Elements of Design – Value and Texture

Value

Value is a description of an area’s relative lightness or darkness. Therefore, it relates to a greyscale more than the color wheel. In a sense, value mostly ignores hue and operates only on the level of how much tint (addition of white), or shade (addition of black), a color may have. Value does not ignore hue completely though because all fully saturated hues will fall on a different natural levels of a value scale (grey scale).

Values help create forms and differentiate space or distance. Gradation of values within a space or shape create forms, or the illusion of volume and mass.

Values can be loosely predicted by looking at the color of the object. Pure yellow will fall near the top of a grey scale, while pure blue-violet will fall near the bottom of the grey scale. All other pure hues fall somewhere in between. Looking at the two images below, the second image is a grey scale conversion of the first. Note how light the value of the yellow circle is compared to the others, also note how little difference there is between values of some of the other colors. This affect is used in B&W to remove any emotional and psychological reaction to color. In return, the viewer responds more directly to the formal constructions of the image and the message.

Today, most photographers are not consciously aware of the colors in their photos. Whatever colors are in front of the camera are of no major concern. There is no attempt at controlling the palette of the image, so unfortunately, value control is also of less concern.The fact is, value can impart as much, or more, emotional response than color. It is the main component of black and white photography. High value or high key images have a light, pure feel to them. By manipulating values through exposure control, a high-key or low-key image can be created. A great example for tone is the work of Edward Steichen.

Edward Steichen (1879-1973) was one of the first commercially successful fashion photographers. He is considered the first modern fashion photographer and worked for large ad agencies. Hired by Condé Nast, he shot for Vanity Fair and Vogue magazines from 1923–1938, the most famous and highest paid photographer in the world during that time. He won an Academy Award for a documentary film in 1945 and became the head of the Photography section of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Below are examples of his work. Note the use of tones to create drama in the images. His work had a major influence on both the commercial and film industries through WWII.

Edward Steichen, "Norma Shearer, 1935"

Edward Steichen, “Norma Shearer, 1935”

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High valued or high-key images illustrate lightness, airy, open, friendly spaces and aid the impression of confident success. In this image of model Norma Shearer, one can see how the high key tonal use helps elevate the impressions of high culture, wealth and well-being. The placement of her head in front of the mirror subliminally places a halo around her head. This halo becomes a crown when ones vision registers the crystal ornamentation truncated at the top of the mirror. This is an instance where the figure-ground can reverse in the black shape within the mirror. It seems to stand forward of her head at times.

Edward Steichen, "J P Morgan, 1903"

Edward Steichen, “J P Morgan, 1903”

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Dark value or low-key images usually have a heavy or oppressive feel to them. Steichen has used low key lighting and dark tones in presenting us with a menacing image of financier J P Morgan, one of the most feared and hated men of his day. Note how the arm rest on the right side of the image takes on the appearance of a knife.This was not entirely unintentional and shows one approach to strengthening the message of an image.

Edward Steichen, "Margaret Horan, 1935" for Vogue

Edward Steichen, “Margaret Horan, 1935” for Vogue

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Using heavy darks in concert with vibrant whites adds drama.This image of Margaret Horan, shot for Vogue Magazine, is a study in shapes, lines, forms, space and tones. Steichen could easily have used an overall darker palette but would have lost the drama and elegance of the image. A high-key treatment would have become too much of an abstraction dismissing the pose and human element. Consider also how the image would change just by shifting the camera 1 foot to the left. The near tangent of her upper thigh would have disappeared into the rectangular shadow on the rear wall. The elegant line created by her left side would no longer show, resulting in a less glamorous image.

If you are observant you will also catch the implied line traveling from the statuette down both arms to the piano. Only to be turned back by the right triangle in the white space created by the curved shape of the piano top and her arm.

Texture

Texture is created by contrast changes along the surface of an object. It is a byproduct of the angle of the light and the roughness of the surface of an object. The illusion of texture in a photograph is created by small, localized changes in contrast. If a surface is rough, there will irregularities on the surface. As long as the light illuminates the object from aside or rear angle, it will create a shadow and highlight on the irregularities. This creates changes in value or color, higher in the highlight side and lower in the shadow side. These differences in local value, contrast, are what we perceive as texture on the object.

A smooth surface has no irregularities so it exhibits little localized contrast and so appears to have no texture.

Texture gives an object a sense of being real and tactile. Presented correctly, texture becomes a quality we can “feel” without actually touching. The brain sends a feeling to receptors in the fingers and we experience a “sense” of the texture. Coarse textures exhibiting high localized contrast will have a rough or severe character. Smooth textures exhibiting lower localized contrast will have a calm or sensuous character.

These images by Edward Weston (arguably the most influential photographer of the 20th Century) exhibit entirely different textures. The first image, titled, “Church Door, Hornitos, 1940 is a good illustration of how localized changes in the surface create the feeling of rough texture. Notice that the light is coming in from a high, side angle. Without the right lighting, texture becomes nothing more than the tonal changes we see in the shadow area of the door.

Edward Weston, Church Door, Hornitos, 1940

Edward Weston, Church Door, Hornitos, 1940

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The second image, titled, “Nautilus, 1927” illustrates how a lack of texture enhances the illusion of an objects smooth surface on the two-dimensional print. Using rather flat lighting enhances the affect by filling in any local texture. This reduces contrast changes even more.

Edward Weston. Nautilus, 1927

Edward Weston. Nautilus, 1927

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The same applies to Weston’s, “Pepper No. 30, 1930”.

Edward Weston. Pepper No. 30, 1930.

Edward Weston. Pepper No. 30, 1930.

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Unrelated to texture, notice how the figure-ground relationship of the upper portion of the shell itself can change, resulting in an ambiguous form. At any one moment, the upper hollow of the shell seems to take a shape, projecting forward, toward the viewer. At another moment it reverts to a literal reading of the shape and recedes behind the base of the shell. Both of these photographs are illustrative of photography’s ability to transform an objects image from a record of an object to a sensual, organic form created in the viewer’s mind. The shell might remind one of a toadstool or a phallus The pepper imitates a human form rendered into a twisted shape and is mirrored in Weston’s most famous nude of Charis Wilson.

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Elements of Design – Line

Line

In his popular art appreciation book, A World of Art, Henry M. Sayer writes:

One of the most fundamental elements of art is line. If you take pencil to paper you can draw a straight line or a curved one. Straight lines can be vertical, horizontal or diagonal. Curved lines can be circular or oval (or segments of circles and ovals), or they can be free-form. Lines can abruptly change direction, in an angle or a curve. They seem to possess direction – they can rise or fall, head off to the left or to the right, disappear in the distance. Lines can divide one thing from another or they can connect things together. They can be thick or thin, long or short, smooth or agitated.”

A line is the mark a moving point describes. A line can vary in weight (heaviness of the mark) and width. A line can also vary in shape, it can have smooth edges, or jagged edges, they can be sharply pointed or blunt. Lines create psychological and emotional responses in the viewer. It can communicate as a symbol or as a motion, by way of its direction. Each of these qualities contributes to the expressiveness of the line.

Lines vary in width. In a pencil drawing, lines are measured in both length and width. A line separating the sky and the edge of a building or horizon I measured by length, it has no width. It only delineates a border. These lines are created by contrasts, changes in color or value.

Martinique, Andre Kertesz, 1972

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An example exists in the image above, you see a photograph composed entirely of lines, shapes and tones. The line created by the horizon has no width, it is a boundary line, a line delineating two shapes. As mentioned above it is created by a change in contrast.

The wedge shaped strip of ocean above the handrail creates its own flat toned shape and becomes a line. The verticals just below the handrail create a counterpoint to the preponderance of horizontal lines and create a rhythm contrasting with the other flat toned areas in the image. The lines of the handrail and the thin cloud in the middle of the frame both converge toward what is assumed the subject of the shot, a human form behind the glass. It could be argued though that this image is not about the human behind the glass, but purely a study in design. Imagine removing any one element in the image; the glass, the railing the human form, the sky or the ocean.  Would it have the same visual power?

Ask yourself, what would you do to improve on the image given the subject matter? Squint your eyes and look at it as a collection of darks and lights. Does the image seemed balanced in use of line? Also, notice how the image does not seem to use the “rule of thirds” as a compositional device, instead Kertesz successfully uses an “L” armature for the placement.

Lines can be explicit or implicit. A traffic lane line in the middle of the street is explicit. It can be seen, and is an object within the space. A line that is “suggested” by placing objects near each other is an implicit or implied line. In the illustrations above, an implied line exists between the circles. In the first instance, there is an implied line between the two circles. In the second instance there are implied lines running between all three circles, creating a triangle.

An implicit line might also be a line suggested by “motion” within the frame as you see in the image below.

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

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

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Major line map in Cartier-Bresson image

Major line map in Cartier-Bresson image

In this Cartier-Bresson image, Hyères, France, 1932, the bicyclist is in motion creating an implied line from right to left. The handrail sweeping in from the right reinforces the implied line and directionality of the motion. The bicyclist seems to be in a frenzied hurry. This frenzy is accentuated by the swirling of the handrail starting on the left and connecting visually with the spiral pattern of the steps and the handrail coming in from the right. The steps coming up from the street visually appear to run down to an unknown lower level. All of the swirling lines create a vortex shape enhancing the frenzy. The white line sweeping along the curve of the curbing in the upper part of the frame seems to pen the bicyclist in and hurry him along, squeezing him out of the frame.

Types of lines

Horizontal lines express repose or rest, weight and gravity, and can become the dominant lines in a composition.

Vertical lines express lightness, soaring, spirituality and grandeur, illustrated by looking at both the outside and insides of gothic cathedrals.

Perpendicular lines strengthen the feeling of grandeur and can overpower adjacent horizontals. Combining vertical and horizontal lines create stability, permanence, safety and solidity.

Frederick Evans, A Sea of Steps – Stairs to Chapter House – Wells Cathedral, 1903.

Frederick Evans, A Sea of Steps – Stairs to Chapter House – Wells Cathedral, 1903.

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Both horizontals and verticals  create a solidity relative to gravity, as seen in this image by Frederick Evans, A Sea of Steps – Stairs to Chapter House – Wells Cathedral, 1903. Here the massive steps leading to the portal heavily anchor the image. The open archways and vertical relief columns add height to the overall feel, yet retain the solidity needed in the ”sea” of undulating and foot worn steps.

Curved lines express qualities dependent on the amplitude of the curve.

Low amplitude, slow, shallow or soft curves evoke feeling of calmness, relaxation, comfort and safety. They can be familiar and comfortable like old friends. We see these types of line in the natural world on animals, landscapes, plants and ourselves; they are familiar and sensual. They suggest calmness, like a calm sea.

Oceano, Photograph by Edward Weston (1936)

Oceano, Photograph by Edward Weston (1936)

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High amplitude, deeply curved, angular or complicated lines on the other hand suggest confusion, anger, disorganization, stress or frenzy. Consider the shape of a turbulent ocean and you will understand the idea.

Leaf Pattern, Imogen Cunningham, 1928

Leaf Pattern, Imogen Cunningham, 1928

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Diagonal lines create instability, tension, motion, direction or depth. A diagonal might create implied movement when isolated; it will appear to be falling in the direction of the lean due to gravity and will create a psychological tension and anticipation. This feeling increases if the diagonal is in proximity to a vertical or horizontal line implying a base.

Using diagonals can give the feeling of distance and perspective like in a photo of a long straight road disappearing in the distance. Used in combination, diagonals effectively create a sense of motion or depth. Diagonals are one of the major tools for creating a three-dimensional feel on the two-dimensional space of the photograph.

Consider the image below titled, L’Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy, 1951. In this image Cartier-Bresson applies diagonals throughout much of the frame enhancing the sense of depth in the image. The procession of women and girls in the foreground creates a crossing counterpoint to the strong diagonal running from the lower right to the mid left side of the image.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, L’Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy, 1951

Henri Cartier-Bresson, L’Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy, 1951

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Notice also the use of similarity in the repeating form of the two arches coming off the handrail and the black forms of the women in both the foreground and background. Of these two groups note that the groupings also run at the same approximate angle to each other and the iron rails they align with. Each of these elements adds an amount of coherence to the image, making it a stronger composition and allowing the brain to find logic and beauty within the image. Below are image maps of the major lines and tones in the image. Note how tone maps can mimic semi-abstract paintings. In this one we can see the tone masses and how they carry am implication of a thought out design.

Diagonal lines used in non-symmetrical groups create tension, motion, apprehension, disorganization or clutter. Paul Outerbridge, another Master of Photography, understood almost immediately the importance of design in photography. Much of his work shows a heavy concern with composition of tone, shape and line.

The Triumph of the Egg, 1933, Paul Outerbridge

The Triumph of the Egg, 1933, Paul Outerbridge

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Next Time: Elements of Design – Shape and Form

Lens, Light and Composition is presented in a structured form with occasional asides. It is not a semi-random presentation of information. To get the greatest benefit from this blog it is advised that you start at the beginning of the table of contents, and work your way down from there. Thanks for reading.

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.

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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.