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.

What is art?

If you’re going to create photography as art – and that’s my aim here – then I guess you need to know what ‘art’ is. Of course, there’s no definitive answer to this, so to know what art is means to know what art is for you. Coming up with an answer to this isn’t easy.

defining art
Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy

“To evoke in oneself a feeling one has experienced and … then, by means of movements, lines, colours, sounds or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling – that is the activity of art.”

Leo Tolstoy, What is Art, 1890

This is one of the best definitions of art I’ve come across because I think there are two main facets to art, and this definition neatly encompasses both.

The first facet is the visual. Tolstoy refers to all forms of art by including “movements, lines, colours, sounds or forms expressed in words”, but I think these can be simplified to the medium and execution. In photography, the medium is obviously images and the execution is the visual design of these images. Lines, shapes, colours, perspective, scale, detail, focus, motion and, perhaps most importantly, the balance of these elements. Intentional design is what makes order out of a messy world and creates the satisfying visual experience of art.

The second facet is what Tolstoy refers to as the ‘feeling’. This is more complex than the visual aspect of art and more difficult to define – let’s think of it as the idea that art should evoke a response in the viewer. This response is normally thought to arise from a narrative, a ‘Thing-The-Artist-Is-Saying’. A striking landscape with a strong atmosphere might produce feelings of awe and wonder. A journalistic war photograph might strike horror into the viewer. A tender portrait that reveals a person’s inner vulnerability may well stir empathy. These are elements that make the experience of viewing art more than just visual.

The qualifier

The second facet – the ‘Thing-The-Artist-Is-Saying’ – is probably what most people think of as being the qualifier for art. Without this, it’s just a picture, you could argue. For me, it’s not so clear cut. I agree that art should evoke a feeling, but that ‘feeling’ does not just sit alongside the visual experience, it depends on the visual experience.

A purely visual experience – an abstract painting for example – can elicit a response alone. Think of Mondrian’s abstract grids, Rothko’s panels of colour, Picasso’s most abstract cubist compositions. These are all deeply captivating pieces of art, yet there is no conceptual engagement beyond the creation of a two-dimensional visual experience. Conversely, a hugely powerful and significant moment can be photographed without any attention to visual design, and the impact will almost certainly be lost. For me, there can be no ‘feeling’ without visual design, and so it is the visual aspect that is the most fundamental in art. The visual design is the qualifier.

Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow. Piet Mondrian, 1930.
Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow. Piet Mondrian, 1930. These famous compositions by Mondrian are captivating just for their visual experience.
Art for me

My artistic journey started many years ago with a great interest in graphic design – I very nearly made my career in that field. For me, graphic design is the application of the most fundamental aspects of art, and that idea has followed me into fine art and now photography. My studies of artists focused on the visual aspects – the colours of the Impressionists, the compositions of the Cubists, the representations of movement by the Futurists. My own drawings and paintings have always centred on the compositions rather than the concepts, and now in my photography, composition and balance are central. I don’t ignore deeper concepts, and I agree that they add layers when they can be included. But my primary aim is to take the random fluctuations of the world around us and create from it images with coherent, response-inducing visual design.

In my photography, the visual design is central.