I hate math. Always have. I need a calculator to add 3 + 4 which is funny when you think about it. I enjoy science–just not the math part, which I learned in college is a pretty substantial component of any scientific pursuit. I specialize in my law practice in Estate and Business Planning and Taxation issues. There is a fair amount of math there. Fortunately, it is generally simple math that my calculator and I are able to handle recently well. Complex algebra, geometry and beyond are what has always befuddled me.
What does math or science have to do with photography? In my last blog, I argued that photography is indeed art. Art and math couldn’t be more different—right? Right brain vs. left brain. Well, students of art will confirm that my statement is just wrong. The great classic artists were, as often as not, also talented mathematicians and scientists.
Don’t get me wrong. The technical matter is critically important. No matter how “left brain” you are, if you cannot get the technical part right, the image will not be successful. But the art of photography, in my view, presupposes that you have conquered that phase to an acceptable extent, and the technical has become reflexive.
But whether or not I like it, math permeates art. Recently, I have begun to significant attention to pictorial composition in my own photography. In particular, I am trying to apply the concept of balance to my imagery. Traditional art instruction teaches us about the concepts of “golden mean,” “golden spiral,” “rule of thirds,” triangles, and curves. I am trying to apply these principles in terms of balance. All are geometry and physics related. And, the art of composition, I have learned must take these mathematical concepts into consideration. In each image, the composer must take into consideration both horizontal and vertical balance. If a particular element of the image is visually substantial (this may be relative size, color, brightness, texture or contrast), some other part of the image must balance it, either in terms of being equally substantive, or by its distance from the visually dominant element. This can be a challenge in terms of trying to determine which elements of the scene to include and which to exclude. In the image above, the long “arm” leading to the left “balances” the large mass in the lower right (this is a concept classic artists call the “steel yard “), giving horizontal balance. At the same time, the reflections of the clouds in the water gives the image a certain vertical balance.
Often, nature is not totally cooperative in placing the elements as we might like them. Having interesting skies, for example is paramount to an image which includes the sky. Sky is often necessary element in the grand landscape and gives us a sense of necessary perspective. The clouds trailing into the horizon on the Stowe Barn give balance to an image that just would not “do it for me” if the sky was a clear blue mass.
When composing using the rule of thirds, the graphic artist may have the advantage of being able to sketch his creation with perspective lines, fitting the elements of the image into the rule. As photographers, we have the challenge of trying to fit the rule onto elements that are already placed by nature. But there is good news here. These “rules” are almost universally based on the observation of some very talented classic artists of what often appears in nature. So, the compositional elements will often already be in our image. Our challenge is finding, and applying them. The curve of clouds in the sky in this photo mirrors the curve in the water in the foreground, creating vertical balance, while the sweep of the “S” curve from the lower left into the upper right creates horizontal balance in this image.