Years ago I had a Rhodesian Ridgeback that I took with me on a backpacking trip. He had his own backpack (saddlebags really) with food and a bed roll to keep him warm at night. Everything was going great until we stepped out into a meadow and spotted a pair of moose a couple of hundred yards off grazing in the wetlands down by a stream. He took off bounding across the grass with the saddlebags flapping like wings.
It was close to an hour before I saw him again… and when I did, he was missing his backpack.
There wasn’t much I could do about the lost pack so we headed on down the trail toward our destination and what was going to be a cold, hungry night for him. Soon something caught my eye, a pop of red and yellow color in a forest of green, 80 yards off the trail. I had to back up a bit, do a second take, and then bushwhack through the brush but sure enough it was his pack; skewered on a broken branch of a downed tree that he’d ducked under.
Our vision has been tuned over millennia to help ensure our survival. When viewing an image we’re visually drawn to human forms, regions of sharpness, areas of high tonal contrast and pops of color.
Consider this image of St. George’s Tron in Glasgow, Scotland.
(Canon 5DMII, EF24-105 @ 105mm, 1/180s, f5.6, ISO 100)
As a photographer my job is to direct your gaze at what I want you to see; in this image it’s the church. I am able to accomplish some visual direction through the lines in the photograph that I used when lining up the shot. These lines (the sidewalks and building tops) create visual flow that directs and draws your gaze toward the center of the image where you visually settle on the church.
The problem with this rendering is that there are other elements pulling your attention out and away from St. George’s Tron. The bright red pops of color in the bottom half of the image distract and draw our attention down away from the building. The blue areas on the left (scaffolding) and right (trailer/dumpster) act similarly, as does the yellow sign in the lower left.
When composing this image there was little I could do about those distractions so I shot the image as you see it here (well, I cropped and straightened it) and then addressed these other distractions in post-processing.
Here’s the final image.
So what did I do?
Well, obviously I converted it to monochrome. The real subject of the image is the buildings, particularly the church. In the first rendering you’ll notice that the buildings are almost completely monochrome already. The things that are not are the ones that distract from the scene. By converting it to monochrome I’ve eliminated all the pops of color that were drawing the viewer’s attention from the central theme.
Additionally, I’ve added both a tonal and focal vignette; darkening and blurring the edges of the image. Visually we are drawn to areas of highest tonal contrast (differences between light and dark). The tonal vignette therefore ensures that the highest tonal contrast areas are located on the front of the church. Visually we avoid focusing on areas that are blurry. The focal vignette blurs the edges of the image encouraging our gaze to return to the center should we venture away from the church.
These two contrast changes assist the lines of flow to create a much stronger image. One that directs and hold our attention on St. George’s Tron and conveys my vision and impression of the scene when I was standing there in the street.
The first image might be described as an image of a street scene. The second rendering is clearly a picture of a church.