Plugged In: Add interest to photos with abstraction

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Even the most apparently hyper-realistic photograph is inherently abstract to some extent. By keeping this in mind, you can improve your photographs.

Every photograph captures an instant of 3D experience and compresses that moment into a flat, 2D image, frozen in time on your computer screen or paper. It’s definitely not your actual experience in 3D space and constantly flowing time. As a result, any photograph is more of a jog to our stored memories, experiences and attitudes than a literal rendition of “reality.”

Beyond that fundamental limitation, all photographs deviate from objective “reality” in several technical ways. Out-of-camera JPEG photographs usually suffer from several uncorrectable deviations from true “reality.” These are inherent in the JPEG file creation process, in which your camera processes the camera’s sensor data into a compressed and saved JPEG file by discarding forever a significant amount of the initially captured data, including pixel-by-pixel sharpness, color balance and detail in the brightest highlights and darker shadows.

As a result, out-of-camera JPEG images typically do not have totally accurate “auto white balance,” lack important highlight and shadow detail, and usually introduce various “artifacts,” artificial “details” that don’t actually exist in the subject. And you can’t correct these JPEG deficiencies either, because the information needed for any correction is lost forever during the JPEG file compression process. By the way, every time you open and re-save a JPEG file, you lose a little more of the remaining image data.

Each uncorrectable deviation from truly objective “reality” is thus a step closer to abstraction. That’s why it’s so useful to use RAW files with a nondestructive editing program, like Adobe Lightroom or Apple Aperture. Both programs retain all sensor data and allow you to revert back to fully detailed images as originally seen by the lens and sensor and make more accurate corrections. Even here, though, it’s difficult to avoid some deviation from objective “reality.” As an example, when you “correct” the color balance so that it more closely matches your recollection of the moment when you took the photo, you’re depending on your memory and mental image about what something, such as a sunset or a child’s smile, should look like.

Even photographs used for legal and scientific documentation struggle to be an accurate representation of objective reality. In these cases, it’s necessary to take pains to be as accurate as possible. That means carefully using good equipment that’s been recently calibrated, precisely defining what each photograph purports to document, and using every image file’s “metadata” to show how the image was made so that its veracity can be tested later.

Because they’ve been used for more than a century in newspapers and we’re thus familiar and comfortable with them, traditional black-and-white photographs are often many people’s ideal of the “objective” photograph. After all, their very starkness makes black-and-white photos of, say, a crime scene, seem very direct and to the point, without any contaminating “artiness.”

Yet, black-and-white images are inherently more abstract than most color photos. By removing the color cues that we would ordinarily see and use in our daily lives, black-and-white photographs force us to concentrate on form, line and tone, rather than color. We’re thus forced to respond in a more abstract way. Ansel Adams, whose grand black-and-white landscapes of the Yosemite and the rural American West define “objective” photography for many, once responded that his photographs stood out from his countless imitators because while others strived for literal reality, he did not.

Every photograph, even careless ones, requires the photographer to decide where to place the edges of the picture, in other words, what to include and what to exclude from the shot. Every photograph requires the photographer to decide where to stand and, thus, how every part of the included subject and background visually relate to each other.

When you decide what to cut out, you’re taking your photo’s subject out of its factual context and “abstracting” it from the larger environment that identifies and places the subject within everyday life. This is sometimes a very effective way to focus attention on your subject, for example, when you use a very wide lens aperture to blur out the background, making your subject stand out very distinctly.

Because our eyes refocus very rapidly as we shift our gaze from near to far, human vision seems to make everything from near to far seem in simultaneous focus. A photograph with an out-of-focus background is definitely different than our ordinary visual sense and, by forcing us to concentrate only on the in-focus subject, has some element of abstraction.

Cropping off part of a subject is a well-known photo composition “trick” derived from gestalt perception psychology and introduces some interesting elements of abstraction into what might otherwise be boring photographs. Our brains are very good at pattern recognition and pattern completion. We innately “know” that a cute kitten’s head does not end in a straight edge on the left side and that a kitten’s eye is round rather than cut off squarely, even when a photo suggests otherwise. When this sort of composition occurs, our human vision completes the pattern so that we see the kitten’s head and eye as round and complete even though the photo crops out part of them and suggests otherwise.

Forcing the viewer to work a bit in this manner often makes a photograph more interesting. I saw some very nice examples of this approach the other evening during my digital photography workshop at the Kenai Fine Arts Center. I thought that the photo of the kitten’s head and eyes, cropped tightly, was probably the most interesting cat photograph within my memory, because the photographer used a bit of abstraction when framing her photo.

Here are some additional thoughts about introducing a bit of abstraction into your photographs to make them more interesting.

  • Allow some ambiguity in a photo so that you’re not forcing on viewers a simple, inescapable meaning. Photographs that allow only a single, insistently stated meaning get old quickly. By allowing a bit of ambiguity, you create interest and some intrigue and encourage your viewers to project into your photos their own experiences, memories and attitudes. That keeps photographs fresh and of more lasting interest for them.
  • An open-minded and contemplative attitude is helpful. Consider just walking about with an open mind about what you might photograph and how you’ll do it. Not uncommonly, you may initially focus on getting a particular image, and that’s likely cliched. I’ve frequently found that my initially sought images are rather boring, but that something previously unseen may result in a more interesting image, if I allow myself to see it. There’s nothing metaphysical about this — even an immensely practical, scientific place like MIT taught this as a fundamental approach to good photography.
  • Ruthless editing is necessary. Twelve good images a year is excellent production.
  • Train yourself to see images that you can later enhance with a program like Lightroom or PhotoShop. Consider how images might look if you altered contrast, selective colors, or made them brighter or darker.
  • Try angles that are different from the ordinary upright-stance, eye-level point of view.
  • Make your subject stand out boldly by blurring out distracting backgrounds with a larger focal-length lens and wider lens aperture.
  • Make your subject seem less ordinary by taking it out of its surrounding environment and context by composing and cropping very tightly.
  • Emphasize line, form and texture.
  • Work with unusual lighting. Although beginners are advised to avoid backlit images, it’s often quite interesting and effective with a little practice.
  • Don’t be afraid of using a bit of the abstract in your photos. Even the masters of apparently literal landscape photography did so, and intentionally.

Quite a large number of interesting, often unexpected and innovative cameras and lenses have been introduced in the past few weeks, just in time for Christmas sales. It seems as though every manufacturer got the same “secret” marketing memo. We’ll cover this near-glut of cool, new gear in the next few weeks as the marketing hype fades and careful comparative reviews are published.

Everyone interested in digital media, including still photographers, video photographers and anyone working in any digital media, is invited to attend this week’s free discussion and program at the Kenai Fine Arts Center. The doors open at 6 p.m. Friday for an informal gathering and snacks provided by KFAC, at 816 Cook Ave. in Old Town Kenai, down Main Street from the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center, near the bluff.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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