A Shared Visual Language
The premise of this article is that understanding and absorbing visual patterns will help you to share a common visual language and take better photographs. Let me explain.
When I was at film school, I was frustrated by what I perceived to be the relegation of technical skills in favour of the much more nebulous creative elements. Clearly, I wasn’t alone in this because the situation now is completely reversed. Spend a little time on YouTube, and you’ll notice that the majority of the videos relating to photography focus entirely on technique and bypass the most important question of all. “Why are we concerned about…” focus stacking (or whatever technique is being addressed.
The truth of it is that all the technique in the world won’t make us any better as a photographer. Pictures that engage the viewer are the measure of “Good” in image making. Using a visual language that is commonly understood will by definition help you to take better photographs.
My own experience, as a technologist drawn initially to commercial and product photography for a living has been that technique in terms of photographing products is pretty much what I get paid for. The perceived value in product photography especially is measured against sales and data produced by Amazon from millions of examples. (Did you know for instance that the classic three quarter shoot of a shoe on a white background or editorial style, in a context, works better if the heel is on the mid background right and the toe towards the front left than the other way around? Amazon have the data that proves it.)
When I refocused my energies on Landscape Photography, I began to realise that although my compositional instincts were often ok, I didn’t have the tools to know why. And talking to other photographers I realised I wasn’t alone. Many people don’t get past the so called Rule of Thirds and a vague idea about foreground interest and leading lines. I realised that if I wanted to take better photographs I needed to revisit my Film School education and re-absorb topics the usefulness of which I had woefully underestimated.
So in this article I’d like to talk about visual language and make an argument that understanding visual language is absolutely key to producing more interesting and varied photographs.
Table of Contents
One of the most frustrating things I’ve heard about art is that creativity is somehow linked to breaking the rules. My generation has bought deeply into the “rebel as creative genius” trope. As in “Hendrix rewrote the rule book”, “Miles Davis tore up the book and reinvented jazz”. That framing of the debate around creativity is unhelpful. Hendrix was just as much a product of the blues as Miles was a product of Jazz.
Both musicians extended the language of their chosen form, building new combinations out of existing building blocks and in the process, introducing new building blocks. eg. Feedback.
In the context of photography the woeful notion that rule breaking automatically allows creativity to shine is easily exposed. Simply breaking the rules without thought, undermines the viewer’s ability to infer meaning and can result in visual gibberish. Deliberately avoiding rules misses the point and I would argue comes from the wrong place. We should be connecting to our own drivers in our photography, not other people’s. Don McCullin’s landscape work exemplifies this “connectedness”. It is stormy, brooding and occasionally terrifying. It has a lot in common with his war photography.
Whether we are conscious of it or not, we share a visual language with our audience but it is based on commonly experienced culture, commonly understood patterns, not rules and it is the combination of these patterns that help us to take better photographs.
Instead of fixating on Rules and the deluded notion that we should break them without a thought for what might replace them, we should instead leverage the notion that things that convey meaning, combined together in different combinations can be easily “read” by the viewer.
I first learned about patterns when I was working as a consultant for an IT company. There is a book called “The Timeless Way of Building” by an urban designer, Christopher Alexander, that was groundbreaking in that he observed that in urban design we address the same problems over and again. Ever since Roman times, traffic has been a problem for example. Alexander proposed that instead of re-inventing the wheel every time a new project is initiated we should instead define abstract patterns that encapsulate a solution to the problem.
This book was enthusiastically adopted by Software engineers to create reusable patterns that revolutionised the IT industry. The concept of patterns also appears in the visual arts. The problem for the photographer is defined as “How do we make it possible for a viewer to engage meaningfully with our images?” There are of course a lot of answers to this, we can use subjects that bludgeon the viewer into submission, but this is about seduction rather than attention seeking, it’s about offering a few seconds of rewarding time spent considering an image rather than delivering shock treatment. By engaging with visual language we have a way of making any image more interesting.
So what are these patterns in photography?
A pattern is an abstraction representing a reproducible component that can be recognised in many different art forms. A twelve bar blues, a paragraph. A book in abstract is simple a combination of words, paragraphs and chapters. Words have a commonly understood meaning, fresh combinations introduce nuance, and build paragraphs.
In visual language, the patterns are things that we all recognise. I would suggest the following have a particular resonance in photography,
- Leading Lines
- Negative Space
In addition, I’d add a couple of components that are responsible for some real heavy lifting. These are paragraphs rather than words.
- Colour Theory
- Visual Hierarchies
If a snapshot is the most basic form of photography, a record of what is in front of the camera, introducing any of these visual components will make that image more interesting and help us to take better photographs. Building on that thought, introducing a combination of these components will make for more intriguing photographs that encourage the viewer to linger a while. In a world where images are hardly in short supply, that has to be a good thing!
Examples of Visual Components
Frames are a technique that places the subject inside a frame within the photograph. These frames can be rectangular, for example doorways, windows or simply surrounding elements in nature, for example, branches, shrubs and trees.
Leading lines are elements that “point” to where the photographer wants the viewers eye to rest. They can be literal, for example streams, roads, pathways and railway tracks or more abstract features such as colours and even textures.
Contrast is what happens between neighbouring elements. Colour combinations, often found in nature are said to be complimentary if they are on opposite sides of the colour wheel. For example, teal and orange.
Introducing scale in Landscape photography is a great way to convey for example, the vastness of a landscape which is not always apparent if there is not something in the image that we can identify and know the actual size of. Perhaps a bird, car or person.
Negative space is an area in the image that is a very effective way of pushing the viewer’s eye towards the subject of the photograph and as a story telling element helps to make the photograph about something rather than of something. Examples are skies, empty foregrounds.
Balance introduces the concept of visual weight to an image. Once we move away from the “subject in centre” composition we need to arange elements in a way that balances the photograph.
Diagonals bring energy to a composition and where the choice is straight ahead or diagonal, I almost always go for a diagonal. This picture also uses scale and contrast to make an impactful image.
If the individual building blocks are words, then the following are paragraphs.
Each of these three topics is worthy of a full post. And I have written one! Create a Visual Style Using Colour Theory – Colour Theory is the science of colour combinations. In photography it is based on RGB and is an additive colour process. Let me explain, the absence of light is black. If I switch on a red light in a dark room, then I get pure red. If I add various levels of green and blue I get different colours. If I add the same quantity of red green and blue light I get white.
Composition is the art of arranging elements in a photograph to be attractive to the viewer and tell a story about the subject. I wrote an article that focuses on the arranging of elements called How to Approach Composition Creatively.
Literally, a visual hierarchy describes the relative importance of elements in a photograph. If an element has no importance then it may be considered for removal as it detracts from the photographer’s intent and very likely distracts the viewer. Very useful to bear in mind when composing or editing a shot.
How to Cultivate an Understanding of Visual Components
The end goal of all this is to make the process unconscious rather than conscious. This has a lot to do with developing your photographic eye. The only way to do this is to practice. If you devote a week to shooting frames for example, I can guarantee that you will start seeing frames everwhere and see opportunities to use them in your photography. There are seven building blocks listed here, each of which could easily be used as a week-long project and each of which will help you take better photographs.
Patterns or Visual Components combine together to make more exciting and engaging photographs. This is because we have all absorbed the same messages from media for the whole of our lives. Some of us cannot articulate it but it manifests as a feeling that an image that uses or combines these patterns is more interesting than one that doesn’t. It is the difference between a snapshot and a piece of art.
Using patterns will elevate your photography and render it intelligible to others. The quickest way to build an audience is to create striking photographs that tell stories. The story doesn’t have to be complex but it does need to be deliberate.
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