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  • Writer's pictureDavid Corfield

The Art of Seeing

The skill involved in visualising and predicting a photograph before you reach for the camera is as key to your success as the craft itself.

Glenholm, Scottish Borders, 2020 (C) David Corfield

WHEN WAS THE last time you knew you had taken a truly great photograph? Last week? Last year? 1/60sec ago? For many photographers, lured away from the emotive side of imaging to the techo-obsessed culture of computers, the craft of putting a picture together in the mind’s eye is lost until the download. This – as all purists know – is a grave mistake and one that threatens to lower standards and downgrade a half-decent photographer into a lazy snapper. “Photographers will soon become mere camera operators,” the late Patrick Lichfield once said to me. “The real skill and the real art of a great image will soon lie in the hands of the computer expert.” A scary thought, but he had a point. In this golden age of photography, where we as ‘camera operators’ still retain control, it’s up to us to make sure we know exactly what we want at the time in which we take it - before the dev. And definitely before the download…

The Mind’s Eye

While you are reading this, pause for a moment and consider what motivates you to take photographs in the first place? As photographers we are acutely visually aware and while some of us know exactly how sharp our skills are, many don’t. Seeing an image should be an instinctive process. Framing a scene in your mind before reaching for the camera should be something you get into the habit of doing every time you look for a picture. Even if you are just walking down the street or sitting in the garden at home – get into the habit of looking for pictures all the time. Photographers never switch off.

So what to look for? The three components of a good image – the holy trinity of photography, if you like – are line, tone and shape. Line can be anything from the walls of a building to the wrinkles on a face; tone brings them to life while shapes are the jigsaw pieces that join them together. Work these three ingredients into your picture and you’re half way there. Get the framing right and – bingo – it’s time to grab that camera.

Lovers on the beach, North Berwick, Scotland, 2019 (C) David Corfield

So, framing then. How do you know when you’ve got it right? To understand this, you need to start thinking in squares. Or rectangles, depending on the choice of format. Psychologists have found that the human eye interprets an image by working from the bottom left to the top right. What you need to do as a photographer is adapt your thinking to accommodate this psycho-philosophy. “There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer,” said Ansel Adams. And he was right. Your job is to provoke the viewer. And there are tricks to help you do this.

Judging Potential

A photograph should evoke some kind of feeling or emotion from the viewer. That’s the point of any visual display – to engage and provoke. Subject matter naturally plays a very big part in all of this and while some areas of photography – such as documentary and reportage – are more dramatic to work in than others, there are certain rules and mechanics that neatly translate across all disciplines, the principle one being composition. Whilst the rule of thirds is well known and well used it shouldn’t be taken as gospel that you must compose to its preset guidelines. It’s true that the eye looks for balance in a picture and the rule of thirds helps you achieve that, but there’s the rub: as a photographer you are looking for a reaction all the time in your work, be it appreciation or abject horror. And one way to unsettle the viewer is to offer them an image that is harder to interpret. It’s the principle of framing. Artists do it all the time. Look at the past masters for reference: Salvador Dali, Picasso, MC Escher… photographers such as Man Ray, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bill Brandt and David Bailey were (and are) exponents of the great and noble art of provocation.

Viv with clay, Lanarkshire, 2021 (C) David Corfield

Tell a Story

Images are narrative by nature. They inform, define and determine a viewer’s perception of events. A change of lens or a change of angle is sometimes all it takes to influence interpretation.

The famous co-founder of the Magnum picture agency Robert Capa once said ‘If a picture isn’t good enough, you’re not close enough’ and he was right. An image is powerful only if a viewer feels involved with it. This is why reportage photographers often prefer small cameras such as the Leica rangefinder. Their diminutive size and wide optics mean that you have to be up close and personal with your subject. Proximity, don’t forget, is directly proportional to impact.

When composing a photograph, look for the details and concentrate on the edges of the frame, ensuring that the main part of the picture – the focal point – is strong enough to engage the viewer. Eyes are always the best means of capturing a viewer’s attention: on a psychological level there is nothing better than a pair of pupils staring back at you – and visually they are the areas of highest contrast which therefore attract the most attention.

Compare and contrast

Which brings us on to contrast, itself a very important part of narrative imagery. Contrast is used as a way of guiding a viewer from one part of an image to another. Traditionally, monochrome photographers used it to help guide and shape a viewer’s interpretation and perception of a scene. Ansel Adams invented the Zone System of exposure precisely for this reason – to tackle exposure and produce the optimal reading taking into account a subject’s tones and contrast.

Lighting is very much part of your gameplan as a monochrome photographer. There’s a famous photography quote that goes something like this: ‘colour photography records the colour of a subject’s shirt. Black & white records the colour of its soul.’ It’s an anonymous quote but whoever first said it really had the medium nailed. Shadows and contrast are the strengths of a monochrome image and should always be exploited for maximum impact. A subject stands or falls by the way it reacts to light. Filters such as the infamous Wratten Red will beef up your clouds and send those blue skies black to dramatic effect, whilst faces react best to an orange filter, which reduces freckles and skin blemishes.

Of course it’s all so much easier now that the digital age is upon us, but that’s not to say that we shouldn’t misunderstand the silver principles. The Art of Seeing is all about recognition: observing the moment and knowing how to record it creatively and with impact.

Remote valley near Coulter, Scottish Borders, 2019 (C) David Corfield

Top tips for better Black & White:

• Use contrast to add mood. At the capture stage, a red filter on the lens will beef up skies and send skin alabaster white. After download, use Channel Mixer to alter RGB paths.

• Use line and tone to lead the eye around the image. Remember an image is made up of three virtual layers: foreground, middle distance and background. Take the viewer across all three planes.

• Remember that the edges of a frame are where a picture can fall apart. Pay attention to those four corners and crop with conviction!

• Don’t be afraid to compose creatively. The slightest change of angle is sometimes all it takes to change the ridiculous to the sublime…

• Time of day plays a decisive role in your monochrome image. Be prepared to get up early for the best light.

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