…and it starts by observing.
The last two weeks I have been looking at designs that have been made by graphic designers. An important part of what we do is create graphics, or images, and it is vital to understand a little bit about photography and how to successfully implement it into our work. This week, I am going to analyze three photographs for their use of the Rule of Thirds, Leading Lines, and Depth of Field, as well as demonstrate with my own work the same concepts.
Pastry Cook, Cologne by August Sander
The first photography that I will take apart is one of my personal favorites; August Sander’s Pastry Cook, Cologne. It was taken in 1928, using the gelatin silver print process. August Sander was born in 1876 in Germany. Originally employed in a mining company, he was introduced to photography while out on the job site. His uncle helped to set him up with the necessary photography equipment (such as the chemicals needed for the gelatin silver print process) and he began to make a name for himself as the most influential German Social Documentary Portrait Photographer of the 20th Century. Sander is most known for his work that was gathered as part of a series called People of the Twentieth Century. A Photographic Portrait of Germany, which happens to be where the Pastry Cook, Cologne is a part of. He wanted to show the average person in their everyday life. He took over 30,000 photographs in his life, but most of them were destroyed by either fire or by NAZI’s, who saw his work as controversial and contradictory to their propaganda image of what a German should be. Luckily, prints of his work were still circulating, so not all of his images were lost, ultimately being gathered and compiled together.
Like I mentioned, Sander was a fantastic portrait photographer. The Pastry Cook, Cologne showcases that. I made three outlines to mark the three things we will be looking at on this photograph. The light blue dotted lines break up the image into nine sections (as a result of the Rule of Thirds), the red transparent over shape (the area of focus), and a dark blue line that runs down the middle of the photograph. The Pastry Cook is in the middle third of the image, with the surrounding kitchen filling the remaining two thirds of the image. Being in the middle, the Cook is clearly the focal point of the piece, but Sander wanted us to really hone in on him by making him and his tools sharp and crisp, with the work space around him becoming subordinate by being blurred. That blue line down the middle is significant for portrait photography. When shooting a portrait, the dominant eye is normally placed on an axis, giving it more power and making it seem that the eyes follow the viewer. The Cook’s right (viewer’s left) does just that, lying on that middle axis.
Focus is important
I mentioned that Sander’s Pastry Cook, Cologne made really good use of the the Depth of field to make it clear that the Cook was the focus of the photograph. I wanted to just demonstrate just how important it is. Depth of Field refers to the distance between the furthest objects within view of a camera’s lens, and those that are close to it. I went this last week to Idaho Falls and photographed one of the city’s landmark buildings, the Church of Jesus’s Christ of Latter-day Saints (a.k.a. Mormons) Idaho Falls Temple.
See the beautiful purple flowers, crisp and brilliant on the sunny, Fall day that I took the image? That was the first thing you saw right? After seeing the flowers (highlighted in red as the object in highest focus), your eyes then wandered over the remaining 2/9 of the image where the building was slightly poking through, against the deep blue sky.
Watch what happens when I shift the focus just slightly onto that building in the back instead of the flowers.
Your eyes go instead to the gold statue at the top of the building, along the top of the building’s walls, then falls the rest of the way down through the flowers. That was a huge difference! You saw what I wanted you to look at, because what is sharp and clear is what our eyes want to look at. Our eyes are lazy and do not want to work on deciphering the blurred out flowers until it had too. If I really wanted you to clearly focus on that statue, I would take this image into Photoshop and apply a blur filter onto the flowers to make the contrast between the sharp building and the blurry flowers even greater, instead of the more subtle blur as the Depth of Field was changed from a close up shot to a distant one.
Rain Shower in the Studio by Baron Reteniz von Stillfried
Our next photograph is Rain Shower in the Studio, taken by Stillfried in 1875. This image was produced by using the Albumen process. Stillfried was born the year that the practical invention of the photography occurred, in 1839 in Austria. He was one of the earliest photographers to take images in the Asia (and even trained many Japanese to become photographers themselves).
Photography was still in its infancy (not yet even 40 years had passed when this photo was taken), and flash and color photography were not widely available. Most photographers had to set up their own studio where they could control the lighting better (early studios being on rooftops, relying on sunlight to produce their images), as well as the weather in an indoor studio. Stillfried, his partner Hermann Anderson, and their assistants would stage events in their studio (such as a rain shower) and then take the image. Some images would then be handed to their Japanese assistants to paint over the glass plate to give soft pastel colors into the image (obviously this is not one of those pieces).
Breaking it down…
Stillfried’s Rain Shower in the Studio is a little simpler in its break down. The camera captured this Japanese woman as she braves the artificial rain storm, with her in head and torso being in the most focused, and then radiating out from there, we see the image become less clear. We see that the image also loosely follows basic Rule of Thirds, with the woman being in the middle third. To contrast with Sander’s Pastry Cook, Cologne, we see that Stillfried decided to place the woman’s non-dominant eye on the major vertical third axis line. He also has the woman’s face on a point of interest (an intersection of the horizontal and vertical axis lines).
The Rule of Thirds
Three has a power of conveying stability and is aesthetically pleasing in almost all of its uses. The Rule of Thirds is a way in which artists, designers, and photographers capitalize upon that. It splits an image into nine equal grids, and where the lines of the grid intersect are points of high interest. Most will put their focal point of their composition on one of those of those points. It also breaks up the space into either three equal vertical or horizontal segments (depending upon the piece in question). In my photograph to the left, I created a symmetrical image of the building, but cropped it so that I utilized the rule of thirds to make a better use of the space in the image. The central spire lies in the middle vertical third, with the thirds on either side filled with the main building. I also marked the Leading Lines in light green, but I will get to those in just a little bit.
New Main Line at Duncannon by William Rau
Our last photograph is of William Rau’s New Main Line at Duncannon, taken in 1906. This is a gelatin silver print. Rau was an American photographer that primarily made stereo cards and panoramic photographs, and was the official photographer of the 1904 World’s Fair and the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. Rau is a perfect example of documentation photography. His main goal was to capture and document industrial development in America (such as the Pennsylvania Railroad and the World Fair). As a documentation photographer, Rau’s top priority wasn’t the art of the photograph, but rather that it was more important to document what was happening at that moment. That doesn’t mean that he didn’t pay attention to the aesthetics though- as we will are about to see.
Once we start to observe this moment of the train barreling down the tracks towards us, we see how New Main Line at Duncannon is an amazing photo (and how brave Rau had to be to stand on those tracks with the train coming at him). Looking at the light blue lines, we see that split the earth and sky into horizontal third segments. Then moving onto the light green lines, we see that the entire image is wanting us to focus on the train in the distance. The tracks, horizon, even the billow of smoke from the engine funnel our vision onto that lonesome locomotive.
When I talked about the Rule of Thirds, I mentioned that the places where the grid intersect create areas where focal points tend to lie. Sometimes, however, artists, designers, and photographers will use an alternate method to bring your eye to that focal point. It comes in handy if they decide to put that focal point outside of those points of interest. It is called Leading Lines. Their purpose is, as their name implies, are lines that may, or may not be, connected that guide the eye to an area of importance. Take my photo for example. There are no solid lines that lead to a focal point (where as Rau’s New Main Line at Duncannon have continuous lines in the form of the train tracks that lead directly to the train).
But there are Leading Lines none the less. Marked in the light green dotted lines, we see that the shape of the building, the ground stonework, the railings, etc, all guide the eye to the top of the building’s spire, right to the gold statue.
To sum up a thousand words
Photography is an important tool in a designer’s arsenal. It is imperative to to know basic photographic and design principles, such as the Rule of Thirds, Depth of Field, and Leading Lines, to create effective and successful compositions.
*If you are interested in learning more about the different photographic processes (such as learning what a silver gelatin print is), I recommend checking out George Eastman Museum’s YouTube channel. They have an amazing playlist that goes over all of that! Check it out here: https://www.youtube.com/user/GeorgeEastmanHouse