There are many ways to understand an image, today I will attempt to describe certain ways you can begin to think critically when looking at a photograph. We will evaluate the choices made or not made by the photographer and figure out why certain images evoke more emotion than others. In short, the three ways you can understand an image is to look at what its subject is, the choices made in the exposure, and the overall composition.
John Berger, in his book Understanding a Photograph states, “what makes photography a strange invention - with unforeseeable consequences - is that its primary raw materials are light and time.” When we shoot a photograph we are controlling how much light hits the sensor or film emulsion and for how long. These two components are what make up a photograph’s exposure. Have you ever noticed when you watch film noir, it amplifies the drama and suspense? This is because of the high contrast of bright whites up against the black, blacks and the loss of detail hidden in the shadows.
If we were to break down exposure into three subcategories, they would be tonal range, depth of field and the use of color. In his book The Print, Ansel Adams writes about this in the context of printing. “A fine print has been generally assumed to have a full range of values, clear delineation of form and texture, and a satisfactory print ‘color’...But there is no reason why they must be included in all images any more than a composition for the piano must include the full range of eighty-eight notes on a keyboard.”
© Esther J Kontny
In the example above, we can tell the photographer was capturing the bright whites of the snow in an otherwise dark landscape. The trees, river and rocks are all various values of gray. Look at the highlights and the shadows, what do they draw your attention to? Is there high contrast or does it have a softer transition from one subject to the next? What is the overall mood you feel after looking at this image? When looking at a photograph we can analyze all of these things to gather a better idea of what the photographer is trying to communicate.
Even in a landscape like this one, there is an overall tone that the photographer is trying to accomplish. Let’s see if we can decipher this just by looking closely at the exposure. First, we will examine the tonal range throughout the image. In the foreground, we get the most concentration of whites with the snow, and similarly, the blackest portion of the image is found on the rock. The river right next to the snow is washed with a lighter tone of gray with several highlights spread across the frame. In the background we have a dark gray coming from the tree line and its reflection in the river. And lastly the sky is a lighter gray not quite white showing cloud cover.
There are a few focal points that I see in this image. The first one being the high contrast of the rock and snow in the bottom left corner. However, since the depth of field starts farther in the frame my eye moves up to the river. This is the largest portion of the image with lots of texture from the ice floating. The shutter speed was fast enough to avoid any motion blur from the current so we are able to see the detail in the ice. The contrast in this part of the image is still apparent but not quite as dramatic as the first. The third and final focal point I see is that of the tree line and its symmetrical reflection. Because the depth of field covers the entire width of the river we are able to see a lot of detail in the trees and river bank. This image is in black and white so when discussing the use of color, it can best be described as monochromatic. When choosing a monochromatic color palette the photographer is drawing attention to the patterns and composition of the image rather than relying on the mood attached to certain hues. This scheme is also known for its clean, elegant and calming affect.
Overall, we get a full range of tone giving us lots of detail in both the highlights and the low-lights. Our attention is mainly placed on the pattern in the river which has a soothing rhythm to it, greater emphasized by its monochromatic color scheme. I would conclude that the intention of this image is to portray a soothing landscape.
In this blog I did not get into the ability to use color to achieve all of these same things, but will talk in length of color theory in a later post.
To find other photos like this one, check out our gallery.