The Tuesday Composition: Visual Echoes

Backlit Foliage, North Falls
Backlit Foliage. North Falls

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As we discussed last week, centered compositions often describe or emphasize a relationship between one half of an image and another. “What’s similar between these two?”  “What’s different?”  These compositions succeed because the image itself provides the answer to this questions. Reflections are a simple example of this,  answering  “it’s all the same”, making the relationship between the reflection and the reflected object a subject of the photograph.

But simple reflections and symmetries aren’t the only place (by far) where images take on life because of visual relationships we create between parts of an image. I refer to these visual relationships “echoes.”  These visual echoes, like reflections, invite us to compare and contrast. But they can take on others forms as well, based on correspondences between line, form, texture and/or color.

Simple repetitions of line and form are the easiest echoes to notice. Backlit Foliage, North Falls practically screams a simple relationship between two branches with their almost-reflected Y-shapes. Besides the visually appealing aspect of that reflection, the similarity between the two branching points instantly makes the connection between them. We don’t have to think “out loud” that they are the same tree, we simply know it by observing the relationship (as well as their physical  proximity). Few if any viewers of this image will ever say to themselves “these two branches are part of the same plant,” but the message comes through nonetheless.

Afternoon Light Shafts, Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Afternoon Light Shafts, Snæfellsnes Peninsula

Because we assimilate visual echoes so intuitively, they are often a great tool for simplifying an image. Afternoon Light Shafts, Snæfellsnes Peninsula uses this effect. The four or five light shafts echo each other so directly that we think of them much less as individual shafts (shaft A and shaft B and shaft C…) than we do as “a group of shafts”, each only mildly differentiated by their contrast, brightness and slope.

Consider a hypothetical image with a group of five very different things– in shape, form, color and line–it would be far more complex, it would be, well, messy.  This isn’t.

Rock Bubbles, Pebble Beach
Rock Bubbles, Pebble Beach

Visual echoes can also be effective when they establish a relationship between different kinds of things. The result is usually a compositional simile. Rock Bubbles illustrates this, finding a similarity primarily between the texture of the rock and the textures in the cloud above. Composing the image so that those textures (as well as the close curves of each near the other) echo each other highlights not only that similarity, but also the contrasts in color (yellow vs. blue),  tone (light clouds vs. dark bubbles), and weight (light clouds vs. heavy rock). The echo here invites us into all these comparisons.

Pond and Drake's Estero, Point Reyes. Echoes don't have to be overt to be effective.
Pond and Drake's Estero, Point Reyes. Echoes don't have to be overt to be effective.

Echoes do not need to be as obvious as these.  Pond and Drake’s Estero, Point Reyes works largely because of a visual echo–but rather than being so direct, the primary visual relationship between the pond and the estuary is simply that it’s an enclosed area. (That they are both enclosed areas of water helps the comparison along. Once the visual echo has provoked us to compare the pond with the estuary, we see the different levels of contrast and saturation between the two, and immediately perceive differences in distances (and sizes, as well). The enormous difference in the distances between us and those two subjects really highlights the depth and scale of this mountain vista. This weak echo helps us “read” a greater sense of distance and size into the image.

Again, these ideas are rarely things I thought about explicitly when I was out photographing. Pond and Drake’s Estero was a quick, grab shot I made during a photo workshop I was giving in Pt. Reyes. I found the image intuitively. Understanding these ideas is just part of the process of building your own intuition and vision.

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