Control Your Lines to Make Stronger Photos
A couple years ago I tried to answer, for myself, this simple question: What makes a great photograph? My own reply was contained in three elements—lines, light, and moments. What we do with those three is everything in a photograph.
If every student of photography learned to ask three general questions before they pressed the shutter button, their work would improve faster than any new piece of gear could ever do in a lifetime. Those three questions for me are: What is the light doing? What are my lines doing? Is this moment the most powerful?
You take a significant step forward in your ability to create strong photographs when you understand that you wield a great deal of control over the lines in your photographs. That matters because our photographs are two-dimensional, so in a sense all we have are lines. Lines are formed by contrasts in tone or hue, and they connect to form shapes—people, buildings, shadows, trees, the representation of emotion on the face of a portrait subject—all of them created in the photograph by lines. Lines can direct the eye into, or lead it out of, the frame. They can connect elements and tell a story. The thinnest lines can reveal details; the thickest ones can conceal details. They can, through the laws of perspective, create the illusion of depth.
During the Renaissance, painters began to perfect our understanding of perspective. How we represented depth had never been very precise, but we began to get the math right in the Renaissance. Our cameras automatically reproduce perspective, so unlike painters we don’t need to learn the math and draw vanishing points. But we need to understand perspective in order to be able to manipulate it. This allows us to reintroduce an experience of depth, as well as control, and more carefully place our lines and shapes, and thereby shape our content—the message—of our photographs more intentionally.
What you need to know about perspective as a photographer is different from that of a painter, and it boils down to this in relation to lines: your point of view (POV), or position with the camera, determines the direction and energy of lines in a photograph, and because the eye experiences different lines in different ways, it has a dramatic effect on the photograph.
Let’s look at an example in simple line drawings (Figure 1). Imagine a bar suspended in front of you. Your position relative to that bar could give you endless possibilities of how that bar appears in your photograph. Here are four possibilities, from left to right: facing the end, the side, and the end from a sideward angle. Same physical object, very different shapes.
What this one bar looks like in your photograph has everything to do with your choices. Taken another step, a change in perspective will also change the perceived relationship between elements. Imagine a sphere placed near a triangle. Again, your position relative to the two elements will change how those two objects look in relation to each other. Your change in position can make them look closer to each other, can force their shapes to bisect each other, or can distance them from each other.
Here are four more possible interpretations of that scene, the differences made by only one change: your position (Figure 2). From left to right, the shapes begin distant, side by side; then you move closer and to the left and the sphere gets larger, partly eclipsing the now-smaller pyramid; moving further, the sphere completely eclipses the pyramid; and if you keep moving, you can place the pyramid in front of the sphere, blocking it. And it would all change more if you moved up and down relative to these objects.
Paying attention to your position can keep lines straight or give them greater energy. Your position is rarely unchangeable. Find a scene and camp out for a while.
- Concentrate on one element. The simpler the scene, the better. Now make six to eight different photographs, changing only the position of the camera relative to your subject. Get higher. Get lower. Move left. Move right. Walk around it. The element might not move in a hundred years, but you have astonishing control over its shape relative to the frame.
- Study those six to eight frames. How do the energy and balance change? How does the shape of that primary element change as your position changed?
- Now find a scene with two prominent elements and make another six to eight frames, concentrating this time on moving the camera in ways that change the relationship between elements. Can you, simply by moving, position the one on top of the other, then beside it to both left and right?
- Now move your position to reverse the elements; make the foremost object the background object. How does moving closer to one make it larger relative to the other?
It’s a simple assignment, but understanding the control you can exercise over lines and shapes relative to the frame will give you more control over your photographs.
Excerpted from The Visual Toolbox: 60 Lessons for Stronger Photograph and used with the permission of New Riders and Peachpit Press.