Departing from the Literal Image

by Mark Graf | March 31, 2010

© Mark GrafAnyone with interest in improving their photography can attest to how part of the challenge is simply to capture an image as seen through their eyes. How many times have we thought to ourselves, “I didn’t see that soda can next to my waterfall!” or “All of my whites are completely blown out (overexposed)” and the familiar “If that bird would have just sat still for the moment, I would have an image of its face instead of its rear end!!!!”

We know that film (or imaging chip for that matter) does not have the ability to capture the range of tones that our eyes are capable of processing, and many of the fundamentals of photography are rooted in this. Understanding the way film “sees” versus our own perceptions is essential. We fret over exposure values, sharpness, and getting the subject in just the right composition if it would just stand still. For many images, photography is very documentary, simply recording what was there, hopefully in good light with a pleasing composition. Not an easy task in itself when it comes to wildlife and many nature subjects.

Pond in fall © Mark Graf

Original medium; Fuji Velvia film, multiple exposure (2) of a pond in Fall.

There exists another realm in photography that departs from the literal, documentary type of image – one that uses light and color in their raw form on an imaginary palette. You, as the painter, use light and throw it on your canvas of film (or any medium) using the characteristics of optics in your lenses as your brush. The word photography itself has its original meaning of “painting with light.” Think about that in its most basic form – actually taking a light beam and throwing it on a canvas. The subject matter could be almost anything, and the resulting image not necessarily a depiction of reality, but one of emotion, movement, spirituality, and whatever your imagination can dream up. The result is often a subjective, impressionistic type of image, free from the constraints of actually trying to replicate what you saw with your eyes, and more a representation of how you feel and your imagination.

Fringed gentian © Mark Graf

Original medium; Kodak E100VS, shallow depth of field, Fringed Gentian

So how do you go about doing this? Well, in contrast to many photography guides and books that teach you how to capture what you saw, there is no manual, there are no rules. Of course the fundamentals of composition still exist in creating an interesting image for your viewers to look at. A blob on the page may ultimately look just like that – a blob on a page. There are many tools available for you to use as your brushes. Here are a few tools to consider and questions you might ask yourself:

  • Multiple Exposures: What would your subject look like if it were placed on top of itself 10 times over under different conditions (focal length, camera movements, focus, shutter speeds, etc)
  • Camera or Subject Movement: Nature photographers would rather lose their right leg instead of their tripod at times, what if you just went with the movement of the situation?
  • Optics: Our eyes have a tremendous amount of depth of field, the amount that is considered to be “in focus.” Lenses have limitations in comparison. Don’t see it as a disadvantage but another way of “seeing” your subjects
  • Graphic Elements and Color: Don’t overlook basic compositional elements of line, form, texture, and color – sometimes they can become the subject by themselves.
 Gray headed coneflowers © Mark Graf

Original medium; Fuji Provia F, multiple exposures (2), Gray Headed Coneflowers

This should not discourage you from making those literal shots. They can be quite remarkable in telling a story, depicting the behavior of wildlife, or even isolating intimate details. The options are really endless, only bounded by your imagination and creativity. Most of all, it allows you to grow and explore another aspect of photography, possibly creating more personal images than you ever imagined.

Departing from the literal image may give you more ideas when you think you have exhausted all other possibilities.

 Fall leaf pile © Mark Graf

Original medium; Fuji Velvia film, multiple exposures (10), Fall leaf pile

About the Author

Mark Graf is a photographer from Detroit who is fascinated by the details of nature. Growing up around a variety of artist influences, the affinity towards the artistic side of photography seemed to be a destiny.

Mark has been published internationally, and offers his images as fine art prints and stock from his website, www.grafphoto.com. Many hospitals and medical facilities have used his work as health care fine art work for creating calming and tranquil environments.

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