Art 100

Introduction to Digital Photography

The Digital Camera II: Image Management

Photography As Art

Somewhere well beyond paint-by-numbers, you can find oil or watercolor painting as a fine art. The camera, like the medium of paint, allows the equivalent of paint-by-numbers in what we commonly call the “snapshot.” but photography should be no more intimidated by this easy-to-do version of its medium than is true painting. Photography was connected to the fine arts from its inception. Most of the early Twentieth Century photographers were well versed in the art movements of their time and created versions of them that matched well to their medium. In fact, the “Pictorialist” movement of Stieglitz and others which rendered photographic scenes in soft focus overtly tried to duplicate the soft moods and forms of late 19th Century landscape painters. On the other hand, the “Straight Photography” movement of Adams, Weston, and Cunningham, using technically sharp focus and realistic detail, was inspired by the “Modernist” movements among artists in early 20th Century Europe. As in all fine arts, the issue lies in how the medium is intelligently manipulated and not in the medium itself.

What is fine art? The wonderful thing about it is that no one can give you a definitive answer. Literature is full of essays on art and every attempt reaches some aspect of the truth. But nothing seems to capture the entire essence. Where can we start? Clearly, photography is a visual art so it has something to do with how the photographer-artist sees the world. And here lies a potential pitfall. We naively think of “the real world” as a common object that must be seen the same by every person. Wrong (really wrong!). Everyone sees the world from a different perspective, probably even with different physical aspects, but most importantly with radically different emotional moods and tones. When we look at a series of photographic works by a particular person, we begin to understand how she/he sees the world and, if he/she is effective, we begin to share some of that vision. [See the essay Photography as Art for a wider discussion.]

The Digital Camera I dealt with the technical features of photography and all fine arts require mastery of some medium. In this essay, I will begin to deal with the part of camera work that opens the passage from technical mastery to art.

The Zone System and Beyond

Ansel Adams was passionately devoted to teaching photography as an art and he wrote numerous articles and books as well as running workshops and field studies. In the process, he developed the Zone System as a way of teaching photographers how to create exciting black and white prints. Adams believed that exciting or striking visual impressions are images that offer a wide breadth of light values --- dark blacks and very bright whites. When you examine classic Adams prints, you will see, indeed, that he was very careful to include all of these light values and to integrate them well with the geometric forms in his scenes. Our emotions respond to these values so Adams used the combination of light values and forms to call our emotions forward and help us understand something of his own emotional reaction to the scene before him. While this system was developed for black and white photography, it still has an important part to play in color photography as well.

[Perhaps this is a good place to reflect on the fact that digital photography is uniquely either black and white or color. All photography begins in a colored world, but traditional film photography requires a commitment to one kind of film or the other at the beginning. With digital photography, that choice can be made later on. In fact, one can print both color and black&white prints from the same digital file.]

The Zone System begins by visualizing the so-called “gray scale”. This is a progression of gray shades from pure black to pure white. Clearly, the progression can have as many elements as one has the patience to create, but Adams constructed a gray scale with eleven elements coordinated with the lens aperture settings, or stops. Pure black is set at 0; pure white is set at X; and the mid-scale gray is set at V. Each Zone is one stop from the next one. Camera metering systems are calibrated to see middle gray, or Zone V, as the optimum exposure. If the camera’s metering system shows that an object in the spot meter is underexposed by one stop, for example, it is measuring that object as Zone IV. [You can buy a standard "middle gray card" which is about the size of an index card and you can carry it with you.]

Zones 0 and X fall outside of the normal film capacity, and I and IX define the threshold of B&W film sensitivity. In fact, Zones II and VIII bracket the photographer's effective range of creativity because textures are only just beginning to be defined in this region. The true working range for B&W (and most color) photography is from Zone III to Zone VII. This is a range of five stops in aperture. [One should remember that a standard increment in shutter speed can always be used instead of one aperture stop, all other factors being equal.] The standard setting on SLR metering systems as well as hand-held exposure meters is the mid-scale gray or Zone V. This means that whatever object(s) you point the camera metering system onto will print as Zone V gray if you accept the camera's exposure setting. This may or may not be appropriate and that is where all of the creativity in B&W photography begins.

Having defined the Zones in terms of the gray scale, Adams discusses a method that he calls "place and fall." The principle involved here is based on the fact that almost any interesting B&W image will include objects of different luminosity. The amount of light exposure will entirely depend upon which object(s) is(are) selected for metering to the standard exposure for the film. In effect, when the metering system is placed on an object in the viewfinder and the camera's exposure recommendation is accepted, that object is being "placed" at Zone V and will print (in normal development) as the middle-scale gray. All other objects included in the image will "fall" on one or another of the other zones depending only upon how their luminosities compare to that of the target object. [If you are not sure what object(s) in a composition you want to meter the exposure to, you can set the camera's exposure by pointing the camera metering at your standard gray card and accept the camera's indicated exposure. (This presumes that the gray card is in the same lighting situation as your subject.) You must lock in that exposure before you return to compose and focus your picture.]

In color photography, the concept of "light values" is more complicated. We have the intensity of light along the gray scale (contrast) as well as the spectrum of color hews (color values). In addition, there is the relation between color and contrast which can be called brightness. When it is very bright (high intensity of light), our perception of color values is depressed; when it is less bright, we perceive the richness of color values more fully. This is measured as the color saturation. [One of the age old mistakes that people make is to place their subjects in the sun where, they think, there is lots of light. In deed, there is lots of light, but it is bright light. Colors get washed out. It is better to place subjects in less bright filtered light where colors will appear saturated (have full value). This is one reason why photographers take pictures at dawn or at sunset --- another being the dramatic sculpting effects of shadows.]

Contrast, saturation, and color values each has its own aesthetic. Contrast both elevates our emotional response and provides the sculpting effect of light within the image. Saturation enhances a "feast of color". And the color values themselves manipulate our emotions. The object is to create images that excite the eye. This means that the image offers content that is interesting and invites the eyes to explore it. It also uses light, color, and form to encourage the eyes to move about in this exploration. In the end, photography, as an art, is about seeing. The image stands as a record of how the photographer saw something and its communicative impact is that of helping others to see it as well. We are too quick to assume that the "real world" is fixed and identical for all. In point of fact, everyone sees the world differently. This is where photography transcends other visual arts --- because it is technically "true" to the real world and still effectively shows us our "personal visions".


Ansel Adams talked a great deal about a principle of image management he called "visualization". It is a subtle point but it is essential to the idea of photography as an art. The camera itself is merely a piece of equipment that is quite capable of creating negatives, transparencies, or digital files without thought --- on auto mode, even without a human photographer. The creation of an image is something different. This happens when a human visualizes a goal for which the camera's use can be put to work. The art is in the photographer's head. Photography as an art happens when we see images that differ from something that the camera itself, as mere equipment, could have put before us. What Adams asks is that we should have a rather complete idea of the image visualized in mind well before we press the shutter release.

Some of the visualization will certainly speak to the exposure issues already discussed, but one of the biggest elements of visualization is composition. Fine art photography is well beyond merely "snapping pictures." We must ask ourselves, "What is the subject of this picture? How do I see the subject?" Having paused just for that moment of reflection, we have opened the path to "the art work" --- that is, to the unfolding of images as products of reflective work.

One of the very best ways to learn about image management, in this sense, is to experience the art works of others first hand. You can go to art exhibitions, visit museums, read artist's portfolios, and view Web Sites. Ask yourself what the artist's subject is and, as you do this, take note of the compositional elements the artist used to point to the subject and develop your interest in it. As an example, visit this Web Site of Annie Leibovitz's portraiture. Portraits are, of course, about people; the subject is obvious. But notice how Leibovitz uses specific poses and environments to develop your interest in the person as well as to make both emotional and factual statements about the person. [These images are from a wonderful portfolio by Leibovitz on women, published along with an essay by Susan Sontag (Random House: November 1999).]

Let's consider space first. A photographic image is inherently two-dimensional; however, a photograph can include elements that clearly lead your eye into the picture and evoke a sense of three dimensions. As an example of a three-dimensional image, explore Leibovitz's portrait of Alice Waters. She has used dark colors and shadows (table front, red wine, dress, and tree trunks) to define a two-dimensional surface within which the subject sits. The mood is reflective and sensual. At the same time, she has included strong highlights in the sky and blossoms in the tree branches, inviting the eye to move into the deep background space. These are balanced by the light values in the subject's hands, face, and table surface. The eye tends to rest on larger light areas so there is a tension between the background and the subject foreground. Notice also that Leibovitz carefully used a shallow depth of field so that the background objects would be out-of-focus. They are usefully there to develop space but they do not compete or interfere with the subject. As a result, we see Waters in perfect reflective peace, an aesthetic vision, appreciating a glass of wine in an organic (orchard) setting. Look carefully, too, at the way she has disposed the principal objects of the foreground two-dimensional image --- the table, the wine glass, Waters herself, and the tree trunks. Why is there so much openness in Waters' pose? Why is the wine glass placed so far away from Waters? How does the tree anchor this tension between the person and the table? Notice how these factors contribute to the "energy" in the portrait.

Having selected a particular subject, one's impulse is simply "to take the picture" without visualizing the image. Visualization requires us to think through how we see the subject and, hence, what it is about the subject that interests us. Placement of the camera will make the subject appear in quite different ways, especially when a particular placement brings other objects into the field of view. It may also yield quite different shadows and highlights, depending on illumination, and these will help to sculpt the subject's dimensions. A good exercise is to take a largish number of pictures of the same subject, trying to change your approach to the subject with different pictures. There are infinitely many points in space surrounding the subject where the camera might be located. Which ones offer the best approach? What is your emotional reaction to different ways of viewing the subject? Are there other objects in the scene whose inclusion can help sculpt the subject or help you say something about the subject?

Here is another portrait, this one by Ansel Adams --- Gottardo Piazzoni in his studio. Adams chose to photograph Piazzoni in the context of his work and used the scaffolding in combination with the mural being painted to build the space in which the artist is posed. Piazzoni himself is viewed starkly from the left side with his head somewhat bowed. There is a single light source coming from the upper left so that the focus of attention is on the art work and the artist. Within it all, Adams has succeeded in conveying the artist as quietly reflective. (Notice how Adams used all of the light values in the Zone System to enhance the dramatic character of his portrait.)

Let's look at one of Edward Weston's famous pepper photographs. There are two objects in this image --- the pepper and the flat surface on which it stood. A small portion of the surface is included so that both the shadow and the illuminated part can help build the dimensionality of the image. All the rest of the sculpting is done with light and shadow on the pepper itself. What is your response to the pepper? Does it appear to be two figures rather than one? Are the figures fighting? Dancing? Notice the tension but also notice how the roundness of the features gives it a melodic quality.

A very different image is Ansel Adams's well known photograph of Mt. Williamson, taken from Manzanar, Owens Valley, California. Adams chose to photograph the mountain from the middle of a stream bed flowing east away from it. He also mounted his camera close to the ground so that the boulders in the stream bed would be emphasized. As a consequence, we have a good sense of the distance between us and the mountain. Notice that he took the photograph later in the day so that the sunlight strikes the boulders from the northwest and illuminates only small portions of their surfaces. This gives us a good sense of their size and shape. (Imagine how the dramatic character of these objects would be changed if the sun were in back of you fully illuminating them.) Notice also how the sandy stream bed curves off to the right and balances the "heaviness" of the boulders in the immediate foreground. He has also avoided making the mountain itself appear to be a lifeless backdrop by taking the picture when it is "dressed" in clouds and so that the strong streak of sunlight helps to maintain its dimensionality.

Adams was also fascinated by architecture and his photograph of the arches in the North Court of the Mission San Xavier del Bac, Arizona, is another fine example of how objects can be assembled in a photographic image to reveal three-dimensional space. Rather than picturing the mission from a distance so that the whole building can be seen, Adams moved into the Court and pictured the principal elements through the arches of the Court. Not only do the arches, gates, and walls help to define the three-dimensional space, but the strong sunlight from Adams's left also sculpts the objects by dividing the image into light and dark surfaces. This image is a wonderful example of how the viewer's eyes can be led into and through a photograph. You rest on the light surfaces and move past the dark ones. Wherever your eye rests there is some object that points the way to another place in the image.

Color can also be used as an element of composition. In this digital image of flowers, Stephen Johnson has used the brightly colored orange flowers to help define the three-dimensional space encompassed by the vine as it climbs a tree trunk. He also uses the size of the green leaves in the foreground to accentuate distance to the trunk. In another digital photo by Stephen Johnson, the scope of a desert scene near Chaco Canyon is emphasized as much by the broad expanses of color as by the geometric elements in the composition. It is an extremely simple composition and he has placed the foreground butte on the far left in order to encourage our eyes to move into the great distance toward the mountain in the background. The linear streaks of clouds and the large expanse of blue sky, in combination with the dark foreground desert shrubs, conveys the enormous expanse we are viewing.

In summary, photography as an art is really a matter of constructing images. Having chosen a subject, the photographer positions the camera so as to include various objects, surfaces, and lines which will help our eyes move where he/she wants us to see. Light, shadow, and color can also be deployed to help our eyes and to develop emotional content.