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.


  1. Interesting. On the one hand, I think, "Well, maybe the photographer was trying to send the message that there were a lot of people and cars there, and this happened to be one having problems." And maybe that IS what they were trying to say. But all my eyes want to do is stare at the black car in the background. Couldn't tell you much about what they're repairing, but I can tell you all about the car in the background.

    I'm not sure how my next comment exactly fits with noise, but my dad and I are both scenery people, and if anyone steps into our pictures, we both have the habit of saying, "Smile, or get out of the picture!" I suppose this is our way of saying the interfering person either needs to get out of the way of our intended subject matter, or smile and we'll just give up and make them the subject matter. (And THEN tell them to get out of the way!)


  2. I agree with the argument that noise distracts, but what seems to be noise at first glance might also give clues about the context of the picture -- the location and time at which the picture was taken and perhaps even the event.

  3. Thanks for your comments. But, if it's noise at first glance, then either 1) it's noise at second glance too, or 2) the photographer goofed. Remember that in photo as information, if it requires navigation, decision-making, or disambiguating (that's a real word), it isn't good.

  4. One more thing. If you can't tell what the photographer's intent was, or what the photographer intended to convey, then the photographer has failed. Remember also that in the type of photograph we'll be taking, the photo is part of a text that also includes words. The rule is that words and text reinforce and complement each other. Each does what each does best (more on that later).

  5. It seems difficult to understand what the photographer was trying to convey in this photo. The photographer doesn't seem to make an effort to get into the situation, such as offering a better perspective or vantage on the repair work going on. Instead, it looks like they made certain to include the black car, the salt flat details, and the horizon -- all of which seem more interesting than the foreground actions.

  6. MD&BD, I think your second comment is relevant to noise because what's noise and what's subject depends on the photographer's goals. People are usually the focus of a picture, but f you want to show the scenery, people are noise.

    As far as the picture of the men working on the car, I think what really makes the people noise is that they're not fully there. If the three guys standing around were an important part of the picture, they should be fully in it, not disembodied body parts.