This is Part 2 of 2 of a guest blog post by Phil Mackenzie, a photographer based in Pennsylvania. You can find Part 1 here.
Lessons learned. (Stuff you should remember from the first part)
We examined the two of the most obvious features of music and images last time. There’s one more feature that sometimes even eclipses the first two. And we’ll also look at two more subtle, yet decidedly distinctive, elements of music that also have counterparts in photography. Let the beat go on!
Rhythm. (The Stuff That Drives the Universe)
Rhythm defines life. Your heart, your breath, the engine of a car, the turn of the earth, the orbit of the planets; they all exist and perpetuate their own rhythms. The world is a colossal mess of rhythm. As I write this, you can watch the legendary aerial photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s film Home on YouTube. It’s also airing on the National Geographic Channel in all of its HD glory. Try watching it without the sound. You’ll see rhythm with your eyes. Almost two hours of it. It’s amazing just how much rhythm life on its own. If you want an even more in-your-face film, there’s also the incredibly provocative collaboration called Koyaanisqatsi between filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola and composer Philip Glass. Regardless of any artistic judgment of the music (Glass, like bagpipes, doesn’t have many indifferent listeners), the combination of the constant pulsing music against the rhythm of the visual imagery that merely depicts everyday events such as traffic patterns in a city or highway is enough to entrance you for quite some time.
Those examples, of course, are motion pictures. Their inherent rhythm comes from the differences between still each of the 24 still images that fly past you every second. By contrast, a photograph’s rhythm can only be based on one image and the patterns and light within the frame. So how can it possibly achieve the same effect?
In a song, if you took away the rhythm, the melody becomes merely an organized pattern of pitches. If you have any doubt about the power of a rhythm, just tell someone to tap out just the rhythm to the melody of a song without telling you what it is, and try to guess what it is, just from the rhythm. It’s easier than you might think. Try it a few times and you’ll see that rhythm is almost, if not equally, as distinctive and as identifiable as melody.
In a photograph, the visual rhythm is what makes your eye move around the image. Your composition, framing, whatever you want to call it. It’s all about controlling the path the eyes take around the photograph. This is easy to see in images of either abstract subject or repeating subjects, such as these:
Notice how your eye follows a fairly predictable pattern around the images. For instance, in this more abstract image, the human eye is generally drawn to the lighter areas of an image first. Your eye probably starts in the top third of the image, and then it’s easy to follow the line of the main object down to the bottom, then come back up around in a big circle, exploring the blurry background along the way.
The same patterns can be true of images involving people as well. As humans, we’re generally drawn to another face initially, then your eye moves around the image. For instance:
Your exact eye pattern might vary, but it probably started on her face, continued down her nicely lit hands and her right arm, back up to her shoulder, and back to her face. Instinctively darker areas tend to be given less visual priority. Certainly you might continue to examine those, but not until after your eyes have made the “light loop” from her face, down in a clockwise motion, and back up to her face again.
You have have also noticed that some images seem to make your eyes feel like they’re stuck in molasses, whereas others make your eyes dart around as if there’s no tomorrow. Both elements that we’ve discussed before (i.e. melody and harmony) have a great deal to do with the speed at which your eyes move through an image. A black-and-white, grainy image with a solitary gaze might make your eyes more considerate and willing to spend the extra time to examine every detail. This image by Seshu is a wonderful example of an image that will slow down your eyes:
Notice how he has evened up the contrast as well. Both areas of highly saturated color or sharp contrast can increase the visual rhythm. Scarlett Lillian’s work is highly color-rhythmic, as is a great deal of fashion photography. Just pick up an issue of Vogue or Marie Claire, or even Brides magazine. Those images are designed to excite you, and what better way than to make your eyes dart around areas of super-saturated color, bright highlight and dark shadows? More contrast, faster rhythm. Less contrast, slower rhythm. Neither one is better than the other, they all depend upon the mood you wish to convey in the image. Wedding photographers might not be able to consciously compose each image due to the mere volume of shots taken (I know I average well over 2500 images for a wedding), but you can begin to see what your natural visual rhythm is by examining your portfolio. Find the images you love and feel their rhythm with your eyes. Make sure they complement each other. Variety is the spice of life, but it’s important that your portfolio’s visual rhythm not contradict itself; a bright, snappy color-saturated image might seem out of place in the middle of an ocean of brooding black-and-white images.
Dynamics. (More Stuff That Sizzles)
Comparing aural dynamics to visual dynamics is an obvious one. In music, dynamics are simply the “loud” factor. A song can be either loud, soft, or optimally a mix of the two. If a piece of music doesn’t have much dynamic range, it’s usually because it’s serving a specific purpose. A trumpet fanfare, for instance, is loud and stately. And usually short, because it serves only to introduce royalty or some other dignitary. Whereas a softer more introspective dynamic is wonderful for a few minutes to lull our ears in, but after a while of static dynamics, it’s just too much of one thing.
High-key and low-key images are probably already leaping to mind in comparison to musical dynamics. Both high-key and low-key images are ones that are thus named precisely because of their distinct lack of visual dynamic. A high-key image only has one “visual volume”: loud. The opposite for a low-key image. The two below are typical, though not over-the-top, versions of high-key and low-key images.
Generally speaking, the most visually appealing photographs have as wide a dynamic range as possible. Though simplified, this is the basic premise of the zone system that was propagated by Ansel Adams. Almost every one of his images was exposed and developed in order to use the fullest possible dynamic range. None of these exposure methods is better than the other; it’s simply a matter of the photographer’s intent in making the image. Be warned, though, that whether you tend to shoot high-key, low-key, or for the fullest dynamic possible, that the eye has a saturation point with the same style of image. Imagine only listening to one singer for the rest of your life. Variety is the spice of life, and of photos, my friends.
Timbre’s Signature. (Photography DNA)
The traditional symphony orchestra has four different “families” of instruments: strings, winds, brass, and percussion. Those, in turn, are each divided into more instruments that vary in their range, from low bass up to very high treble. Each instrument has its own unique sound; this is how your ears differentiate an oboe from a violin or a flute from a trumpet. It’s the timbre (if you’re reading along out loud, you say it tam•ber or tim•ber), the quality of a sound as distinct from its pitch or intensity. So all other things being equal, how can you tell it’s a woman’s voice as opposed to a man’s voice? The timbre.
In a larger sense, when you are able to identify a composer or songwriter by their work, it’s a form of timbre. Usually it’s called their “style.” A Mozart symphony sounds much different than Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker”; a John Williams film score (Harry Potter) is different than a Hans Zimmer score (Pirates of the Caribbean); Carrie Underwood’s songs are different than those by Sara Bareilles. You get the idea.
Close your eyes and think of a black-and-white image of Yosemite. Who’s the photographer? An Ansel Adams print might be one of the easiest photographs in the world to identify. It’s also relatively easy to distinguish a Richard Avedon photograph from an Annie Leibovitz image. Their own style, their “photographic timbre” is present in every one of their photos. Just as the masters of musical composition and songwriting use characteristic aural nuances in their work, photographers also have formulas they have developed over years or decades, and they tend to follow them religiously. It is not only advisable to develop your own style of shooting and working with light, it’s a necessity.
What’s interesting about the current state of the wedding photography industry is that a photographer’s “timbre” or “style” seems to come equally as much from his or her personality and business skills than his or her portfolio. As better camera technology continues to obliterate the line between professional and amateur, and the same sets of Photoshop actions are used across the entire globe, it’s becoming harder and harder to visually distinguish yourself.
It is now, quite possibly more than ever, crucial for both you and your photos to have a distinctive personality. Strive to cultivate and develop your own style (see David duChemin’s insightful new book “Within the Frame”) so that your clients can tell your work from someone else’s. Don’t lose the personality. But combine a sparkling personality and a killer photographic style? You could rule the world. Or at least your own corner of it.
Coda: Putting the pieces back together.
Music is constructed in a more-or-less consistent manner. Generally either a melody or a rhythm is composed first, followed by some basic harmony and then highlighting the climax or dramatic moments with some dynamic variation. Timbre is usually an ongoing consciousness, especially relating to the medium of composition. A composer always knows the instruments for which he or she is writing, and keeps their different timbres in mind while always staying true to his or her style, whether consciously or subconsciously.
As photographers, we work in much the same way whether we’re aware of it or not. We generally start with the subject, or at least the mood of the image we want to create. After considering the primary purpose of the image, we focus on the secondary elements to the subject; the visual harmony, rhythm, and dynamic. All the while, staying consistent to our own personal style, or timbre.
It has always been fascinating to me to read the thought processes of some of the great photographers while making an image. Annie Leibovitz has a new book called “At Work” that describes her experiences while capturing some of her most iconic images. Admittedly, not every photographer thinks about every element of an image while composing a frame. Sometimes it’s a oh-wow-grab-the-camera-and-hope-you-get-it shot, but more often than not we have more than a split second to think about how to compose the frame. The most important part of shooting might just be in the editing session. Look at the shots you’ve taken that catch your attention, that grab you, that sing to your eyes. Figure out what it is about them that grabs your eye. Is it the rhythm? Is it the visually interesting harmonic palette with which the image’s background is composed? Is it just that the subject (i.e. the melody) of the image is so powerful it trumps everything else and lets you get away with some technical imperfections?
Just as there are songs and concert music that have stood the test of time, and countless others that have had their time and faded into the background of culture, there are thousands of images taken for every one remembered and treasured. Your goal should be to tilt that balance in your own favor. See what your own magic formula is. How do you compose your visual melody? How do you capture the rhythm of the scene? If you don’t like the way you create harmony in an image, recognize that before the next time you press the shutter and change it. Try something new. Composers like Mozart, who could transcribe music already composed in his head, are rare. Most artists are much more like Beethoven: decided unsatisfiable, he would often scratch out entire pages of music that represented hours or days of work with berating notes to himself about how this page of music was garbage, and how he ever could have written such a horrid and elementary chunk of music.
As photographers we don’t deal in the same time frames as composers. Our decisions occur at a fraction of a second. Composers have as much time as they need to deliberately write every note, every rhythm, every harmony. We don’t have that luxury as the bride is walking back down the aisle toward us, or we see an incredible shot starting to materialize in front of our faces. More often than not, we grab the camera, raise it, and click the shutter in one swift motion without much thought. I would argue, however, that those photographers who take the extra second to think, to edit, and to be aware of their own visual composition abilities will only become the next generation of famous image-makers.
Know your images. Know your tendencies. Know what abilities you have to create an image that entrances and sings to your client’s eyes. If the elements all work in harmony, your song will be one from the heart. And your clients will love you for it.
As always, your comments below are welcome. Tell us how you inject elements of music into your photography.
What a beautifully written and inspiring article. I've always acutely sensed a rhythm in photography (mine and others) but have reacted on it instinctively and subconsciously. I'm simply reacting to a sense of “does this image work or not” and changing my framing, exposure etc until I feel it does. Maybe this is the rhythm that you're alluding to.
I've always noticed similarities in music and photography, in that both require so much experience, talent and structure to create something that seems simple on the surface.
Rajib Singha says
This is beautifully written and a good reading! Inspirational stuff.