Monday, November 08, 2004

Make strong skeletal structures

This image (top) is a good example of image skeletal structure. See how the elements are separated physically as well as tonally.

Note the importance of structural composition as color is removed (middle).

The lithographic final image (bottom) shows the skeletal structure of the image and how it's capable of transferring from color to B&W without major concern.

Mark M. Hancock / © The Dallas Morning News

Notice: This entry is for advanced PJs. Pro PJs understand it. Most others might. Some won't. Don't fret. I'll fill in the missing gaps soon.

Each image has a skeletal structure. This structure is the framework of light and dark patterns within an image. PJs who start with black and white photography understand this theory faster than strictly color photographers, but it applies to both genres.

The goal of the skeletal structure is to keep items orderly and separate within a scene. Additionally, the structure leads the viewer's eyes to areas designated by the PJ.

What's a scene
Before we understand the visual structure of a scene, we must define what a scene is. A scene is any collection of visual information. A scene can generally be defined as a physical area where something occurs (a fire or police scene). It can also be defined as a view or fragment of the overall scene contained within the viewfinder or final image area (an image scene).

Since the viewer of photojournalism is limited to areas PJs choose to document, the final image is the most common definition.

Understand structure
The first step to understanding structure is to understand tonal gradations and how the dynamic range of light works. PJs must understand white can be black and black can be white. It simply depends on the amount of light reflecting from the object in relationship to other items in the same scene.

Once this initial concept is understood, PJs can visually arrange elements within the scene through the viewfinder. Light areas can be placed and contained within dark areas and vice versa until the best structure is accomplished. The goal is to separate or join items through the use of contrast and tonal gradations.

The areas reflecting the most light become the "bones" of the skeletal structure or the reverse can be true (for high key images). PJs then visually arrange these elements to keep viewers' eyes within the frame without letting other elements intrude into the scene or particular elements within the scene.

Highly-sophisticated structures may contain several light/dark patterns layered within one another in addition to spatial layers of depth.

See the structure
PJs must see structures and quickly assemble them into a logical, organized order. When PJs are covering a fire or a hostage standoff, it's not the best time to wonder what to do or the time to do the wrong thing.

There's several ways to preview a scene. I'll explain the classical approach first to avoid confusion (although it's arguably more confusing). PJs tend to use a personal variation of the final method for most news situations.

Preview button
Most SLR cameras have a depth-of-field (DoF) preview button on the camera body to the right (left as looking at the camera lens) of the lens mount ring. I'll soon explain hyperfocal distance (and depth of field) to dispel the myth about this button, but for today's discussion, it's a useful button.

SLR cameras open lens diaphragms to allow the PJ to view a scene through the maximum (widest) aperture setting of a lens. This allows the most light to travel from the scene to the PJ's eye regardless of the actual aperture setting.

For example, if the camera works properly, the PJ sees the scene at f/2.8 although the aperture is set for f/8. When the shutter release button is depressed, the camera moves the aperture arm and constrict the diaphragm to f/8 for the actual exposure. Then it returns to the maximum aperture setting as the mirror moves back into place.

To see the scene as the camera sees the scene, PJs depress the DoF button. It overrides the aperture arm and constricts the lens diaphragm to the set exposure (f/8). Without getting into the technical issues, the end result is less light travels from the scene to the viewfinder. The scene within the viewfinder becomes darker and objects within the general depth-of-field become more defined as the circles of confusion become smaller.

While the button is depressed, the tonal variances become more evident and color saturation becomes less relevant. As an example, a red apple on a green tree under even light becomes about the same shade of gray.

On B&W film without filtration, they'll be the same color gray because they're within the same tonal range of reflected light (although they reflect different wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum and are measured at different Kelvin temperatures).

Confused yet? Wait until I discuss calculus as it applies to artificial light and some of the other really exciting mathematical and scientific aspects of photojournalism. ;-}

For now, the PJ has the DoF button depressed and is looking through the viewfinder. Notice how differently the scene looks. The scene is broken down into light and dark areas because the eye can't fixate on objects separately. This is how the film or CCD also sees the scene.

The fastest and easiest way to see a scene's structure is to squint. Essentially, by squinting at a scene, PJs stop-down their eyes by reducing the amount of light entering the eye and break the scene into light patterns.

Did I hear a sigh of relief?

Most PJs have learned, either classically or through trial and error, how to see light patterns instead of the actual scene. They use variations of a squint to place foreground objects into contrasting background areas.

As the Moody Blues speak in "Late Lament,"
Cold-hearted orb that rules the night
Removes the colours from our sight,
Red is grey and yellow white
But we decide which is right
And which is an illusion.

Arrange the elements
Once PJs recognize light patterns within the scene, they arrange them within the viewfinder. On a simple image, the pattern is used to separate elements from one another or isolate one specific element from the surrounding elements.

Most frequently, a person's face is placed inside an evenly dark or light background element. PJs try to work foreground objects into background areas which are thrown off the dynamic range. This eliminates texture from the background and makes a "clean" background for PJs. Selective focus, lens choice, camera angles, and directional as well as artificial lighting further assist this goal.

However, the point is to bring some order to the chaos of most scenes. This is accomplished by arranging the scene elements into a solid skeletal structure.

Enough for now,


shutterjockey said...

Pulling out the Moody blues. Now that's dating yourself:) A quick look through a monochromatic or 20A filter will show separation also.

Mark M. Hancock said...

I'd never ask myself for a date. I'm too ugly. ;}