Thursday, May 27, 2010

Presenting illustrations

There are a number of ways of presenting illustrations. For print media, they are --in descending order of desirability -- 1) line drawings; 2) shaded drawings; 3) grayscale photos; and 4) color photos. I rate drawings higher than photos because it’s easy to eliminate noise – you simply don’t put it in. Line drawings are also better than shaded drawings because they reproduce well in all sorts of formats. Sling a line drawing on a copier and you get a crisp copy; do the same with a shaded drawing and it’s liable to turn out patchy. I like black and white photos better than color because of the same thing – if you reproduce a color photo as black and white on a copier, you lose definition.
With the advent of PhotoShop and other software, it’s much easier to manipulate photos, of course. The problem there is that you run into ethical and sometimes legal issues, especially if the photo is not yours or if the content is compromised by the manipulation. So, I prefer to keep it simple when possible and use line drawings. Since we’re talking about photography, though, we’ll simply pretend that drawings don’t exist,
For electronic media, most of what I said above still holds, except that you needn’t worry about color in terms of reproduction, so color and grayscale will swap places. The only problem with color in this context is the fact that color hue and intensity will vary from screen to screen, so you can’t be subtle. Use strong tones.

Monday, May 24, 2010


“Framing” is the practice of positioning your photo in the viewfinder or view screen. I am a little old fashioned and like to use the viewfinder. This works well when you are actually seeing what the lens sees. In some cameras, digital and film, the viewfinder shows you the scene, but not through the lens. If that’s the case, there is a slight difference (parallax) between what you see and what the camera sees. Let’s assume though, that what you see is what the camera sees.
Traditionally, the rules of framing were there to make the photo interesting. Thus, you were encouraged to make the photo asymmetrical. You didn’t put the subject of the photo directly in the center of the frame (One picture is way too symmetrical left to right). Nor did you put the horizon directly at the midpoint of the picture. You were encouraged to divide the frame up into thirds, or even a nine-square grid, in order to achieve a striking effect. The other picture is much better in this regard. This advice was based on two notions. The first was that the purpose of the photo was to be striking -- that is, artistic. The second was the (then) reality that changing a picture once taken was a difficult process. Even cropping or dodging required lab work. If I am taking a photo for an artistic competition (which I do every week), I obey the first rule. Since the purpose of this class, however, is not to be striking but to transfer information, the first rule doesn’t apply.
And, of course, the basis for the second rule is dead. In addition, ease of cropping would allow me to eliminate the triangle at the bottom of the picture. For this reason, it's no longer necessary to pay close attention to getting the framing just right. I advocate taking a slightly larger pic and cropping it.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


One of the concepts from information theory that I think is crucial to successful photography is that of noise. In information theory, you have information and you have noise. Noise is anything that is not information. “Big deal,” you say. But hearken. Noise is not only non-information, it is a subtractive quantity. That is, it interferes with the amount of information that any channel can carry. It does this by distracting your attention from the important content. Indeed, in some cases, noise becomes ambiguous and we can’t tell what’s information and what’s not; what’s important and what’s not.
Look at the photograph, which is from the Utah Historical Society archives, and depicts a race car on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Notice all the elements which draw attention away from the important feature, which is (I assume) the man fiddling with the wheel well: the car in the upper center, the disembodied legs and hands and bellies. All these things are noise, and make the picture very messy.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The mind of the camera

There are two approaches to photography. The first (which we will ignore) is the artistic approach. Calendars abound with artistic photography, in which priority is given to the beauty of the image. The second approach is informational. That’s for us. In it, we want to present information to the audience.
In taking photos, there are a number of principles to keep in mind. Let’s run through them briefly.
The camera is a box with a lens. Doesn’t sound earthshaking, but it’s important to remember that. If you are not taking good photos, it’s not your camera’s fault. A piddly phone camera with a 1.3 megapixel resolution can still take great photos, and a 13 megapixel Canon can take lousy ones. Ansel Adams had what would be considered today a laughable camera. And he didn’t have PhotoShop.
The camera sees everything; edits nothing. Let’s say you’re looking at a nice street scene and think it would make a good photo. So, you snap a shot. When you download it and look at it on your computer, you notice that there are power lines running right across the top of the photo. You edited them out as you looked at the scene, but the camera didn’t. There are two correlates to this fact:
1: You need to see the scene the way the camera will see it. This means you have to notice the things that you would normally edit out.
2: You need to be aware that much of what appears in a photograph is “noise,” or non-information. Noise is our enemy because it subtracts from the information in a photo (For a really good discussion of noise, read chapter I of Jeremy Campbell, Grammatical Man, or simply google “information theory”).
The camera isn’t aware of what you consider important. It’s true that a camera will have, in many cases, a weighted focus pattern, but it will still make your subject too dark if you have backlighting. You need to be aware of the tendencies of cameras generally and your camera in particular. You also need to be aware of your camera’s functions as far as adjusting for conditions such as backlighting. You can take good pictures with point-and-shoot, but often you need more control.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Selecting a camera

Note: This is the first of a series of blogs on taking pictures for both artistic and informative pusposes. They are posted in part as information for a class I'm teaching Summer, 2010.

Selecting a Camera

Traditionally, cameras are divided into two general classes. The first, the “point and shoot” category, has long been considered for amateurs and snapshots only. For serious photography, one needed a single lens reflex (SLR) camera. An SLR camera had three enormous advantages.
First, as you viewed the scene (framed it), you saw what the camera saw.
Second, you could interchange lenses. If you needed a wide-angle lens, you could switch to that. In recent years, zoom lenses have changed the equation somewhat, but the versatility of an SLR camera was still a selling point.
Third, you had control over the camera. You could adjust time, depth-of field, and a host of other options.
In recent times, the gap between the two kinds of cameras has been narrowing until now it’s more of a crack than a chasm. The very best point-and-shoot cameras aren’t really point-and-shoot anymore. A top of the line single lens camera such as the Canon xs20 is very nearly as versatile as an SLR. With a 24X magnification, such a camera is the equivalent of a SLR with a 38-600 mm lens combination. And that’s potent.
In fact, the only thing that a high-end point-and-shoot can’t do is adapt to a very long lens, such as a 1000 mm lens, used for wildlife photography and the like. Best of all, they are much cheaper than an SLR camera. So, unless you are really serious about photography and are willing to invest thousands in a camera outfit, I’d recommend a high-end point-and-shoot. I’m serious about photography, but have discovered that I don’t really need an SLR for my needs. I gave the SLR away and got a Nikon P90. So far, the only thing I can’t do is get a closeup of a hawk on the wing. Except that I can. I’ve discovered that with the 12.5 megapixel resolution, I can take a long shot and blow it way up with no loss of detail and sharpness.