When I was a young physician one of the professors I studied under was also a very enthusiastic creative. He dabbled in a wide variety of arts, painting, music, even acting. He was always someone I knew would appreciate the aesthetic side of the medical photography I was doing at the time, but he’d never seen any of my photographs outside of medicine. He lived not far from where I was living with my parents and one day I visited his home to share the broader strokes of my photography.
As a medical academic he too made many documentary images but was not an artistic photographer. Yet one thing he did during that afternoon visit struck with me. It was from his background in drawing and painting. I thought it very odd at the time, but understand in retrospect the value of the insight.
Each time I’d lay out a new photograph, he’d look at it a few moments then turn it 90 degrees, 180, 270, rotating until it was back to the original perspective. These weren’t abstract images. They included cityscapes, landscapes, any and everything to which my eclectic eye was drawn. The first time he did it I was totally baffled. Why turn a colorful building shot in the Caribbean upside down for viewing?
“Good composition works at any angle”, he said. “If you look at objects seeing only their shapes rather than what they represent then how they are arranged represents the true composition. If the composition is good then while the dynamics may change meaning as you change the angle of viewing, the composition can still be effective.”
I guess any photographer who has worked with a view camera recognizes this in an instant, for under the hood gazing at the ground glass the image about to be made is inverted and backwards. Yet the photographer can judge effective composition just as well.
What’s less obvious is how changing the rotation of a photograph can completely alter the visual dynamics and emotional impact. The rotation can occur in the field by rotating the camera or during post-processing in the computer. Sometimes the change is intentional, sometimes accidental. The result can be subtle or profound. Skilled perception of this aspect of perspective can be a powerful creative tool at any stage of the photographic workflow.
Because many people know of my interest in photography they often want to share images. My dentist showed me a photo he’d made on a recent trip. I made a few general constructive suggestions and his curiosity seemed piqued, so I asked him to email me the image and let me work it to show what I meant. Beyond the changes in processing that I wanted to illustrate, I also suggested he consider the impact of viewing the content from a different angle.
Here was his original…
Here was how I reprocessed his image and re-visioined it as a vertical.
What do you think of the difference? He loved the vertical and said, “I never would have thought of rotating it!”
A while back I led a Pop Photo Mentor Series Trek into New York’s Grand Central Station in the afternoon. During a free moment I happened to notice the long shadows created by the low afternoon sun pouring through the high windows. Deciding to play with the abstract human forms I shot numerous efforts to capture meaningful fleeting compositions. When I looked at the images later I was totally unimpressed. Every photographer knows this feeling. Something intrigues you in the field but back home loses it’s luster in the translation into two dimensions. The images remained in electronic limbo until the other night.
I was actually cleaning house on my hard drive. Skipping through Lightroom deleting images with no redeeming quality to free up space. I don’t delete often but some images won’t ever be missed. Trust me. As my eye ran over these rows of boxed shadow forms, one frame caught my eye. I had intentionally tried to use tight framing to cut off the people and capture only their shadows and was relatively successful in that regard. As I looked at this one frame, out of the past came my medical professor’s voice, “Good composition works at any angle.” I flipped the image 180 degrees… and felt the room shift as the emotional value of what I saw went from 0-60 in milliseconds.
The direction of the light and the visual animation of the shadow figures created something with huge psychological overtones. This is not a photo style I actively pursue but I can’t deny the impact of the altered perspective.
Is this significant for every image? Certainly not, at least not to this extreme. But once you’re sensitized to the influence that minor and major variations in frame rotation can impart I don’t see how it can do anything but good for your creative vision. If you’re game, turn the world on it’s end or upside down. You may be surprised by what you see.
Mark Alberhasky is a Nikon Mentor for the Mentor Series Worldwide Photo Treks.
Join him as he travels and share his enthusiasm for photography and learning.