Kirk Marshall Photography Kirk Marshall Photography


Flow to Contrast

October 15th, 2019

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. 


October 8th, 2019

Before we talk about contrast as it relates to flow, let’s address contrast in a general sense. 

Contrast is the holy grail of photography. It’s what makes an image an image. Without contrast we’d be looking at a solid, square of uniformly colored space. And while that maybe considered art in a broad definition of the term, it’s probably not why we picked up a camera and starting shooting.  

There are four basic types of contrast: tonal, focal, textural and color. It is through careful use of one or more of these types of contrast that we share our view and feelings about the subjects we shoot.  

Tonal contrast refers to the light and dark values that are used to create an image. 


(Canon Rebel XSi, EF-S15-85 @ 35mm, 1/125s, f22, ISO 100)

In this picture, of snow banks along a small creek, the image is constructed almost entirely of strong tonal contrast. The dark water of the creek juxtaposed against the white snow banks is the major theme of the image. 


(Canon Rebel XSi, EF50, 1/90s, f2.5, ISO 1600)

Focal contrast refers to the use of sharpness and blur within an image. 

In this image, taken at Old Mission San Jose, CA, the main subject is a figure of Christ and the surroundings have been blurred and fractured to give some limited context to the scene while not detracting from the central subject. 

(In the upper-right of the picture you can see what looks like a dinner plate or shallow bowl on the wall. The object is covered with small glass mirrors and has a candle holder in front of it. It was used to illuminate the hall before the advent of electric lights. I pointed my lens at one of these reflector dishes at close range to shoot this image.)


(Fujifilm X100T, 23mm, 1/40s, f8, ISO 500)

Textural contrast refers to the use of textures to create an image. In this picture of a forest scene, the main story is the variety of textures in the fore, middle and backgrounds. 

Lastly, an image can be constructed using color contrast. 


(Sony α7RII, FE 24-70 @ 70mm, 1/200s, f11, ISO 100)

The interest in this image of a field of tulips is largely due to the color contrast between the green plants and red flowers. The small black and white inset shows the same image desaturated and the visual interest is mostly gone. 

No image is purely one type of contrast. The tonal contrast image (first image) has some textural characteristics and both the focal and textural examples clearly have some tonal contrast too. All images employ a mixture of contrast types and each of the types contribute to the overall interest of the image. 

Elements of Flow

October 1st, 2019

There are at least two elements that influence a viewer’s scan of an image: lines and contrast. Lines are elements of movement, guiding or directing the flow through the image; points of contrast are the elements that provide resting points. 

Consider this image of the steps leading down from the Wat Khao Chong Kaeo temple in Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thailand. 


(Canon 5DMII, EF24-105 @ 75mm, 1/50s, f8.0, ISO 100)

The bright white banisters along the stairs lead the viewer’s gaze from the lower part of the image through the center and up to the small building at the top of the image. At the building the banisters stop and consequently so does our flow. In this image there are real, solid lines that direct our gaze through the image. 

Now consider this image of a waterfall in the Cordillera Huayhuash of Peru.


(Canon 5DMII, EF24-105 @ 28mm, 1/6s, f11, ISO 100)

In this image we find our gaze resting on the small rock in the middle of the waterfall just up and left of the center of the image. There are no strong, hard lines like in the previous example but there are implied lines that are influencing our experience of the image. As our eyes wander about, exploring the textures and contrasts, these implied lines keep bringing our attention back to that central rock. 

Some of these lines are strong, short and straight, like the thin and very straight line of water in the upper right, and others are very vague and fractured like the long division between the water and rock that curves from the lower right corner up and left to the center of the image. Many of them work to keep our focus within the image and draw our view into the center. 

Here’s one more image, of my grandson at a lake in Missouri. 


(Canon Rebel XSi, EF50, 1/750s, f6.7, ISO 200)

In this image the flow directs our gaze from his face to some point on the shoreline. In this image there are no lines, real or implied. There’s just his intent focus on whatever it is that has caught his interest, but even as an imaginary line it’s enough to add some flow to the image and cause us to scan for whatever it is he’s looking at. 

Next time you’re looking through your lens think about the image you’re trying to capture and try to add energy, movement and dynamics into the two dimensional scene with lines, real or implied, that guide the viewers gaze through the image.


September 24th, 2019

We don’t just look at a photography, we scan it. Our eyes move through an image following real or imagined lines searching for places to rest. That pattern of eye movement is called flow and it is the responsibility of the photographer to direct and lead the viewer’s gaze through the image.

Flow helps create the perception of three dimensional space within the two dimensional image and imbues energy, movement and dynamics into a flat, static print. 

Consider this image of daffodils on the hills at Ebey’s Landing, WA. 


(Sony α7RII, FE 24-70 @ 36mm, 1/250, f9.0, ISO 400)

When I look at this image I initially focus on the bright flowers; but then I’m drawn into the image following the shoreline into the upper right where it fades to grey and merges with the clouds. My scan of the image takes just a fraction of a second and if I’m not paying attention I’d miss the movement completely. Even though the movement is brief, it has the desired effect on the viewer and creates an energy that helps make the image more interesting. 

The image above has a rather simple theme and subject matter and hence the flow is also rather simple. Other images with multiple subjects or focal points might have a much more complex pattern of flow.

Spend some time looking at several images; they can be your own or someone else’s, maybe on Facebook or Instagram. As you look at them notice how your gaze moves through and scans over the image. What draws your eye through the frame? Where does your focus come to rest? 

The next time you pick up a camera think about the scene you’re trying to capture, try and work toward a composition that has flow that captures the viewer’s interest. 

Tension Modes

September 10th, 2019

We can introduce tension into our images using a number of mechanisms or modes. 

In my last post I talked about creating tension through the placement of our subject or focal point. The closer the subject or focal point is to the center of the image the less tension will be present in the image. Moving the subject or focal point away from the center creates increasing levels of tension.  

Part of the tension that’s introduced when we decenter the subject is due to the imbalance that’s created. Consider this image from the Reichstag Building in Berlin, Germany. 


(Canon 5DMII, EF24-70 @ 60mm, 1/200s, f11, ISO 1250)

The people in the image have been placed on the right side of the image which induces tension through their placement (placement tension); like the marble hovering up the side of the bowl (see blog post from Sep 3). Additional tension is also present due to the comparatively dark tonal values on the right side of the image (tonal tension). These dark values are visually heavier and induce feelings in the viewer that the weight should drag down that side of the frame. 

While the horizontal placement of elements seems to have the greatest effect on balance and tension, vertical placement has an effect as well, though it may be more subtle. In this image of the Carillon in Berlin, Germany there are several modes of tension acting on the viewer. 


(Carillon, Canon 5DMII, EF24-105 @ 105mm, 1/160s, f11, ISO 100)

The most noticeable tension is the placement of the Carillon itself, left of center. But there are also elements of tension through the vertical location of elements, or rather the division between elements. The division between the trees and the sky is about a third up from the bottom and the top of the Carillon placed about a third down from the top. The placement of these divisions adds tension that wouldn’t be there if they were placed centrally. There is also a strong tonal and textural imbalance between the light, smooth sky and the darker, leafy trees. 

As a photographer understanding tension and being able to architect the right amount of tension to convey your vision is key to composing an image you’ll be proud of. 


September 2nd, 2019

Another basic concept in image composition is tension. What is tension and how does it relate to photography? 

When the Microsoft Windows XP development team contacted Charles O'Rear about his image Bliss (see my blog post from Aug 6) he reportedly thought "Were they looking for an image that was peaceful? Were they looking for an image that had no tension?“ (

To understand tension, imagine a bowl and a marble. If you take the marble and release it near the upper lip of the bowl it’s going to roll down the side and eventually settle and stop right in the middle of the bowl. The center of the bowl is a static place of rest and peace for the marble. If sometime later you walked by the bowl and caught it out of the corner of your eye, you’d see the marble at rest in the bottom, center of the bowl and think ‘all is as it should be’. But, if you walked by and saw the marble NOT in the center but saw it half-way up toward the rim, you’d do a double-take. You’d have to stop and look closely and ask ‘WTF, how is it doing that?’ That’s tension; something that is not at rest or out of balance. Tension is the something that captures and holds a viewers attention.

Consider these two images.  


(Canon 5DMII, EF24-105 @ 24mm, 1/180s, f13, ISO 100)

In this first image Pippa is the focal point and I’ve positioned her dead-center, like the marble in the bottom of the bowl. Creating a restful feeling and an image with very little tension. 


(Canon 5DMII, EF24-105 @ 58mm, 1/400s, f5.6, ISO 800)

Now consider this image of a Thai vendor trying to sell her wares to tourists. The vendor with her wares dominates the center of the image and the tourists are cornered by her along the left edge. The image is very out of balance and–I hope–conveys the tension and pressure a tourist feels at the onslaught of the horde of vendors at any tourist attraction.  

Many of the compositional ‘rules’ of photography are designed to help you as the photographer capture tension in your imagery. The rule of thirds suggests putting your subject or focal point about one third of the distance in from one edge. Supposedly this creates an ‘optimal’ about of tension; not too much, not too little

Should all photographs have tension? Clearly the answer is ‘no’. Bliss is virtually tensionless and yet sold for a large, but undisclosed, sum. If you’ve been commissioned to provide photographs for a dentist office, it’s probably best to minimize tension, the patient experiences enough just sitting in the chair. 

On the other hand, if you’re photographing environmental abuses you probably want to maximize tension to unsettle your viewers and motivate them to action. 

How much tension is enough? I think right amount is whatever it takes to convey the photographer’s vision and mood.

Compositional Ideas

August 27th, 2019


When I started out, I’d get my prints back (this was back before digital) and look at the images and think ‘why did I take this picture?’ ‘What about this scene captured my interest?’ And then I’d look closer and see the tiny speck of the subject that I was trying to capture.  Over time I learned the lesson that Robert Capa said best with “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

If the subject of the image isn’t prominent enough the resulting image is weak and the viewer is left wondering what they’re looking at. Now, as I look at my photographs I find that the ones I like best have a strong, prominent subject that occupies at least a third of the image height or width.

This image from a canyoneering trip in southern Utah illustrates my point. The two rappellers are the subject of the image and so they are prominently featured in the image. I’ve kept them large enough so that it’s clear the image is about them and left enough context so that the viewer get’s an idea of where they are and what they’re doing.


Figure / Ground

Another reason that we might dislike a photo we’re reviewing is due to poor figure/ground separation. The figure/ground relationship can be thought of as the contrast between positive space, the figure, and negative space, the ground or background.  

This image strongly illustrates the figure/ground relationship. The three kids are the figure (positive space) while the water is the ground (negative space). 


(Three Sibs on a SUP, Canon 5DMII, EF70-300 @ 195mm, 1/125s, f9.0, ISO 400)

The following image is a more subtle example. 

A few years ago I spent a week Oregon and was fascinated by the moss growing everywhere. (I live in southern Utah; we don’t have much green.) Try as I might I couldn’t get an image that I liked. All my images were of vertical brown tree trunks covered with moss. There was so much verticality in the images that nothing stood out. And then I found this scene.  The horizontal branches break up the mass of verticality and create a figure that has some separation from the ground.  


(Mossy Branches, Canon 5DMII, EF24-105 @ 96mm, 1/40s, f7.1, ISO 800)


As a photographer we’re responsible for EVERYTHING within the frame of our images. 

If a branch is encroaching on the blue sky in the upper right corner of the image it’s going to create a distraction for the viewer and draw their attention from the subject toward the edge of the image and allow their attention to move out of the frame. Tree branches, road signs, trash, bright objects, etc. can all create distractions and draw attention away from the subject and cause an image to be rejected. 

If we keep these ideas in mind while shooting we can eliminate them by repositioning ourselves or otherwise removing the distraction from the image and thus ensure that the resulting image isn’t rejected after the fact.  


August 20th, 2019

Oh my! So much has been said about composition as it relates to photography that I hesitate to even broach the subject; but since this is a blog about photography, broach it I must.

The first decision you have to make as a photographer is ‘what am I going to photograph?’ Photographers shoot anything and everything from galaxies to molecules, so the answer really is you can photograph whatever you want. 

Typically, we start out shooting something/anything that captures our interest, a sunset, a mountain, a funky house, a cute girl/boy, the cat, etc. Some of the pictures we like, some we reject. The key to improving our photography and taking better pictures is taking the time to understand why we like some but not others. 

But before we talk about possible reasons why we like one image and not another, let’s talk about subjects and focal points. 

The subject of an image considers the whole scene. The focal point is something unique, usually small, that breaks the scene and calls attention to a specific area of the image. These concepts are probably most easily explained through examples. 

In this image the subject is the Huayhuash mountain range in Peru. The focal point is Mitch. 


(Fujifilm X100T, 23mm, 1/160s, f11,  ISO 200, IR Conversion)

The subject of this image is my family’s 4th of July celebration, the focal point is my nephew’s grass stalk. 


(Samsung SGH-N919, 4.2mm, 1/120s, f2.2, ISO 80)

In this last image the subject is clearly the colorful hills of Paria, Utah; the focal point is the truck.

(Canon 5DMMII, EF70-300 @ 220mm, 1/25s, f8.0, ISO 400)

Not all images have a focal point, but they all must have a subject. 

Metering and Exposure Compensation

August 13th, 2019

There are several camera settings that allow us to control or adjust how a scene is metered. 

Most middle to upper end cameras include several metering mode options that control how much and which parts of a scene are used to assess the light intensity. The most basic of these metering options uses the entire visible scene to evaluate the exposure; this mode gives equal weight to the middle, edges and corners of the scene. Another mode, sometimes called spot metering, only uses the center of the image, sometimes the spot is as little as 1% of the total scene. Most cameras that include the ability to adjust metering have other options that fall somewhere in between these two modes. 

Using the appropriate metering mode for the subject that you are shooting will help you get closer to an optimal image. For example: when shooting a wide landscape I probably would want to use a mode that takes into account the full scene. On the other hand when shooting an event where there is a strong central subject (see Faceplant below) I would most likely use spot metering to ensure the exposure on the subject was spot-on and not care about the less important edges and corners.

(Faceplant, Oakley Rodeo; Canon 5DMII, EF70-300 @ 135, 1/125s, f6.7, ISO 6400)

Another option to control the metering of a scene is exposure compensation. As I stated previously, by default the camera attempts to achieve middle grey for the exposure. Using the exposure compensation setting allows you to tell the camera to purposefully under or over expose an image. 

The exposure compensation setting is frequently present on the camera as a dial labelled -2, -1, 0, +1, +2. Setting the camera to 0 (zero) allows the camera to do it’s default thing and try and adjust to middle grey. Adjusting the dial to -1 tells the camera to adjust the target from middle grey to one full stop darker. (Recall one full stop is a halving/doubling of the light.) Conversely, adjusting to +1 will tell the camera to make the image lighter by one full stop. When shooting a winter snow scene using a setting of +1 or +2 will ensure that the snow is rendered whiter than middle grey.  

(Canon 5DMII, EF16-35 @ 30mm, 1/1000s, f6.3, ISO 250)

Understanding how your camera interprets the light intensity of a scene is the first step to achieving a keeper image. Using the most appropriate metering mode and, if needed, adjusting the exposure compensation setting will help get you closer to expressing your vision. 

Metering to Middle Grey

August 6th, 2019

When you point your camera at a subject with the camera in auto mode it evaluates the various light intensities across the scene and attempts to determine the proper settings to achieve a balance between the light and dark regions. It tries to determine settings that will produce middle grey in the resulting photograph. 

Middle grey is a tone that is perceptually about halfway between black and white. Middle grey is defined as a tone that reflects 18% of visible light. Oddly enough green grass and blue skies both translate to values very close to middle grey.

This photograph by Charles O’Rear illustrates my point. (The image was used by Microsoft as the desktop background for Windows XP. Due to the pervasiveness of Windows XP this might be the most viewed photograph in the history of photography.)

Here it is again converted to black and white using the saturation slider in Lightroom.

The tones in the sky and grass are very similar and close to middle grey (some variances exist but hopefully you get my point). 

Letting the camera do it’s thing and adjust to middle grey works great most of the time but middle grey isn’t always desirable. Sometimes you want your photograph to be lighter than middle grey. If you’re shooting a winter snow scene allowing the camera to produce middle grey is going to result in grey snow which doesn’t match our expectations and will result–most of the time–in an unappealing image. On the other hand if you’re shooting the night sky and the milky way, allowing the camera to auto adjust to middle grey is going to render the blackness of empty space too light, again resulting in an inaccurate representation of what our eyes see and most likely an unappealing image.

Next week I’ll talk about two of the settings that allow us some control over how the camera adjusts to the light intensity on the subject we’re shooting.