THE ABILITY TO READ IMAGES
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AS PHOTOGRAPHERS, WE OFTEN FORGET HOW FUNDAMENTAL THE ABILITY TO READ IMAGES REALLY IS
A lot of virtual ink is spent online about creating images, not enough about the fundamental ability to read images. Many people talk about the importance of developing our vision, which is something necessary to grow as artists, of course. However, in order to develop our vision, one of the most important and neglected tools we need to develop is the ability to read images. In today’s world, we are bombed by millions of images daily. Most of them get a fraction of a second from us, the time for a quick scroll and perhaps a quick “Like” on your social of choice. We don’t really “see” any of these images, let alone “read” them.
Reading images is an art by itself. Just have a Portfolio reading done by someone worth their salt, and you’ll see what I mean. The ability to read images is a very important step on the road towards successfully becoming either an artist or a critic. Conversely, not being able to read images will make it very difficult to become either. If you pursue a degree in art, you’ll have to spend a lot of time analysing the work of the masters, and there is a reason for that.
Today’s online world is great for many things, one of which is the democratisation of access to a worldwide platform to both show our work and critique the work of others. However, with that democratisation, for better or worse, comes the removal for the need for any qualifications. Today, you don’t need to have any title, any experience, any ability recognised by anyone, be it professional organisations, boards, peer review or the like, to get to both show your work and critique the work of others. This of course is not a bad thing per se, but it leaves it to everyone’s judgement to decide what to post, what not to post, and how to post it. At the same time, it leaves it to the community to decide what content to allow and what not to allow.
On pretty much all online platforms dedicated to sharing images, there are rules and there are moderators. Being a moderator is a hard job, requiring a lot of time and offering very little gratifications; unfortunately, this is a combination that doesn’t always attract the best people. As with every job, some moderators are more “fit for the job” than others. And as with every job that comes with some power attached to it, no matter how petty, it often results in moderators exercising what little power they have in a biased, not impartial manner. There are many exceptions, of course, and many forums have the fortune of being moderated by great, intelligent people. Even in these cases, however, moderators are normally only there to check the civility part of the exchanges, not to curate content.
As a result, most of the images we are daily exposed to are of unknown value, to say the least, and so are most of the critiques we are reading.
So, how do we develop our ability to read images, in today’s online world?
Of course, the best way would be taking college classes in visual arts. Short of that, let’s see if I can offer you some suggestions to help you develop this skill on your own, and to apply it both to your image creating process and to your online critiquing, in case you are inclined to offer your help on forums.
Since people can both read and create images at very different levels, to simplify things let’s divide them in three levels. Let’s call them Beginner, Advanced and Master, and let’s now see how people can create and read images differently according to where they fit in this classification.
Let’s start with people at Beginner level, and let’s take as an example the so-called “rules”, be it of composition or exposure, that most people online both mention when issuing a critique and follow when creating their own images.
Generally, photographers and forum critics on a Beginner level won’t know much about rules, or about photography at large. Their ability to read images will be limited to what they instinctively like or don’t like. When they’ll critique the work of others, they’ll comment accordingly. Sometimes they’ll accidentally might offer a great comment, but the insightfulness of their critiques will likely be inconsistent.
Similarly, when creating images, they’ll compose and expose according to their instincts, and while accidentally they’ll get the occasional great image, they’ll normally get inconsistent results. Their lack of ability to read images will make it impossible for them to know why one of their photographs is great and another one is poor, thus slowing their growth both as photographers and as critics as well.
Generally, photographers and forum critics on an Advanced level will be more experienced, they’ll have spent some time photographing and they’ll have dedicated some time to study and learn about their hobby and passion.
As a result, they’ll have some knowledge of photography and perhaps about visual arts and art in general. When critiquing images online, talking about composition they’ll tell you to stick to the rule of thirds, to use the Fibonacci series, the golden rule or the spiral; they’ll tell you not to put the horizon in the middle; and so on. Talking about exposure, they’ll tell you to expose to the right; not to block the shadows and not to blow highlights; and so on.
Similarly, when creating images, they’ll follow the same principles, convinced that it’s the right thing to do. Of course, all the basic rules mentioned in the example above are good starting points, and of course everyone serious about photography should learn them at some point. But there are so many situations where these rules don’t apply, so many exceptions to them, that they are hardly the end-all of artistic creation. By limiting themselves to these basic rules when creating their images and by applying only these rules when critiquing other people’s work, people on an Advanced level won’t go too far past their level, I am afraid.
And not many do. While it is easy enough to move from Beginner to Advanced, both as a critic and a photographer, it takes a serious leap forward to get to the next level, that of Master. The ability to read images, again, will have a fundamental role in enabling you to take that leap. But it’s not all it takes. Before moving to the next level, we need to stop for a second and take human nature into account.
Normally, people in the Beginner group know that they are beginners and that their knowledge is limited. They are open to learn exactly because they know that they don’t know much, and this puts them in the best position to learn quickly. Therefore, they’ll offer their work for critique with humility, and they’ll offer their comments with naivete and civility. If they are passionate enough and intelligent enough, they’ll progress very rapidly both in the art of creating images and in the art of critiquing. Soon, they’ll reach Advanced.
Unfortunately, however, when people start to accumulate some notions about anything, they rarely become Socratic in their approach to their own learning and to sharing their knowledge. On the contrary, they often risk becoming arrogant and aggressive in defending what little they know rather than keeping their minds open to doubt and critical thinking. If that happens, in turn, the speed of their personal growth will progressively start slowing down. Let’s see why.
When it comes to their ability to read images, entrenching themselves in their knowledge won’t make them see and accept anything that is not falling under the umbrella of what they already know. As a result, they’ll be unable to read images that don’t comply to their basic rules. Let’s see how this will affect their growth as critics and as image creators.
As critics, they’ll end up with a dogmatic approach to imposing their own views as the only possible ones. When faced with works they don’t understand, rather than arguing open-mindedly with the creator of the image and, possibly, learning something, their preferred solution will be attacking the works and failing that, their creators. As image creators, their inability to read images that they don’t understand will stop them from appreciating anything past what they already know, resulting in cutting their sources of inspiration, and eventually in the stop of their artistic growth.
Let’s consider now those people that got to Advanced but, on the other hand, are able to keep an open mind and are eager to grow more. Let’s see how they could move up to the next level, that of Master, starting from their ability to read an image.
When reading a Master’s image, the first assumption should be that Masters know what they are doing. Masters of course do know the rules; but they have been there, done that, and they moved past that. Judging a Master’s image applying the rule of thirds is like judging a Picasso’s cubist portrait by applying Leonardo’s man’s proportions to it, or judging Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” applying the rule of consecutive fifths to it. When you examine a Master’s work, the reasons why you don’t find the rules applied as you think they should be, is not because the Master doesn’t know them, or because he made a mistake. It is simply because he chose not to do so. That said, this doesn’t mean that we have to like anything a Master does. Understanding something, and being able to critique it successfully, has very little to do with our own personal preferences. It has even less to do with expressing our preferences as we got used to in today’s online world, i.e. “Likes” on social medias.
To be able to read a Master’s image, our open-minded Advanced photographers need to do something that is not as easy as it might sound. They need to stop applying those basic set of rules they know. Turning the paradigm upside down, rather than starting from what they know and from what they expected the Master to do, they now need to start by trying and understand what the Master wanted to do instead. If the Master is available, they could ask him what the Master’s intent was. Once they have an idea about that, they need to decide whether the Master managed to actually do it, through the photographic instruments used, or not. If the answer is yes, then the image is successful. If the answer is no, then our open-minded Advanced photographers need to try and understand why, and – in case they are preparing a critique – they need to offer their suggestions to help the Master realise his or her own vision, rather than trying and impose the Master their own.
Without implying that I am a Master or anything of that sort, to better illustrate my point let’s examine an image with an extreme composition, one clearly not falling into the rules of thirds, such as the black & white image here.
To begin with, I believe the relative dimensions of objects in an image, whether relative to one other or relative to the canvas’ size, should not necessarily be determined by the rule of thirds, by the golden ratio, or by any other rule. They should be determined by the feeling you want to convey to the viewer instead. Sometimes that means creating an image that will fall into one of these rules, other times it means that the resulting image definitely falls out of the rules.
In this case, I aimed to create an image that would make us, as humans, feel both small and threatened by ominous clouds rushing towards us. To do so, I proceeded making these trees, which clearly look like a cypress growth, very small in the frame. We all know that cypresses are pretty tall trees, and humans are much smaller than them. Without the need for any human presence in the image, by making cypresses so small I automatically made the viewer, as a human, feel even smaller under that sky.
Then, let’s consider the aesthetic importance of the choice of lens, something that people seldom consider and talk about when reading an image.
Here, using a 15mm lens on so-called “full frame” from a long distance, and pointing the camera up in portrait mode, I could almost include the sky behind me as well. This, together with the relative speed of clouds, allowed me to create a different ratio of movement in the cloud banks, making it look like the clouds are slowing down as they get closer to the trees.
Finally, there is the choice of black & white versus colour, another important instrument we have to convey different moods. Here, I chose to go for a dark B&W to enhance the feeling created by my choice of composition and lens. All these choices together aimed to create an image making us feel both small and threatened by ominous clouds rushing towards us. Whether I succeeded or not, and whether the end result pleases you or not, is not for me to say. Judging this image because it doesn’t fall into the rule of thirds, however, would be missing the point completely.
Let me now give you a couple of examples of images with clear, basic mistakes concerning the use of light, but that thanks to some clever post-processing can trick viewers into thinking they are Master works instead.
First, take for instance one of those million images popular today depicting a mountain scene with the sun in the image while also featuring a slope with flowers in the foreground, where the slope is clearly looking towards you. These flowers are in the middle of a dark slope looking away from the sun. Somehow, however, despite being clearly looking away from the sun, they are miraculously lit by some warm sunset light, like the one coming from the sun in front of us. Sure, they look impressive, but where is that light coming from? Certainly not from the sun, which rays cannot bend like a boomerang and go back to illuminate the flowers. They come from a Photoshop mask, of course, a trick easy to spot if you know what to look at but very successful nevertheless in terms of getting “likes”.
Second, consider now one of these million images featuring perfect reflections of a great sky on still water, but where unfortunately the sky above is much darker than the sky reflected in the water. That is physically impossible and can never happen in nature, since any reflective surface absorbs some light. A bad use of a Grad ND filter, either at the time of shooting or in Photoshop, will definitely make that happen for you though. Again, a trick easy to spot if you know what to look at but very successful nevertheless in terms of getting “likes”.
These are just two very common cases, which you can easily find examples of. So many photographs today unfortunately feature physically impossible light, very careless compositions, very bad post-processing, and so on, covered with some skilful, “wow effect” post-processing. Without mastering the ability to read images past a Beginner or Advanced level, it is very difficult to see through the trick and evaluate these images for what they are.
The ability to read images is fundamental for our growth as photographers, and to improve our ability to offer critiques that are meaningful and to the point. To try and develop your ability to read images, I recommend you dedicate some time to examine in detail, and as analytically as possible, as many images as you can. Choose images created by people you consider to be Masters and that you like, but also choose images created by people considered Masters by the world at large even in case you don’t like their work. Try to understand what lens they used, how they positioned themselves, why they decided to include something in their compositions or not, why they chose to go with colour or black & white, why they chose a particular time of day and time of the year to produce the image, and so on.
In short, try to understand, or at least to guess as best as you can, the Master’s intent when he or she created an image. Then, look at the results and try to determine if the image succeeded in conveying the interpretation, the mood, the feelings that you believe the Master was after. If the answer is yes, the work is successful; if the answer is no, try and put together a set of recommendations for the artist to do better next time. Try and do that even when judging the work of someone who is not possible for you to talk to, either because he is not with us anymore or because is out of your reach. By preparing critiques like that, you’ll learn how to critique your own work as well, and this is the best way to put your ability to read images at the service of your own growth as an artist. The road to become a Master is long, but one of its starting points is the ability to read images.
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