of thirds

Finally, we come to the rule of thirds – no image analysis is complete without it. Dividing up this frame, it becomes clear that Pelosi and Trump are sitting close to the upper intersections of the thirds and looking at each across that top third. I think the fact that Pelosi is slightly above and Trump is slightly below creates a nice balance (as well as being potentially symbolic). What’s more, this geometry is reinfored because the edges of that triangle coming down from the light point to those upper intersections, and the leading lines of those name plaques on the table intersect the divisions of the lower thirds.

The only thing that goes against the composition is the guy in the bottom left corner, who’s looking away from the action and is very close to the camera so is slightly distracting. The fact that he’s out of focus and has no light on him, however, means that he doesn’t dominate over the strong lines and geometry elsewhere.

All together, the geometry creates a great balance in the image, giving it the feel of artistic harmony. The story behind the image is anything but harmonious, but that makes the image all the more striking.

Bryan Peterson – composition and colour with impact

Scrolling through Instagram, as I do these days after effectively ditching Facebook, I was stopped by this image.

Look at those lines! The contrast of the colours. The composition. It’s so simple, but so striking! This is the work of Bryan Peterson, a photographer you might be familiar with. I was, but I hadn’t even realised until I learnt that he’s written several really well-known photography books, including Understanding Exposure, Learning to See Creatively and Understanding Color in Photography.

The image above drew me in to look further at Peterson’s Instagram profile, and I was captivated. His feed is a fantastic fest of colour and composition, and it really got me excited! He’s a photographer who doesn’t take the sickly picture-postcard landscapes and coastal scenes that saturate photographic social media, but who has his own style. What’s more, he creates the kind of images that I want to create!

The first thing that stands out for me is his bold use of colour. You can see it in the image above, and look at the one below!

Complementary colours is a theme you can see in lots of his images – in this case, it’s beautiful use of yellow and purple. Yes, it’s a sunset, yes it’s water – it’s not an original subject, but you don’t often see landscapes with such strong colours, and I love it!

Lines are the other strong elements in many of Peterson’s images. At the top we’ve got the horizontal lines of the steps, and above we’ve got the verticals of the trees and the diagonals of created by the perspective. The image below is an abstract composition in just one (still strong) colour, but it’s again the lines that make it.

The thread that ties Peterson’s use of colour and lines together is composition. His sense of composition and balance really resonates with me, and the image below is a great example of this.

There are very strong lines and the person with the umbrella – the main focal point, but not necessarily the main subject – is offset a long way to the left, much further than would be dictated by the rule of thirds. It’s the strong red that offsets the black on the right to create balance in the image, and the placement of the elements makes this balance dynamic because it creates doubt about whether the real subject is the person or the structure and the lines that it creates.

In fact, composition is at the centre of Peterson’s philosophy, and he’s perhaps the first photographer I’ve found who shares my opinion that composition is more important than light. He says this unreservedly on his website:

‘light’ is not Holy Grail. Rare does a scene with great light salvage a poorly composed image, but rarer still does a truly compelling composition NOT salvage a scene with poor light!

For me, Peterson’s approach validates my views about composition, and the balance and look of many of his images are very close to what I intend to create with my photography. Finding someone to provide this kind of vision that aligns with your own is inspiring! I hope sharing his work with you has inspired you too!

If you are inspired, then Peterson also has a website called You Keep Shooting, through which he offers online educational resources. Through subscription to his website, he offers educational videos, webinars and critiques. Here’s a taster that Peterson has allowed me to share.

I’m off to watch some more of his videos!

All images copyright © Bryan Peterson and reproduced here with permission.

Image analysis – breaking the rules for balance and tension

A lone cyclist, making his way into the city on a misty morning. One of my favourite photographs, made in 2013. I love this photograph because it has atmosphere. The cyclist seems isolated and you feel remote from him as the viewer, yet you know how he feels. There’s an overall feeling of peace, but there’s also a balance and tension that creates a sense of movement and urgency – where’s he going? It seems like a simple photograph, but when you look into it closely, there are some interesting things happening.

Two distinct layers

The mist has a fair amount to do with the atmosphere. This image wasn’t made early in the morning, it was just a foggy day, but it conjures up that feeling of an early winter morning. I used the mist in a very deliberate way to maximise its impact. I positioned myself so that the people walking and cycling along the path were just in front of the haze so that they were dark but everything behind them was hazy. This creates two distinct layers – the background is effectively flattened to a single layer dominated by the misty outline of the city scape, and the cyclist is in front. This separation, along with the fact that no other people appear in the frame (I was there some time for the perfect subject and no-one else to be in my viewfinder), this creates the feeling of isolation and peace.

The most interesting part of this photograph to me though is that, although there’s essentially one point of focus – the cyclist – it’s dynamic. There’s a trade-off between balance and tension, and this is all down to the composition.

Balance

The cyclist is placed precisely on the right hand third of the frame (below), adhering neatly to the classic rule of thirds, at least in one dimension. However, the placement of the cyclist breaks more ‘rules’ than it adheres to, and this is where it starts to get interesting.

The cyclist is not on the vertical third of the frame, but is low. Had he been placed on the intersection of thirds a little higher, there would have been too much foreground. What allows this placement to work is the compositional element that, for me, trumps everything else – balance.

The misty church spire provides the balance for the cyclist here. This works in two ways. First, their relative positions create an implied diagonal in the image (below), and the spire balances out the visual mass of the cyclist. I’ll come back to that diagonal in a moment.

Second, they serve the same function in the top and bottom halves of the image. If you divide the frame into two, it’s almost exactly divided along the top of the buildings in the background, creating a light top half and darker bottom half (below). The church spire and the cyclist are both darker blocks in their respective halves of the image, so they draw the eye, emphasizing the diagonal between them.

Tension

The placement of the cyclist not only creates the balance with the church spire, but also creates tension. Rather, the direction he’s facing creates tension. The rule book says to give moving subjects space to move into the frame, and the cyclist facing the edge of the frame implies movement that pulls the eye out of the image. So why does this rule-breaking work here?

To think about this, let’s turn the cyclist to face the other way. I’ve done that (very crudely) below, and cropped the frame a little at the right – that crop is needed to maintain the balance between the church and the cyclist, and that’s an important clue to what’s going on here.

When the cyclist’s facing the opposite direction, it’s a very different image. The diagonal between the spire and cyclist is now joined by a horizontal underneath that’s implied by the cyclist’s movement. Effectively, these implied lines create a triangle (below), leading to a closed image that’s well balanced but without much tension.

Going back to the original, that could be cropped in the same way to create a squarer frame.

The balance between the cyclist and church spire is still there, but the image doesn’t work, because the cyclist is too close to the edge. That triangle is still there, but the movement of the cyclist away from it means it’s just an empty space in the image.

Put that space on the right back, though, and the cyclist suddenly has space to move into (below). What’s happening here is that the diagonal between the church spire and cyclist implies a ‘frame within a frame’, and the space to the right of that is now sufficient for the cyclist to move into.

Rather than creating the triangle, the diagonal and the horizontal movement creates an open line that adds dynamism, creates tension, and leads the eye right across the image in the direction that the bike is going. This line creates movement and that sense of urgency.

Image analysis – making a splash

We all made hundreds of photographs of ducks when we were new to photography, didn’t we? Well, I did. They’re one of the most accessible forms of wildlife to practice photographing, and they’re pretty nice to look at too. My early archive folders are full of duck photographs, 99.9999% of which are boring at best. But this one isn’t. Eight years after I made this photograph, I still love it. When an image stands the test of time like that, it’s worth taking a closer look and thinking about why.

I’ve made several iterations of this image to adjust the contrast and the colours. Looking at it again now, I think the colours could still probably do with some tweaking, but it’s the composition and the lines that make this image for me.

The placement of the duck in the frame (I say placement, but given that it was the sixth day after I’d got my first DLSR, it’s really just where it ended up) leaves a nice amount of empty space to the left (above). This is the direction the duck is facing, and the space gives it room to ‘move’ into – it implies the movement and adds dynamism to the image. This is especially important because the duck is clearly moving, so needs this space. A square crop (below), for example, cuts off this space and restrains the duck so that the image feels unbalanced.

The placement of the duck also roughly adheres to one of the staple ‘rules’ of composition – the rule of thirds (below). I had never heard of this at the time I took the image, so I can’t pretend it was intentional, but the main vertical of the duck’s body sits roughly one third of the way into the frame from the right hand edge.

What’s more, the duck’s face is close to the intersection of the top and right thirds of the frame – prime position for the main point of interest according to composition textbooks. I don’t have a lot of time for such rules, but this image is an illustration that the rule of thirds is a good guide.

Looking at the blue lines in the grid overlay above (which is based on the golden ratio), what’s very obvious is that the wing in the top right sits exactly on the main diagonal of the frame, and the beak is aligned parallel to this diagonal. The diagonal that these two elements imply is strengthened by another diagonal created by the other wing and the bird’s back. This second diagonal sits perpendicular to the first and creates multiple triangles in the frame (below).

In combination, the diagonal implied by the wing and beak and the negative space on the left, create tension in the image. Given that the viewer’s eye is naturally drawn to the duck’s face and eye, this diagonal then directs the eye down and to the left, into the empty space. Except the empty space isn’t so empty, and I think this is the key to this image.

When the eye moves down, directed by the beak, it meets the curves of the ripples in the water. These curves pull the eye round, back into the image, around the duck and over the dramatic splashes of the water (above). The momentum of the eye along with the second diagonal takes the eye back up to the main diagonal of the wing in the top right, which directs it back to the duck’s face. This creates a loop that keeps the eye moving, and on the second time round, the viewer might notice the small water drops throughout the image, which increase the dynamism.

The final visual element that I think adds strength to this image is the movement of the wings and in the splashes of water. This movement makes the image more more dynamic than it would have been if the movement had been frozen. This was obviously the result of a relatively slow shutter speed, although again, I can’t say this this was deliberate at the time.

Something I’ve always had a problem with in this image is the green of the water on the left. I find the green too dominant when the focus should be on the duck. I’ve had various attempts to alter the balance of the colours, but never quite got it as I’d like. It’s not helped by the fact that the image was recorded only as a JPEG file, so post-processing options are a little limited. Desaturating the greens too much creates an odd look though, and there is potential to make good use of the complementary green and red–orange of the duck’s breast. Perhaps I’ll have a another go.

Does the image work for you? Why? If not, what is it that isn’t right for you?

As a photographer, it’s crucial to look back at your images and think about them, asking yourself not whether you like them or not, but why you like them or, equally importantly, why you don’t like them. Inspired by the #ThrowbackThursday hashtag, I’ve decided to look back through my collections and do just that in an image analysis project.

Sixstreetunder – master of street moments

Craig Whitehead – better known as Sixstreetunder on Instagram – is a street photographer based in Cambridge, UK. His work is fantastic. I love his photographs, and he’s the kind of photographer that makes me want to sit down, look through his images and work out what it is that makes them so brilliant. The answer is a lot, but I think it comes down to two main aspects.

The first aspect is the visual design of the images and the fantastic eye for composition. Whitehead uses strong lines and their intersections, along with powerful natural lighting to capture and direct the eye.  His images often contain a single figure that acts as the focal point, and the effect is similar to the ‘figure on ground’ style of composition. Except the ‘ground’ in these images is multilayered and complex, making the image much more engaging. People are, of course, crucial in street photography, and Whitehead’s inclusion of figures adds a human element, but his images usually seem to be much more about the visual effect than the human story.

In this image, the intersection of lines, the layers and the placement of the reflected figure, make for a fantastic composition.

Colour is another major element in Whitehead’s images – “the colour so many seem to overlook in the everyday” is the way he describes it on his website. He also often uses clever devices such as reflections and frames within frames. One of the most creative of these recurring devices is shooting through windows that have strong reflections, condensation or frosting, which partially obscure or distort the shapes of the subjects.

The steamed up window obscures the figures just enough to create a sense of mystery without obscuring what is happening.

The other reason I like Sixstreetunder’s work is that he brings out my favourite aspect of photography – the ability to create a visually striking piece of art directly from the ever-changing world around us. Nothing is static on the street, and it takes a huge amount of anticipation, visualization, patience and skill to conceive and execute an image from a passing moment that will never be recreated. Yet Sixstreetunder is a master at anticipating moments where life and visual design coincide perfectly, and is there, ready to record them. I think there’s a lot to learn from his work.

All images reproduced with permission from Craig Whitehead sixstreetunder.com | instagram.com/sixstreetunder

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See more about sixstreetunder at www.sixstreetunder.com.