Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Classic Principles of Design (Image Making Series - Part Three)


To begin the design process using digital tools (Photoshop, Lightroom, Topaz) I chose the above image out of dozens of shots. It had the most pleasing balance of sky and land and the placement of the tree in the foreground against the background. This image follows fairly closely to the rule of thirds. The macro compositional elements were framed in place, but the overall image had many weak components. Many constituent elements of design were still very weak: color balance was weak, overall contrast was uninspired, foreground background separation didn't work, and center of interest was not honed. It lacked style, was not very creative, and much of the story is about texture... but what texture did I want to emphasize? The tree of course, but why? In relation to what? Is texture it, the whole story, or is there something else?

Using the elements of design I can begin the process of abstraction which I define as pulling out or extracting pieces of the whole and enhancing them for emphasis. The purpose is to abstract the component elements of design in order to hopefully create an image which adheres to design principles. In the end an image can be judged by looking at it through the lens of the PPA rules and the following classic principles taught in school.

Principles of Compositional Design

The principles of design are the recipe for a good work of art. The principles combine the elements to create an aesthetic placement of things that will produce a good design.

Center of interest (emphasis) - is an area that first attracts attention in a composition. This area is more important when compared to the other objects or elements in a composition.  This can be by contrast of values, more colors, and placement in the format.

Balance - is a feeling of visual equality in shape, form, value, color, etc.  Balance can be symmetrical or evenly balanced or asymmetrical and un-evenly balanced.  Objects, values, colors, textures, shapes, forms, etc., can be used in creating a balance in a composition.

Harmony - brings together a composition with similar units.  If your composition was using wavy lines and organic shapes you would stay with those types of lines and not put in just one geometric shape. (Notice how similar Harmony is to Unity - some sources list both terms)

Contrast - offers some change in value creating a visual discord in a composition. Contrast shows the difference between shapes and can be used as a background to bring objects out and forward in a design. It can also be used to create an area of emphasis.

Directional Movement - is a visual flow through the composition. It can be the suggestion of motion in a design as you move from object to object by way of placement and position.  Directional movement can be created with a value pattern. It is with the placement of dark and light areas that you can move your attention through the format.

Rhythm - is a movement in which some elements recurs regularly. Like a dance it will have a flow of objects that will seem to be like the beat of music.

I can't go great detail explaining any of the principles listed so far in this series. That's typically what is covered in several semesters in college. They are like the laws of thermo dynamics for physics or the elements of style in a writing course. All academic disciplines have their guiding principles, and only the professional or committed amateur makes an effort to master them.

That said, we all could benefit from at least knowing them on the level which can help answer a desire to do something with our pictures, besides framing snapshots.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Point of View & The Elements of Design (Image Making Series - Part Two)

Over the years friends have asked questions or made statements similar to the following.
  • Everyone is a photographer now. The technology is so good.
  • Now that I have my fancy camera - now what?
  • What is the difference between just taking a snapshot and actually composing? 
  • I don't have a clue what my person style of shotting is.

In the prior post I listed 12 rules of image making as defined by the Professional Photographer's Association (PPA). These are used to score pictures during their yearly competition. There are any number of ways to look at an image. Most of us don't set out to grade pictures, but in fact should we? I think so, if your goal is to create an image with some sort of purpose. What the purpose is will vary from person to person and even image to image. Not all images we make have the same purpose.

In this series of posts I'll use the PPA rules to explore the process of image making with a purpose. The rules or principles discussed I believe can be applied in different ways depending on your purpose. Along the way I'll also address the set of remarks above.

Yes, technology has changed the landscape of photography - but until you understand something about the principles behind image making, and use them effectually for a purpose, then maybe you are just making snapshots and not doing photography per se. Not everyone aspires to be an artist, designer or photographer, but if you find yourself looking at your pictures wanting to do more with them, then understanding something about image making will be helpful.

This adventure starts with a dead tree which I came across while walking in a field. Not very remarkable of course, but it intrigued me for some reason. Maybe just because there wasn't anything else striking to look at. But nonetheless it intrigued me. It had some amount of impact being an old gnarly gray and debarked presence standing starkly against the gently rolling hills and soft blue sky. It evoked my imagination, but did it have a story to tell? And most importantly, is story telling the purpose of this image? I believe at times we may not know immediately why a subject intrigues us, and consequently don't know exactly how to approach it.

One of the first exploratory techniques I use is point of view (POV). I explored the subject from various POVs as seen above. POV is critical, and it  often  takes quit a few shots to discover and become visually engaged with a subject. Without POV exploration the final composition could easily be compromised even before you begin the process of image making with digital tools. In the four images above I was searching for the proper relationship of the subject to its surroundings. Things considered for part of the composition were: where the shadows fell, relative size of subject to foreground and background, how much tree texture was needed, how many of the top branches were needed, and where their shadows fell, etc.This is the first stage of discovering an interpretation of the subject. Sometimes organizational techniques like the rule of thirds can help properly frame the subject. In this early stage however, I believe you have to probe a little deeper too, and think about what exactly caught your attention. This type of questioning leads to both finding the proper initial composition, and subsequent refinements.

Although not specifically called out in the 12 PPA rules, contrast is one of the most powerful design rules, because there are so many types of contrast. There is contrast of lights and darks and color contrasts of course, but contrast has many other more conceptual dimensions. There is contrast of live or dead, newly born and very old etc. Consequently, contrast can be a visual design element (textured versus smooth) and also a conceptual point of emphasis (new baby versus old man). The image to the right is using both texture and age as contrasting elements. You can also see how the rule of thirds was used very effectively.

The 12 rules listed by the PPA are a set of principles used to help photographers create interesting images. Graphic Designers are trained to use a set of Principles of Design which are very related to the PPA set of principles. Depending on what school you go to or what book you read the list of principles will be slightly different. They are all valuable tools, and habitually using them in image making is in large part what separates professionals from the rest.

Elements of Design

These rules or principles are composed of elements of design. The elements are the pieces of an image which are arranged in a purposeful manner to direct the viewer's eye and mind, and organize the composition to achieve its purpose be it advertising or fine art. The following are the Elements of Design (thx to the site Incredible@rtDept).

The Elements of Design are used to create interest, harmony and provide unity to an image.  If you feel you want to emphasize one of the principles then look to one or more of the elements to help create a greater sense of story, tone or color balance, and sense of the image being creative and not just a snapshot.

Line - is a mark on a surface that describes a shape or outline. It can create texture and can be thick and thin.  Types of line can include actual, implied, vertical, horizontal, diagonal and contour lines.

Color - refers to specific hues and has 3 properties, Chroma, Intensity and Value.  The color wheel is a way of showing the chromatic scale in a circle using all the colors made with the primary triad.  Complimentary pairs can produce dull and neutral color.  Black and white can be added to produce tints (add white), shades (add black) and tones (add gray).

Texture - is about surface quality either tactile or visual. Texture can be real or implied by different uses of media. It is the degree of roughness or smoothness in objects.

Shape - is a 2-dimensional line with no form or thickness. Shapes are flat and can be grouped into two categories, geometric and organic.

Form - is a 3-dimensional object having volume and thickness. It is the illusion of a 3-D effect that can be implied with the use of light and shading techniques. Form can be viewed from many angles.

Value - is the degree of light and dark in a design. It is the contrast between black and white and all the tones in between. Value can be used with color as well as black and white. Contrast is the extreme changes between values.

Size - refers to variations in the proportions of objects, lines or shapes. There is a variation of sizes in objects either real or imagined. (some sources list Proportion/Scale as a Principle of Design)

If you play/ingage with the subject long enough you might discover that it was the wrong time of day (lighting), or, a POV that is strikingly beautiful or unique. Maybe a certain POV slightly abstracts the subject which will cause the viewer of your image to pause at an unusual arrangement of pictorial elements. Have you ever noticed how fast we flip through magazines? Did you ever stop to think how much effort a designer/artist spent on many of the images you just flipped past? Getting the viewer to pause on your image is worth a lot of money to your employer if you're designing commercial graphics, or, can make or break you as an artist. Images with visual gravity - the images ability to pull you into it - don't just happen, they are planned by capitalizing on the elements and principles of design.

A beautiful woman, landscape, car, etc is just that. We've seen a million of them. Taking the ordinary and making it extraordinary is the art of image making.

When you are with a subject you will notice, become aware of, nuisances which elude most of us most of the time. Capturing and emphasizing these is what entices an audience into your image. Taking the time to see, and then sharing a vision which was revealed/given to you with others... that is image making. The discovery comes as a gift to you. Look as you may the discovery can't be forced. You can't force the feeling of a picture turning into your unique expression of it. Focusing, enhancing, and perfecting each element of design brings the image closer to you, closer to what intrigues you. Each tweak of color, emphasis of texture or line brings a picture closer to a reflection or resonance of an inner image that is coming to form before your eyes. Everyone has seen pictures of butterflies, but each of us also has an inner image waiting to materialize. We use the elements and principles of design to discover and manifest that image. They are guides through the creative process, leading you to your personal vision.

The subject could be anything. Your discovery of your vision of it... is what is shared with others. 

The next post will continue by listing the principles of design used by graphic designers, and how to use the principles and elements of design. The series will continue on to decompose and then recompose the image, while along the way the exploring the purpose of the image.

Principles of Design by Professional Photographer's Association (Image Making Series - Part One)

The Twelve principles listed below are in accordance to their importance. These are use by the Professional Photographer's Association (PPA) to grade their yearly print contest. This series of posts discusses creating images with a purpose in mind. The PPA's list can be thought of as a series of filters you are looking through. As you look at an image through each filter it should be judged differently. For example, does the image have impact, or how can I make the image look more creative by adding stylist touches.

The primary question is - what is the purpose of the image? What am I trying to show or communicate? With the purpose in mind you can then look through each filter to see how you might improve the image. In the following posts tools are introduced to help understand how to make adjustments to an image and accomplish its purpose.

1.) Impact is the sense one gets upon viewing an image for the first time. Compelling images evoke laughter, sadness, anger, pride, wonder or another intense emotion. There can be impact in any of these twelve elements.

2.) Technical excellence is the print quality of the image itself as it is presented for viewing. Retouching, manipulation, sharpness, exposure, printing, mounting, and correct color are some items that speak to the qualities of the physical print.

3.) Creativity is the original, fresh, and external expression of the imagination of the maker by using the medium to convey an idea, message or thought.

4.) Style is defined in a number of ways as it applies to a creative image. It might be defined by a specific genre or simply be recognizable as the characteristics of how a specific artist applies light to a subject. It can impact an image in a positive manner when the subject matter and the style are appropriate for each other, or it can have a negative effect when they are at odds.

5.) Composition is important to the design of an image, bringing all of the visual elements together in concert to express the purpose of the image. Proper composition holds the viewer in the image and prompts the viewer to look where the creator intends. Effective composition can be pleasing or disturbing, depending on the intent of the image maker.

6.) Presentation affects an image by giving it a finished look. The mats and borders used, either physical or digital, should support and enhance the image, not distract from it.

7.) Color Balance supplies harmony to an image. An image in which the tones work together, effectively supporting the image, can enhance its emotional appeal. Color balance is not always harmonious and can be used to evoke diverse feelings for effect.

8.) Center of Interest is the point or points on the image where the maker wants the viewer to stop as they view the image. There can be primary and secondary centers of interest. Occasionally there will be no specific center of interest, when the entire scene collectively serves as the center of interest.

9.) Lighting—the use and control of light—refers to how dimension, shape and roundness are defined in an image. Whether the light applied to an image is man made or natural, proper use of it should enhance an image.

10.) Subject Matter should always be appropriate to the story being told in an image.

11.) Technique is the approach used to create the image. Printing, lighting, posing, capture, presentation media, and more are part of the technique applied to an image.

12.) Story Telling refers to the image’s ability to evoke imagination. One beautiful thing about art is that each viewer might collect his own message or read her own story in an image.