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.

Mirrorless and the art of photography

Nikon Z7The photography world is in a bit of a whirl following the much anticipated announcement of Nikon’s first full-frame mirrorless cameras, their first serious step into this area of the market. If the rumours are true, Canon isn’t far behind. The entrance of the camera heavyweights into this space adds a new level of credibility to mirrorless, and adds a new dimension to the DSLRs vs mirrorless debate. But, leaving brand loyalty and specification lists aside, what actual difference does it make to the making of photographs? What effect does going mirrorless have on the art of photography?

Not up to the job?

You could argue that mirrorless cameras are not up to the job in the way that DSLRs are. You could argue that the autofocus systems are slower and less reliable, particularly if you want to shoot fast-moving subjects or in low light, thereby restricting your choice of subject. You could argue that the electronic viewfinders are not as clear and bright as optical ones and that they have a lag, so that they hinder your ability to compose and time the shutter release. And you could argue that the range of native lenses for mirrorless cameras is generally limited, so that your creative choices of focal length and aperture are restricted.

You could.

But you’d largely be relying on arguments that have been around since mirrorless cameras first appeared, when these differences were large and genuinely limiting. The way technology has moved on in the past three or four years, though, means these limitations – if they exist at all – are so slight as to be negligible.

In fact, mirrorless cameras can now pretty much match most DSLRs, and they actually have several benefits when it comes to the art of photography.

Cameras with benefits?

Going back to those electronic viewfinders, the experience of using the latest ones is almost indistinguishable from using an optical one, except they’re better. No, you’re not looking through the lens, but (unless you’re using a slow shutter speed to capture movement) you are looking at exactly what the sensor will record. An actual preview of the final image. So you can be sure of your exposure and your depth of field. You can see the histogram if you like, and check for blown highlights and clipped shadows. You can adjust the white balance and add processing effects, all before you’ve even taken a photograph.

What’s more, the electronic viewfinder allows you to use focus peaking when manually focusing – sharp edges are highlighted, so you can see what is sharp and what isn’t. This allows you to make sure the focus is at the correct spot and to adjust the depth of field so that everything you want in focus is in focus, and everything you don’t want in focus isn’t. Yes, DSLRs have the depth-of-field preview button for this, but this manually closes the aperture to the selected diameter, shutting out the light and making it difficult to see anything at all – there’s no such problem with the electronic viewfinder.

These viewfinder advantages avoid the need for taking test shots and then squinting at the back of the camera to determine whether you’ve got the focus and depth of field right, and the need to scroll through options in playback mode so you can check the histogram. None of this ultimately changes the final image, but it does increase the chances you’ll get it right in less time and that you can use the JPEG straight out of the camera rather than having to fix things in the Raw file.

Let’s also go back to those slow, laggy focusing systems. Because these days, they’re not slow and not laggy. Most, if not all, mirrorless cameras now use on-sensor phase detection autofocus, an evolution of DSLR focusing technology, and allow for focusing that is at least as fast as in DSLRs. What’s more, because the points are on the sensor, they can be distributed across the entire frame. Rather than 60-odd AF points clustered towards the centre, you have several hundred AF points that spread almost to the edges. This makes it easier to focus off centre and compose your shot precisely before focusing rather than focusing and then hurriedly recomposing.

And if shooting speed is important, then mirrorless definitely has the edge. The lack of mirror and the option of an electronic shutter means that frame rates can be very high. Currently, the leader in this respect is the Sony A9, which can shoot a massive 20 frames per second. That beats the fastest DSLR – the Canon EOS 1Dx Mark II – which can manage 14 per second. The kind of speeds that mirrorless cameras can reach mean that if you use burst shooting to photograph moving subjects, you’re even more likely to capture the perfect moment. Since photography is supposedly all about “the decisive moment”, this could be important.

The electronic shutter also means mirrorless cameras can shoot completely silently, which is great if you need to be discreet – I’m thinking wildlife or street photography, for example. Similarly, the smaller bodies of mirrorless cameras means you’re less likely to be noticed, which might increase your chances of capturing that moment before your subject runs off or you’re told to move on. That said, if you stick a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens on the front of it, the size of the body makes little difference.

Does it matter?

So now that mirrorless cameras deliver what they have always promised, the argument that they can benefit the photographer as an artist is pretty strong – at least on paper. In reality, the benefits mentioned are relatively small. Depending on what you photograph, they might not really be advantages at all. And, let’s face it, the real point is that it’s not the camera that’s most important in the art of photography.

The ‘old masters’ of photography – Robert Doisneau, William Klein, Ansel Adams, Henri-Cartier-Bresson and the like – were all using 35mm film in SLRs with no autofocus, no burst shooting, no bells or whistles at all. Yet their photographs are still admired and studied endlessly, held as examples of the standards to strive for. Why? Definitely not because of their choice of camera. Because of their choices of subjects, their compositions, the light, the moments they capture. It’s all to do with the photographer.

By all means, go mirrorless if you want to. Or continue to use your DSLR for decades to come. The differences really don’t matter that much. They’ve all got the same basic creative options – lens, aperture, shutter speed, ISO sensitivity – and what counts most is which of those options you choose, what you point the camera at and how exactly you point it at it. If you get those things right, then when you press the shutter release – whatever camera that may be on – then you have made art.