bike on dock

jgrantmac“, a longtime friend of mine, has developed into quite the photographer. I’ve posted his images before, though not recently.

Nebcanuck and I have decided to start posting a photo of the month by jgrantmac. He’s prolific:  this month, we had 77 photos to choose from, demonstrating an impressive breadth of subject matter and artistic approaches.

Here’s our choice for the jgrantmac photo of the month for November 2007:

bike on docksome rights reserved 
attribution & non-commercial
I guess we weren’t alone in liking this photo; so far it has received 72 comments on jgrantmac’s flickr site.

Let me lead off by summarizing my observations in a table. I’m putting the table up front so that it’s in close proximity to the photo. The explanation follows below.

 Uncluttered   dominant focal point; few colours; negative space
 Tranquil   “retiring” colour; horizontal line; symmetrical balance 
 Stimulating   rule of thirds; leading line; secondary focal point;
 geometric shapes

Reduced to three words, here’s why the photo is so effective:  it’s uncluttered and tranquil but still stimulating.

(1) Uncluttered:

 Uncluttered   dominant focal point; few colours; negative space 

Dominant focal point:
First, I note that the composition is uncluttered; it has an elegant simplicity of composition.

As its title indicates, the subject of this photograph is a bicycle parked on a dock. And in fact there’s not much else to look at. The only alternative focal point is the reflection of the bicycle directly beneath it.

Few colours:
The composition is also restrained in its colours. Aside from black (which is technically not a colour) there are only two colours:  blue and white.

Negative space:
Finally, the composition is uncluttered in its allotment of space. In fact, the photo largely consists of “negative” space:

Positive space is where shapes and forms exist; negative space is the empty space around shapes and forms. … Areas of a picture that contain “nothing” are important visual elements that provide balance in an image.

The water that takes up most of the area of the photograph is negative space.

(2) Tranquil:

 Tranquil   “retiring” colour; horizontal line; symmetrical balance 

Retiring colour:
Second, the photograph is tranquil. In part, this is because its dominant colour is blue. “Blue is a retiring colour and conveys a feeling of restfulness and passivity.”

Horizontal line:
The horizontal orientation of the dock also contributes to the photograph’s tranquility. It may surprise you to learn that the orientation of lines elicits a predictable psychological response from us:

Horizontal lines imply tranquility and rest, whereas vertical lines imply power and strength. Oblique lines imply movement, action and change. Curved lines or S shaped lines imply quiet, calm and sensual feelings.

This photograph illustrates the point:


The above photograph is dynamic because of its diagonal orientation. If we were looking straight up at the building, the photo would be static and boring. But, as stated above, oblique lines imply movement, action, imminent change!

“bike on dock”, on the other hand, is dominated by a single horizontal line, implying tranquility and rest.

Symmetrical balance:
Finally, the composition is tranquil because of its symmetry. The dock divides the photo into two halves. The blue water above the dock mirrors the blue water below the dock. A symmetrical composition is balanced. It is

of minimum contrast [because one half mirrors the other]. Emotionally, it is apt to be a more passive design, spatially more static, and esthetically more decorative.

3. Stimulating:

 Stimulating   rule of thirds; leading line; secondary focal point; 
 geometric shapes 

Let’s review our description of the photo thus far. A single focal point, just two colours, lots of “negative” (empty) space, dominated by a “retiring” colour and a horizontal line, symmetrical and therefore static.

Based on that description, you would expect the photograph to be boring. Yet somehow it isn’t. Why not?

Rule of thirds:
First, because the photo isn’t as symmetrical as you might suppose. At first glance, the photo seems to be bisected by the dock (as discussed above). Thus the photo divides into two equal halves, which is a big no-no.

Bisected images are boring, which is why artists are always conscious of the rule of thirds:

The objective is to stop the subject(s) and areas of interest (such as the horizon) from bisecting the image, by placing them near one of the lines that would divide the image into three equal columns and rows, ideally near the intersection of those lines.

The rule of thirds doesn’t have to be followed slavishly. What counts is the avoidance of a bisected image.

As noted above, the snow-covered dock seems to divide the photo into two equal halves. Actually, it isn’t so. The photo divides at the waterline, half way between the bicycle and its reflection.

The waterline is approximately one third of the way up from the bottom. That’s why there is empty space along the top edge of the photo, whereas the reflection of the bicycle reaches the very bottom of the photo.

The photo is not quite symmetrical:  it is weighted toward the bottom.

And the rule of thirds is obviously respected in the position of the bike, one third of the way in from the left.

Leading line:
The second reason the photo sustains our interest is because the dock functions as a leading line. The bicycle is the focal point of the photograph, and the dock leads the eye to it.

Here’s a more obvious illustration of the technique:

The boy is the focal point; the lines converge on him, which leads your eye to the intended subject.

Secondary focal point:
“bike on dock” further sustains our interest is because it has a secondary focal point:  the reflection of the bicycle. When you look at the photo, your eye follows the leading line of the dock to the bicycle, then drops to the reflection, then returns to the bicycle.

In other words, the photo is not as static as it looks. The eye is drawn from one point to another within the photograph, which provides visual stimulation.

Geometric shapes:
Finally, we should recognize that the bicycle is a worthy subject because bicycles are just interesting to look at! The bicycle in jgrantmac’s photo is a study in geometric shapes:  the tires are circular; the frame is triangular; and the handlebar presents a strong, straight line.

Note also that the bicycle is leaning. Here we have a subtle oblique line, implying movement, action, change!, in contrast to the horizontality of the dock.

The sum of all these parts is an effective photograph:  uncluttered and tranquil, but nonetheless stimulating.


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