Image Mapping – The Basis of a Structural Critique

Herni Cartier-Bresson (1908 – 2004) is considered a Master of Photography, and the greatest of street photographers. One of the first to use a 35mm camera when they were first developed, he spent much of his life traveling the world making images for Life Magazine and Magnum Photos. Though they may appear to be accidental or spur of the moment compositions they were not. He would come across a scene and see its potential in the way the shapes, tones, lines came together. He would then wait for things to happen as people came in and out of the scene. At what he called, “the decisive moment”, he would trip the shutter.  Numerous exhibitions worldwide in major art museums have firmly placed his work as Art and as a model of study. Analysis of his images is a great exercise for those looking to elevate their images above the mundane. For a selection of books on by or about him go to the affiliate Related Reading page.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Var department. Hyères. 1932.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Var department. Hyères. 1932.

Image Source.

It can be highly instructive to map out the major lines and line groups in an image. You will often notice interesting patterns which as designs would stand up by themselves. Below are examples of image maps. The first shows not only the major flow  within the image, but also how the verticals in the frame enhance the design. The blue arrows indicate the direction the verticals are converging toward. This strengthens the downward motion of the overall flow. The dotted red arrows indicate the implied motion or direction.

Major and minor line maps for Cartier-Bresson image.

Major and minor line maps for Cartier-Bresson image.

This second map charts the stairs and the two major horizontal lines. It is a good idea to use lighter and heavier line weights to indicate the apparent strength of the line within the frame. In the instance above the lines for the steps are of  lighter weight because because the lines described by the steps are of lower contrast and not as influential is the verticals are. I used the orange line indicate the flow within the image, flow being a type of implied line.

If you used this mapping method to map the tones or values in the image you will see the steps play a greater importance in the image. See one possible example of a tone map for the image below.

Example of a tone map for Cartier-Bresson image.

Example of a tone map for Cartier-Bresson image.


Notice how the tone map appears to have coherence. The shape and tone placements feel comfortable and balanced. Note that even though you cant see actual objects the image still seems to have some motion toward the left.

So the lesson here is that design matters in photography. It can make a weak image strong and help it carry a stronger message. I recently read a forum post where a photographer was invited to help two photo editors select about 30 images for inclusion in a “best of” list. The first task was for each image to be viewed at thumbnail size only and decide very quickly if the image was included or not. Of the images that made it past the first cut, nearly all of them had some kind of “graphic quality” working in their favor. If that doesn’t reinforce the statement that “design matters”, I don’t know what does.

Study the masters in the genre you enjoy and study their compositional techniques by mapping tones, colors, shapes, lines etc. It might even be informative to turn the images upside down and see if the design holds up. If you think about it, all of those people who shoot large format view cameras are composing the images upside down when they look at the ground glass focusing screen.

The more you familiarize yourself with the contents of this site, and study images, the more attuned you will become to the possibilities in front of your lens.

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One comment on “Image Mapping – The Basis of a Structural Critique

  1. amiarting says:

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