XII. Vectors

This is the 12th posting in the series, “The Aesthetic Dimensions.” The first, posted January 6, 2019, explains the series and deals with “Abstraction.” To follow it (at no cost), go to davidlsmithcontemplativephotography.com and click “Follow” (bottom right corner of the Home page). The postings will show up in your mailbox on Sunday mornings. To find other posts click on “Archives” and select a date.

Vectors have different meanings and applications in mathematics, biology, psychology, computer science, and other fields. Because the application considered here is their use as an aesthetic tool,  a vector will be considered any visual element that guides the viewer’s eye within or around a frame. I think of them as lines of force that give direction. 

Vectors can point to other elements within the frame, lead the eye out of the frame, create a sense of motion in the two-dimensional space or all of these at once. A favorite pose of portrait photographers has been to position the arms and hands of the subject so they lead the eye to the subject’s face. For instance, this can be accomplished by having the chin resting on folded hands, or hands holding an object like eyeglasses below the chin. This is often seen in talent agency “head shots” where the face needs to dominate. And actors are taught to move or positions their hands so they keep directing the attention to the face. Vectors are all about managing the viewer’s attention. 

Here, the eye-line of the child directs the viewer to the man, his cigarette points to the lighter in his hand, which points to the woman’s cigarette, and then her leg points back toward the child, creating a circular motion to maintain the viewer’s attention in the frame. After that, the eye moves around the fame to see what else is there. 

Vectors can direct attention through the use of bright lines or lines of light. Above, the lines converge to the point of interest.

Here, the lines point to a mass and aid in the interpretation of the subject.

Vectors can be dark or black.

They can surround or encompass as well as point to the primary subject.

They can suggest depth an perspective.

Make a statement.

Or enhance a sense of motion.


Vectors are put to good use when the objective is to hold the viewer’s attention within the frame. The trick is to compose the shot so the vectors move from one to another around the subject, without leading the eye out of the frame. 


As with many of the other aesthetic dimensions, the challenge is to become aware of the light or dark lines or shapes within the frame and then compose with vectors so they either point to or encompass the primary subject matter, the point of critical focus. This is easier to do when the camera is on a tripod. There’s more time to work the composition. Otherwise, the composing has to be done on the fly.

Contemplating Vectors in Personal and Social Contexts

The consideration of vectors as visual elements that direct attention within and around a frame, draws me to consider the elements—vectors—that direct our attention within and around our everyday lives. What are the forces that command our attention, and where do they want us to focus? 

Of course, the sources of influence vary by individual, time, place, circumstances, and culture. But generally, and for the sake of reflection, they include the “still small voice within,” the environment, people close to us, religious, medical, and educational institutions, political and business associations, artists, sports figures, special interest groups, the mass media (radio, television, movies), the internet, social media networks, and reading materials. It would take volumes to consider the nature of their influence, but in examining some of these sources I found it very enlightening to note the direction the vectors are pointing, and what they want me to focus on. Ranking them was even more insightful, allowing me to make some critical adjustments. It took only a couple of minutes. Whether you write down your sources of influence or not, I highly recommend a close look as a way to bolster the ability to discriminate, understand the sources that are most influential, and provide a defense against negative valuation.

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My portfolio site: DavidLSmithPhotography.com

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XI. Line

This is the 11th posting in the series, “The Aesthetic Dimensions.” The first, posted January 6, 2019, explains the series and deals with “Abstraction.” To follow it (at no cost), go to davidlsmithcontemplativephotography.com and click “Follow” (bottom right corner of the Home page). The postings will show up in your mailbox on Sunday mornings. To find other posts click on “Archives” and select a date.

In geometry, a “point” is a single location. A “line” is an extension of a point, an elongated mark, a connection between two points or the edge of an object or situation. Artist Paul Klee said, “A line is a dot out for a walk.” Practically speaking, lines serve to define length, distance, and shape. And aesthetically, they indicate boundaries; they create separation. Below, the “line in the sand” marks a length, along which the visual element on one side differs from the other.


Lines are delineated according to path, thickness, evenness, continuity, sharpness, contour, consistency, length, and direction. They make shapes, create visual variety and rhythm, simulate texture, separate colors, suggest movement, and create the illusion of depth.

Because the eye tends to follow lines, the artist can use one or more of them to direct the viewer’s attention, ideally to elements of interest. Note also the telephone lines, the railroad ties are lines, and the horizon is a line. 

Several lines together can create or reveal a pattern,. 

The sensibilities of structure, mass, and volume can be enhanced by framing architectural and other subjects so the lines, both vertical and horizontal, are dominant. 

“Organic lines,” those that are broken or vary in thickness, texture, shape, or color, help to describe edges, define a subject, or evoke a variety of sensibilities. Shadows are lines, so also are lines that make letters, for instance in italicized words that stand out from regular type to create emphasis. 

Lines can also be ephemeral, for instance, a ray of light, an airplane vapor trail, or a line of fog in a valley. In this instance, the sunlight streaking through windows at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, England consists of lines. The dome itself displays a series of concentric lines.


Our everyday lives are visually permeated with lines: squares, rectangles, triangles, circles, and triangles. Putting such lines to aesthetic use in photography is mostly a matter of becoming aware of them in the environment—or arranging them in the studio—and then making them a dominant or important part of the image. In my own work, I go looking for “strong geometries.” Depending on the objective, the reason for making a photograph, lines can be framed to convey information, express an emotion, or both.  

Vertical lines are rigid, stable, and strong—trees in a forest, electric towers receding into the distance, statues, architectural columns, windmills, and mountain peaks.

Horizontal lines are restful, calm, and serene. They suggest gravity—converging railroad tracks, rolling hills, and meadows, a line of fences, a sprawling farm, a thin stream meandering through tall grass and weeds. 

Vertical and horizontal lines that intersect suggest strength, equilibrium, and durability, as in the office building above.

Diagonal lines are dynamic. They express the energies of activity, restlessness, drama, and opposition—wind-blown trees, a severely tilted barn, an uplifted rock face, contemporary architectural features, and an ascending airplane. 

Thick and bold lines shout. Small and thin lines whisper. Squiggly and irregular lines are frenetic. 

Lines of light are generally distinctive, especially against a dark or black background, as in this New York street scene. 

Straight, sharp and bold lines are assertive. Curved, thin, and continuous lines soften. It’s one reason why, aesthetically, straight lines are considered “masculine,” and curving lines “feminine,” particularly in architecture. 

And lines can be imaginary. Photographers are aware of “sight lines,” the direction people in the frame are looking. We generally don’t want a line of sight to lead the viewer out of the frame, and we prefer to have a person direct their gaze either toward the camera, another person or an important object. Film directors concern themselves with “looks,” (another name for sight lines) the direction an actor is looking because they want smooth transitions between edited shots. 

Contemplating Lines in Personal and Social Contexts

We all draw lines in life. How and where we draw them is an expression of our beliefs and values. And the lines we draw communicate these to others. Often, lines can trigger an emotional response—people stand in line, waiting for hours in the rain or cold for something to happen, putting patients and health “on the line” for a positive outcome. Sitting in a line of traffic for a long period tests the patience of drivers, at times to the brink of road rage. We’re “sold a line of goods” by Robo callers, encouraged to follow a “line of thinking,” and “fall in line” behind a leader. In these and other such linear situations, the choice is social alignment. And we often decide whether or not to follow a particular line of thought, conform to a request or behavior. We want to know if it’s in line with our values?

How and where society draws its lines reveals the perception of both itself and the world. In anthropology and sociology, the phenomenon of drawing lines around groups of human beings is referred to as “stratification.” Its how we position ourselves relative to the groups we identify with relative to other groups. We draw lines by kin, tribe, caste, race, geography, economic status, and intelligence to name just some of the larger groupings. These lines are actually circles. Psychological or physical, the purpose of such lines is to enclose and exclude, often as a matter of preferences or security. The intent is to keep “our people” in and “others” out.  

Photographers in the United States are severely restricted because every bit of land is enclosed by buildings or fences. Landscape photographers have to photograph in national parks or ask permission to access private property. Even then, the landscape is filled with fences, phone poles, electric towers and wires, microwave, and cell phone towers. What does that say about us? In rural England,  it’s very different. While the land is owned, fences in most areas have gates for the express purpose of allowing people the opportunity to walk the property without needing to ask permission. And, there’s strict regulation on where poles and towers can be placed. It’s a photographer’s dream. Remember I said that lines speak? So what does that say about British society? It seems to me it has everything to do with trust and how we perceive those around us. Perceptions are reflected in the lines we draw, and they have consequences. 

On a research trip to Guatemala, I followed a Maya guide on walking paths through hills and valleys where vegetables were being grown. One of the notable features was the lack of fences—anywhere, for miles. Individual plots were marked at the four corners by a pile of stones or a tree that only grows five feet tall. My guide explained that the walking paths through the fields were open to anyone, and were often used as shortcuts to various destinations. Geographically, the lines they drew were imperceptible, horizon to horizon. Where there is trust, there’s no need to draw a line. 

Given the current immigration situation, the real challenge is how to identify migrants who can be trusted as contributors to society as opposed to those who would threaten it. In my opinion, since migration is an information challenge, not a physical one. The solution then is a matter of re-envisioning the immigration process so systems, not fences, can be put in place to effectively and efficiently manage the borders. Systems failures require systems upgrades. In the current situation, information gathering, processing, and sharing should be a top priority. 

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My portfolio site: DavidLSmithPhotography.com

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X. Light

This is the 10th posting in the series, “The Aesthetic Dimensions.” The first, posted January 6, 2019, explains the series and deals with “Abstraction.” To follow it (at no cost), go to davidlsmithcontemplativephotography.com and click “Follow” (bottom right corner of the Home page). The postings will show up in your mailbox on Sunday mornings. To find other posts click on “Archives” and select a date.

In considering light as an aesthetic tool, there are two common situations in photography: light that reveals subject matter in its natural condition and light that enhances the subject through management. The factors contributing to management relate to the manipulation of the source—the light’s color or “quality,” intensity, direction, and modifiers, how it’s made more or less specular. Because black and white photography eliminates color, it’s an ideal medium for developing an awareness of these properties. 

Training The Eye

Whatever the medium, I recommend frequent observation of a particular kind—paying attention to what light is “doing” within a frame. Is it enhancing form or texture? Creating vectors? Generating reflections? Softening or creating specular highlights?… I specify this kind of attention because the development of an aesthetic eye requires the framing of elements in order to include certain parts of a scene and exclude other parts.

For this purpose, I keep a framing card in my camera bags. They can easily be made: take an 8 x 10 black card stock and cut out a 3.5 x 5.5 rectangular opening in the center. When a framing card isn’t available, I revert to putting my fingers together (first and second fingers on both hands) to create a square frame, and adjust them to simulate the camera’s viewfinder format. At arm’s length these devices serve as a telephoto viewfinder; closer to the eye, they provide the wide-angle perspective. Movie directors and directors of photography (DP’s) do the same thing, but with very expensive optical viewfinders. Of course, it’s not always practical—or socially acceptable—to hold up frames in certain situations, but there’s nothing like it for cultivating an awareness of light and composition. 

When I find a location that has photographic potential, especially when I’m working with a large format camera, the first thing I do is walk around with a framing card as a way to quickly identify possible subject matter. And I don’t have to carry around the tripod-mounted camera to use its viewfinder or view screen. 


Whatever the circumstance, from capturing a family photo with an iPhone to working with a professional camera, the five above mentioned features are always part of the image-making equation. They hold for existing light or the purposeful placement of lighting equipment. Even if the objective is to simply and quickly capture a moment without making it artful, awareness of light properties can enhance the image. If, on the other hand, the objective is to create an image that has some aesthetic appeal and captivate viewers, then some thought needs to be given to their management. 


The source of light determines the other four properties of light, so it’s of primary concern. In light that reveals, we just want to be aware of what it’s doing. Relative to the subject in its natural condition, what is the light source? What color is it? How bright is it? Is it soft or hard, diffuse or specular? If the purpose of taking a picture is simply to document the subject, these can be altered by changing the camera position—or not.

Here, the light basically “reveals” the subject matter. The source is cloud-covered sunlight.

If on the other hand, the objective is to maximize the impact of an image to take advantage of the available light, the same properties are considered, but now choices have to be made with respect to camera angle, composition, geometry, and the direction of light in order to enhance certain aspects of the subject.

Here, a more impactful image is created by a camera angle and composition that enhances the illusion of perspective, using the light to reveal patterns of light and shadow. 


When photographers talk about the “quality” of light, the reference is to its color. Normally, in daily living, the human perceptual system tends to interpret all light, indoors and out, as “normal” or “natural.” Only recently, when we began to see “daylight” bulbs being offered in stores, did many people realize that the incandescent bulbs in home fixtures were and are decidedly yellow, compared to daylight which is blue. Every light source emits a specific wavelength or color of light. Sunlight varies dramatically in color depending on geography and atmospheric conditions, but generally, it’s blue or “cold” relative to the bulbs just mentioned, specular when the sky is clear and diffuse when it’s overcast. 

The quality of light that a camera records can be altered by changing the “white balance” feature on a digital camera, or by putting a filter over the lens. In both cases the color of the image is affected overall—everything takes on that color. The alternative is to put a “gel” over a light fixture, so only the light coming from that source is affected. In this way, three lights with different colored gels will result in three colors of light in the same frame.

Carnival ride


Shooting in bright sunlight yields sharp, very distinct, hard-edged shadows and high contrast—excellent for deepening color saturation and creating depth. As brightness diminishes, these qualities gray-down to darkness where only the brightest highlights are rendered. To accomplish this with lights, they’re placed at some distance from the subject. The intensity of such a light is determined by its wattage.  

Bright sunlight

Moments later, clouds obscured the sun.  


Whatever the source, inside or out, light coming from the side enhances texture—the more to the side the greater the texture. Light falling on the front of a subject illuminates its features but is considered “flat,” lacking in depth. It’s fine, just ordinary. The opposite is true of light coming from behind the subject. Backlighting is dramatic because it creates a halo or rim around the subject, enhancing its form. Generally, the brighter the backlight, the more dramatic the image, and then a decision has to be made: Is there enough light on the front of the subject to resolve some degree of detail? If not, a “fill light” is needed to lighten the shadows. 

A field of Amish shocks lit from the front.

The same field shot early in the morning with strong side-lighting.


A light modifier is any medium that diffuses the light coming from its source. For instance, clouds modify bright sunlight on a clear day by softening it. At one extreme is “specular” light—a source that’s tiny and bright, like the distant sun on a clear day, or a small 500-watt bare quartz bulb. Better jewelry stores have several specular lights mounted in the ceiling, and even rotate them in some cases to make the facets in precious stones sparkle—give off specular highlights. The more specular the source, the sharper the shadows it creates. And as a source becomes more diffuse, the shadows spread out until they diminish altogether. 

Snow drifts in bright specular sunlight.

Snow photographed when clouds modified the sunlight, making it diffuse.

Rule of thumb: photograph men in specular light to emphasize skin features and hair texture; photograph women in diffuse light to soften those same features.

Camera stores have a wide variety of light modifying materials and equipment, but professionals also use inexpensive white foam-core sheets to soften skin tone by using them as reflectors. Another way to create diffuse lighting is to bounce lights off a white wall or ceiling.

Contemplating Light In Another Context

“Light” is a common metaphor for awareness. We picture a lightbulb and say we had a “bright idea.” And when Indian sages attain realization they speak of it as “illumination.” Basically, the metaphor expresses a new or heightened state of awareness or consciousness. Considering the above recommendation to pay attention to what the light within a frame is doing in order to create an image, a question comes to mind regarding the place of light in everyday experiences—our frames of reference. Whatever is attracting my attention, what is consciousness (the light) doing? Along what lines are my thoughts being directed? Where am I “pointing” my attention (the camera equivalent)? And what am I creating as a result of my attention? Simply put, what are the consequences of what I think about most? Whatever we attend to we make more of, so whatever it is, that’s what I’m creating in my life and contributing to the world.

There’s a significant difference between “taking pictures” and “making photographs.” The former is largely mechanical, requiring little thought. The latter is a creative act, requiring greater consideration and a heightened level of observation—awareness. Creative activity then requires more awareness and results in increased awareness, as when we observe and share what we’ve created—be it a photograph, business transaction, or garden. And this raises another question for me: Am I creating the reality I want—by purposefully managing my attention? Or am I allowing it to be directed by outside influences? It’s the difference between directing and reacting, living authentically, consistent with one’s purpose, or on auto-drive.

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My portfolio site: DavidLSmithPhotography.com

My photo books: <www.blurb.com/search/site_search> Enter “David L. Smith” and “Bookstore” in “Search.”



IX. Gradation

This is the ninth posting in the series, “The Aesthetic Dimensions.” The first, posted January 6, 2019, explains the series and deals with “Abstraction.” To follow the series, go to davidlsmithcontemplativephotography.com and click “Follow” (bottom right corner of the Home page). The postings will show up in your mailbox on Sunday mornings. To find other posts click on “Archives” and select a date.

Aesthetically speaking, “gradation” refers to a gradual or graded change. Artists refer to it as a grading of “values.” In color photography, gradiation can be a transition from one hue to another or to a different saturation or brightness. In black and white, it’s a transition from light to dark or from one texture to another. The width of the transition can take up a lot of space—

Or very little.  And there can be multiple areas showing gradations within the same image—as in the taillight above and the architecectural feature below.


The experience of gradation is soft and graceful. As the eye moves across a plane of graded colors or tones there’s a slowing down of the aesthetic sensibility. Whereas areas of stark contrast are abrupt changes, gradation elicits a slower, more pensive and flowing experience for the eye. Especially, it enhances roundness in a subject or parts of a subject. For this reason, it’s best used in communication objectives intended to express roundness and softer sensibilities.   


Outdoors in sunlight, gradation occurs naturally wherever there are textures, curves or rounded surfaces. It’s just a matter of choosing an angle and framing the subject to get the desired amount of grading from light to dark.


Inside or in the studio, lighting for gradation is a matter of positioning the subject in relation to the light so the brightness falls off gradually. Before he passed, Fr. Ted Tepe S.J.—who taught photography at Xavier University for many years—lived in a small apartment. Without the use of incandescent lights, he created gorgeous color images of flowers by setting them in his window at different seasons and various times of day, adding some detail in the shadows with pieces of white cardboard to provide “fill” light. When I first saw his photographs, the lighting was so exquisite, so controlled, I thought he’d shot the flowers in a studio. The lesson here, you don’t need specialized lighting equipment to create fine images.

(Above) To maximize gradation, situate one light well above, below or to the side of a subject so the shadow side is left completely dark, without detail. 

To shorten the gradation, add some fill light in the shadow areas using a reflective surface or another light placed at a distance, “feathered off,” to control the amount of desirable detail in the shadows. Note the detail in the shadow above on the left side of the pepper.

In this image, there are multiple gradations, some short, others long. Notice the smoothness of the longer gradations, and the flow of the shorter ones as in the ripples—middle right.

Reflections On Personal & Social Gradation    

Gradation equates with changes that are gradual and graceful, not stark and abrupt. It’s calm and quiet; it doesn’t excite or shout. Personal change that’s graded is gradual, it takes time and consideration. At times it may not even be perceptible, as when an idea or offhanded word gestates in the dark subconscious for a time before it becomes adopted in the light of consciousness. Just so, the “graded” aspects of life are long-term and gradual—activities that improve our awareness and identity, help us to become more creative, realize more of our potential, build competencies, develop moral and ethical guidelines, enhance our quality of life, help us realize our dreams and contribute to spiritual growth. 

If I love the world as it is, I’m already changing it: a first fragment of the world has been changed, and that is my own heart. 

Peter Dumitriu (Novelist)

Socially, gradation is more evolutionary than revolutionary, more considered and less reactionary. We see it in dialogues rather than debates, questioning rather than pronouncing, inviting rather than excluding, listening rather than speaking and flexibility rather than rigidity. Although we’re sometimes frustrated that positive change in the area of social development takes so long, our faith in the future is grounded in the belief that eventually common sense, decency, intelligence, wisdom, and truth, will outshine ignorance and greed. As in our personal lives, the challenge—and lesson—of social development is patience. Although gradual change takes longer, it’s more likely to sustain.

Every time we invest attention in an idea, a written word, a spectacle; every time we purchase a product; every time we act on a belief, the texture of the future is changed… The world in which our children and their children will live is built, minute by minute, through the choices we endorse with our psychic energy.

Mihaly Csikszenthihalyi (Psychologist)

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VII. Emphasis

This is the seventh posting in the series, “The Aesthetic Dimensions.” The first, posted January 6, 2019, explains it and deals with “Abstraction.” To follow the series, go to davidlsmithcontemplativephotography.com and click “Follow” (bottom right corner of the Home page). The postings will show up in your mailbox on Sunday mornings. To find other posts click on “Archives” and select a date.

As an aesthetic tool, “emphasis” shows one element standing out or apart from others. It can differ from them in subject matter, color, size, shape or placement within the frame. Whatever the difference, the exceptional element stands out as the center of interest. It’s the most important element and key to the image’s meaning.

The Dynamic

Within a frame, when an element is emphasized by some difference, it commands attention. Once it has been identified, the viewer’s eye moves around the frame but keeps returning to the center of interest in a split-second attempt to understand the reason for its being prominent. Why did the artist want me to focus my attention there? What’s so special about that particular element? What does it mean? What does it say? 


Having one subject stand out from the other elements in a frame is a powerful way to command the viewer’s attention.

If the objective is to communicate information, a difference is enhanced by having many elements that are alike, except for one. In the above image, the element that’s emphasized informs the viewer about gas prices. Alternatively, it could be a comment on those prices. That all the other elements are less colorful makes the sign distinctive.

If the objective is to express a feeling, shock or other emotion, a difference is enhanced by the severity of the difference—the contrast—between the primary and secondary elements—like a plant growing up from the mud.

And there are degrees of emotion that an image will express. Here, the stark contrast of seeing an element emphasized over others that are completely out of place is jolting. It raises a lot of questions.

Emphasis can also be achieved technically, for instance by having many similar elements in the frame, but with only one in sharp focus. Here, the photographer is asking the viewer to make sense of the image. What’s going on here? It appears to be a story. What’s might it be?

Reflections On Personal & Social Emphasis

Artists emphasize an element in order to give it special importance. In our personal lives, we call that “prioritizing,” ranking things in order of importance, often to determine how we want to spend our time. It raises a challenging question: What is most important in my life? Is it what I think it is or would like it to be? Has it changed over the years? Am I spending my time on what I want it to be? Am I deceiving myself, saying I want it to be one thing but in practice, it’s something else? What would other people say is my highest priority? And are my priorities coming from my authentic self or outside myself? There are no right or wrong, good or bad answers to these questions. Their value is in nudging us to reconsider what we think is really important in our lives, especially what resides at the top of the list.

Meaning constellates around values. What we value has become a predictor of what we will buy, how much we will consume, how we will vote, who we will relate to and who not, and to almost every manifestation of private and social behavior and belief. 

Ervin Laszlo (Philosopher of science and systems theorist)

To complicate matters, we’re generally not aware that or how profoundly our priorities are socially prescribed. To begin with, being born in a certain place at a particular time we acculturate to an already specified set of values and expectations. For instance, most indigenous people, notably Native Americans, consider the great man to be the one who gives most of his possessions away, whereas most Americanized Europeans hold in highest esteem those who have amassed great wealth. And the perception of priorities shows up in stereotypes, general patterns of behavior that we ascribe to various groups and nations. “Nerds,” “Athletes,” “Businesspersons,” “Buddhists,” “Germans,” Haitians.” Erroneously or not, the names and labels themselves conjure images or judgments about their priorities, what they emphasize, what they value.  

The difference between whether an organization is mediocre or superb is determined by whether all its individual members are mediocre or superb. The difference between organizations that are mediocre and those that are great is the attitude within each of us — our values and our culture. An inspired organization is simply the sum of inspired souls. 

Lance Secretan (Leadership Theorist)

One of the most important lessons I learned in two years of anthropology classes (one that promoted tolerance and appreciation) was the fact that the basis of valuing across cultures, irrespective of how it manifested in ancient or modern times, was grounded in the need to survive. Consider any human trait, personal or social, the world around—it exists today because it had survival value in the past. It was emphasized and reinforced because it succeeded. For a culture, the memory of survival challenges is so ingrained, these traits or “institutions,” which often became ritualized and the subject of myths, are not easily transformed. Plants and animals, even the human animal, have evolved features that convey a survival advantage physically. In addition, we humans carry the memory of what it takes for our groups to survive and grow. It’s written in our history, and it’s in our DNA. 

If there are any doubts about how to value a 700-year-old tree, ask how much it would cost to make a new one. Or a new atmosphere, or a new culture. 

Amory Lovins (Physicist, Environmental Scientist)

Recent research has determined that the billions of organisms in our gut are constantly sending messages to the brain saying things like: “Eat more salt,” “Lay off the sugar!” and “I’m in the mood for a steak.” They’re emphasizing the elements the body needs in order to maintain a healthy balance. Just so, a photographer’s aesthetic urge emanates from the brain saying things like: “Notice the bark in that tree,” “Pack up the car and go looking for birds to photograph,” “Quick! Get a camera—the raindrops on the leaves are incredible!” We’re drawn to subject matter, and where we critically focus is what we want, perhaps need, to emphasize. Why? Because that’s the center of our attraction—and a clue to our method of prioritizing. For many of us, the exercise of our unique aesthetic is not a frivolous or luxurious activity. We’re compelled to create. For us, creative expression and beauty have survival value. I’m reminded of my artist friend, David Allen Koch, who said, “Somehow, every day, I find a way to experience beauty.” 


When Andrew Wyeth painted Helga he did not make the case that Helga was important; he made the case that Helga was important to him. The first is supposedly some objective statement of reality; the second is a totally subjective statement of personal value. By using his craft effectively, he hoped to make Helga important to us, and that is the purpose of his artwork. 

Brooks Jensen (Photographer, Publisher LensWork Magazine)

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My portfolio site: DavidLSmithPhotography.com

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VI. Depth Of Field

This is the 6th posting in the series, “The Aesthetic Dimensions.” The first, posted January 6, 2019, explains the series and deals with “Abstraction.” To follow the series, go to davidlsmithcontemplativephotography.com and click “Follow” (bottom right corner of the Home page). The postings will show up in your mailbox on Sunday mornings. To find other posts click on “Archives” and select a date.

Technically, “depth of field” (DOF) is the optical phenomenon of a lens that expresses the distance about the plane of focus where objects appear acceptably sharp in an image. Creatively speaking, it’s the relative degree of sharpness between objects that are close to or farther away from a lens. When both distances, near and far, are sharp the DOF is said to be “long” or “deep.” When only the point of critical focus is sharp with the background out of focus, the DOF is “narrow” or “shallow.” 

There are mathematical considerations that affect the DOF, but in practice, the features that concern the photographer are a) the lens’s aperture or f-stop, b) the focal length of the lens, and c) the camera-to-subject distance. Each is an independent variable, but they combine to produce the DOF.


At one extreme, long depth of field—where objects near and far are sharp—spreads the viewer’s attention over the entire image, encouraging the eye to explore all of the details within the frame. When a lens is “stopped down,” admitting little light, the f-stop numbers hover around f16, f22, f32. The higher the number, the longer the DOF. In this range, when “critically focusing” on a near subject, the background will also be sharp—sharper at f32 than at f16.

At the other extreme, narrow DOF compels the eye to stay focused on the point or in the area where the subject is sharpest. DOF is controlled by the choices of aperture, lens and distance from the subject. When the lens is “wide open,” admitting more light, the f-stop numbers hover around f1.4, f2.8, f 3.5, f4. The lower the number, the narrower the DOF. In this range, when critically focusing on a near-to-the-camera object, the background will be out of focus.

Focal Length of the Lens

The focal length of a lens determines the magnification at which it images distant objects. From a given position, a “wide angle” lens will show the sky, plaza, and fountain. (Fountain Square, downtown Cincinnati)

A “medium” or “normal” focal length lens will show a bit of sky, buildings, and details on the fountain.

And a telephoto lens will exclude everything except the fountain and what’s behind it. Here, the camera’s aperture was fairly wide open, rendering the building out of focus.

A very wide angle lens, even with the aperture wide open, will likely render both the foreground and background as sharp. Conversely, the aperture of a telephoto lens has to be “stopped down” considerably in order to keep the background sharp. This is one of the reasons why professionals carry many lenses—or a zoom lens where the focal length can be varied from wide to telephoto. (“The Genius of Water” atop the Tyler Davidson Fountain in Cincinnati). 

Camera-To-Subject Distance

As a camera comes closer to the primary subject, the foreground and background in the frame tend to go out of focus, necessitating a smaller aperture to make them sharp. As the distance is increased, objects, both near and far, tend to be in focus. The camera moving closer to a subject is equivalent to a person moving closer. It’s why in movies, directors prefer to use single focal length (“prime”) lenses rather than a zoom lens. They want the viewer to feel like they are in his or her personal space.  

Reflections On “Personal” Depth Of Field

Our eyes shift from wide to medium to closeup perspectives seemingly in an instant. In photography, we refer to these “fields” as if a setting, for instance, a landscape, consists of separate planes or areas. Of course, they don’t. They’re continuous in our experience. Where the camera is a single and objective “eye” that only records in two dimensions, we not only have two eyes that allow us to see in three dimensions, our perception is subjective—we make sense of what’s in front of us—or imagined. 

This observation is so obvious, it hides the significance of perception as a process of thoughts that make meaning, which in turn drive action. If we consider a field then, as a domain of thought, of consciousness, the question arises: What is my personal depth of field? Considering my thoughts, how deep do they go? Most of the time, when I’m not focused on everyday concerns, where do I place my focus? Certainly, like a zoom lens, we shift between close-in, self-oriented and short-term matters, and broader, more other-directed and long-term thinking. As with a camera, it’s under our control. 

As an organism starts to develop it begins to resonate to a certain field, and the more the organism follows that particular path the more it becomes habituated and goes on developing within that field to its final form.

Judy Cannato

Becoming habituated to a particular field is like viewing the world solely through a “normal” lens. But in every day living our personal DOF shifts continuously. Looked at analogously, it provides a framework for self-reflection. For instance, a camera’s aperture controls the amount of light that reaches the recording medium. So how much light—the light of awareness—am I letting in by exposing myself to diverse perspectives, higher consciousness, creative and inspirational sources? What is currently the depth of my thought-field?

Consider also the focal length of a lens that determines the extent of coverage. Am I taking advantage of opportunities to change lenses, to empathize, walk in other people’s shoes, to expand my field of thinking by observing people and circumstances close up, broadly, and farther away in order to supplement my “normal,” routinized ways of thinking?

And with regard to camera-to-subject distance, am I venturing out, exploring other fields of thought, ideas, and values? Of course, there are no right or wrong, better or worse, responses to these questions, but I believe they provide some interesting touchstones when considering where we are in the unfolding process of trying to live our lives more authentically. 

A person has not only perceptions but a will to perceive, not only a capacity to observe the world but a capacity to alter his or her observation of it — which, in the end, is the capacity to alter the world itself. Those people who recognize that imagination is reality’s master we call “sages,” and those who act upon it, we call “artists.”

Tom Robbins

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V. Contrast / Social Contrast

This is the 5th posting in the series, “The Aesthetic Dimensions.” The first, posted January 6, 2019, explains the series and deals with “Abstraction.” To follow the series, go to davidlsmithcontemplativephotography.com and click “Follow” (bottom right corner of the Home page). The postings will show up in your mailbox on Sunday mornings. To find other posts click on “Archives” and select a date.

Technically speaking, “contrast” in the pictorial realm is the ratio between the darkest dark and the lightest light in an image. “Soft” contrast at one end of the continuum indicates that there’s very little difference between the lights and darks, the extreme being a “muddy” or “flat” image, gray overall—as in the image below.


In between the extremes of contrast is “medium” contrast, what we’re accustomed to regarding as “normal.” Contrast is never one thing, it’s the difference between two things. Below, there are bright whites, deep shadows and a full range of grays in between.


At the other end of the continuum, “hard” contrast is where the darks are as black as the medium can accommodate and the whites are as bright as possible, with no grays in between. Here, a duplicate of the negative was made on Kodalith film, a process emulsion that only “sees” pure black and white. Of course, a different composition was necessary in this case. Had the boat been in the center, the image would have been too static.


When considering a film negative, photographers speak of “Dmax” (maximum density, where no light passes through the film) and “Dmin” (minimum density, or clear film). In the digital world, cameras have a built-in histogram that displays brightness levels that can be adjusted for each of the primary colors. Whatever the medium, Dmax and Dmin are devoid of detail. Being able to control contrast is both technically and aesthetically important because it determines the amount of detail that will be visible in the shadows and highlights. 


Aesthetically speaking, low contrast evokes a calm, flat, or soft sensibility. Such images are not seen very often because they’re not generally appealing. Extremely high contrast images are bold, evoking a sense of starkness and clarity. Commercial and fine art photographers working in black & white used to say the contrast adjustments were “right on” when the photograph exhibited “snap,” the full spectrum of tonalities—pure white and pure blacks with a full range of gray tones in between. Ansel Adams equated the tonal scale of photographic prints with that of a piano octave, and his ability to accomplish the full range of tones on photographic paper earned him a reputation as a master craftsman. For that reason alone, his original prints are far superior to the reproductions in books and posters. Seeing many of them when he spoke to our class at RIT, was a formative experience me.   


The first determinant of contrast is the light on the subject. The general rule is to not exceed the camera’s extreme brightness capacity—except in a few areas where it may be desirable or can’t be avoided—and then, look to see that there’s enough detail in the shadows where you want it. To get more detail, add more light. Controlling contrast amounts to adjusting the light on the subject or changing the exposure on the camera. Sometimes both. With film and photographic paper, contrast can also be increased by lengthening the development time.

Reflections On “Social” Contrast

There are innumerable social contrasts I could talk about, but the “elephant” in the nation at this time is politics—the contrast between “liberals” and “conservatives,” “Democrats” and “Republicans.” In the first posting of this series on the aesthetic dimensions—abstraction—I observed that one reason for the political polarization in this country and what sustains it, is the lack of agreement on the meaning of abstract words such as “liberty,” “freedom,” “justice,” “welfare,” “prosperity,” “militia.” Even simple words like “great,” and “fake” can have a wide spectrum of meanings. The assumption that everyone understands or agrees on the meaning of such words contributes to social contrast.

From photography, we can observe that low social contrast, where there’s little interest in public affairs and even less political engagement, a nation’s enthusiasm goes flat; the contrast range becomes contracted and dullness sets in. Feeling disenfranchised or helpless, citizens become disengaged and defer to the preferences of their representatives. The first image above represents this situation. The elements are all there, the subject matter can be recognized, but the expression lacks vitality.

On the other hand, when enthusiasm turns to fixated passion to the extent that neither side can abide the perspectives of the other, the contrast becomes so extreme it results in a war between the representatives, relationships become contentious and the system becomes dysfunctional. Extreme political contrast—represented by the last image—identifies citizens as either a black or a white pixel. You can’t be gray. Extreme contrast is militant: “Choose one position or the other and defend it!” There’s no detail, no middle ground, no substantive perspectives or open-mindedness in either of the positions.

Recent episodes of Madam Secretary and Blue Bloods on television provided demonstrations of how extremely high political contrast can be reduced to a functional level. In both instances, the characters representing the extremes fully expressed their perspectives with well-reasoned arguments, making sure their positions were clearly understood. (In formal debate, the first order of business is always for the participants to define their terms). With the point of disagreement clear, the characters came together and negotiated terms—in detail—that would satisfy both. They compromised and reached a workable, win-win arrangement. 

An argument is reasoned when it’s based on sensible thinking and logic that flows from statistical analysis or proven facts rather than an emotional appeal. For instance, an argument that begins, “The American people want… or know…” is the hallmark of an emotional appeal. Nations are constituted of diverse people having too many perspectives and preferences to be lumped into a single philosophical category, despite what surveys or poles might say.   

At the end of the Blue Bloods episode, Frank Reagan, the NYC Police Commissioner played by Tom Selleck, rebuilt a contentious relationship that had developed between him and his daughter, Erin Reagan, the Assistant District Attorney played by Bridget Moynahan, by citing a particularly nasty hockey game where the players on both sides shook hands after the game. Respect was regained in that situation by acknowledging that, although the game was difficult and people got hurt, the higher ideal of sportsmanship was maintained. I represent that situation in the middle image above.

Social contrast, like pictorial contrast, has to be managed. In the first place, that can only happen when both extremes loosen their grip on how to accomplish a common goal. That requires the participants to have open minds. Once the goal is clearly articulated and agreed upon, the means toward achieving it have to be presented in a reasoned argument on both sides, and that requires full concentration, understanding, respectful questioning and listening, again with an open mind. Finally, and critically important, the participants must consider the maintenance of their relationship as more important than winning any single argument. Shaking hands, having a meal together, meeting each other’s families, frequent personal interaction—these ensure that the next game will be played well.

“Thank you” to the writers, producers, and the cast of Madam Secretary and Blue Bloods. They are prime examples of television that’s socially responsible—showing the full range of tones, not just the extremes.

The critical contrast between seeing and looking-at cannot be overestimated. Seeing touches the heart. Looking-at is cold hearted. The difference may be a matter of life and death.

Fredrick Franck (Artist)

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IV. Composition / Social Order


This is the 4th posting in the series, “The Aesthetic Dimensions.” The first, posted January 6, 2019, explains the series and deals with “Abstraction.” To follow the series, go to davidlsmithcontemplativephotography.com and click “Follow” (bottom right corner of the Home page). The postings will show up in your mailbox on Sunday mornings. To find other posts click on “Archives” and select a date.

In pictorial art, composition relates to how visual elements are organized within a frame. Both Eastern and Western artists through the centuries developed insightful guidelines to help them maintain the viewer’s attention. Aspiring artists and many in the public appreciate that the organization of elements within a frame influences the viewer’s experience of an image. How does it work? How does composition contribute toward capturing and holding a viewer’s attention? Each of the aesthetic dimensions being treated in this series are contributing factors, but specifically related to composition are the principles of unity, balance, focus, and placement. Because these have been thoroughly confirmed as successful across cultures, adhering to the rules, while no guarantee of success, is believed to be pleasing to the eye. At the same time, the rules can and are often broken. My advice to students was generally to have a good reason for breaking a rule.

Visual Elements and Information Theory

An eye for composition develops more quickly by regarding subject matter as elements, the parts of an image that together make up the whole. By enclosing space within a frame of any sort, the message to viewers is, “Look here, I want you to see this.” Imagine a dot like this ( . ) anywhere on a white background that’s framed. That’s one “bit” of information. It simply “says” it exists. It conveys no meaning because meaning derives from relationship. Add another dot, and a relationship is established. The artist had something in mind, and the viewer’s challenge is to make sense of it—if that’s desirable. Add a third dot and the potential for meaning increases dramatically. Instead of a dyad with two elements, like two people talking, there are three. Because the dots are within a frame, the viewer assumes they have some significance, so he or she reaches to identify the subject, understand its meaning, why it’s being shown.

Being human, we tend to anthropomorphize, so the three stones above could be interpreted as parents and child. Which would be the father? Actually, any of them could be, but our preconceived notions assign “him” to the larger stone because men are generally larger than women and children. What might the differences in texture “say”?  When more elements are added, the relationships become more apparent. Each additional element—line, squiggle, circle, form or subject matter—irregardless of size, shape, texture, or color is another bit of information, and the more information there is, the more readily a viewer can create meaning, even perhaps the artist’s intention, mood or preferences. So what’s the story below? What relationship do you see? What does it mean?


Communication Objectives 

In practice, to more consciously create an image, consideration of composition should relate to the “communication objective.” What do I want to say to the viewer, or what do I want them to feel?  Is the intention to communicate or express? Or both? If it’s to communicate, the more visual  elements—information—the better. If it’s to express, to generate an emotion, the starkness of fewer elements—less information—does a better job. 

Unity (Clearwater Skyway)

In the visual sense, unity relates to appropriateness. Are the elements within the frame justified relative to the communication objective? Not one dot, line, surface, form or subject matter is in the frame that doesn’t belong. For instance, the photograph above would not be unified if there was a kite flying in the sky. Aesthetic unification usually requires getting in close, zooming in or changing the angle to exclude anything that doesn’t relate to the principle subject. Unity strengthens the communication objective.

Balance (South Dakota Telephone Poles)

An image is balanced within a frame when the elements are neither bold nor heavy in one area relative to the overall space. Art students are taught to think of the frame as having a fulcrum at the bottom and in the middle of the frame. A balanced composition feels good. An image that’s top or bottom heavy, or heavy right or left, feels “off.” It pulls the attention toward the bold or heavily weighted subject matter, making it challenging for the eye to freely move within the  frame. Of course, if the communication objective is to convey a feeling of instability or attract attention through imbalance, the elements can be purposefully unbalanced.

Focus (Raindrops On Pansy Petals) 

An image is compositionally focused when the subject matter is predominant and prominently placed within the frame. A lack of focus is confusing. What’s this image about? For instance, a seascape that puts the horizon in the middle of the frame top-to-bottom could be a picture of either the sky or the ocean. Which is it? In order for a video camera to be able to zoom-in on a subject and be tack sharp, the operator has to perform a “critical focus” at the point of maximum closeup before taking the shot. Likewise, in composing a still image the focal point is the place in the frame where we want the eye to go first—and return after wandering. It’s the primary subject matter, in that it accomplishes the communication objective. It “says” what the image is about. Again, this is accomplished by going in close, excluding as many secondary elements as possible. Maximizing compositional focus is why photographs taken close up are so powerful.   

Placement (Cincinnati Expressway Underside)

Arguably the most well-recognized aspect of composition has to do with where elements are placed within the frame, and how they are organized. It’s been said that the greatest compliment for an artist is the length of time a viewer attends to his or her work. The arrangement of elements in an enclosed space largely determines how long the viewer will stay with an image, and how their eye will move around the space. In this series of blogs, all the above and all the other “dimensions” to be considered, influence the placement of elements. Placement is an acquired skill, gained by studying the works of the masters, and analyzing our own creations to see what’s effective and what isn’t in terms of keeping the viewer’s eye within the frame. 

Because we read left-to-right and top-to-bottom in Western cultures, the eye is best directed within a frame by having the primary element, for instance a face or animal, situated on the right of the frame looking into the space, or placed at the bottom of the frame looking up. Otherwise, if the subject is situated on the left of the frame, the viewer’s eye enters the space at left and goes off the space to the right, out of the frame. I’ll have more to say about this on the topic of “Vectors.” Suffice to say here, that generally speaking, the rule is to keep the viewer’s attention engaged within the frame, the elements should be arranged so that no line, sight-line, or vector leads the eye out of it.  

(South Dakota prairie dog)
Rule Of Thirds

To situate subject matter within the frame in the most pleasing way, and to better control eye movement within it, artists devised a scheme where they divided an imaginary frame into thirds to create a grid. The “rule of thirds” advises us to not place the principle subject matter dead center in the frame, instead, to place it where the lines of the grid intersect. The illustrations would take too much space here, so I recommend a visit to an excellent site—Company Folders.

Sacred Geometry

Anciently, the world around, artists discovered ways of ordering elements within a frame such that they evoke a noumenous feeling, a sense of spiritual wholeness or grandeur. They found that certain geometric forms, those with specific mathematical properties, somehow set up a resonance within us. And it occurs universally. Here too, the subject is vast, so I recommend a visit to another well-illustrated page in Ancient Wisdom. Ignore the ads. Especially applicable for photographers is the “Golden Ratio,” illustrated by the spiral. It’s based on a 5:8 proportion. I’ve used it extensively for many years to format images and place primary subject matter on the imaginary “sweet spots.” I highly recommend a book, Sacred Geometry by Robert Lawlor. Its many illustrations allowed me to translate the philosophy into tools for everyday use. (Used copies are inexpensive).

Reflections On Personal and Social Order

Composition is all about organization—order, the ordering of visual elements. In painting and photography, the medium is a two-dimensional surface. In society, the medium is the three-dimensional world. In any given space, we observe that the elements within it are organized at one end of the continuum, or disordered, chaotic, at the other. Further, it makes a difference that we not only recognize order and chaos, we feel it. 

When objects—books, chairs & tables, houses, cars, buildings, neighborhoods are ordered, they establish and display a regular pattern or sequential arrangement that looks and feels complete, appropriate, managed. When all our “ducks” are in a row, they’re in a satisfying and assessable alignment. Order and disorder communicate, so we have to be careful in making judgments based on the composition of other people’s environments. For instance, there’s the backyard of a neighbor who has toys and tools scattered all over the place, left out in the rain with weeds growing over them. Then there’s the neighbor who has their toys and tools neatly stowed in a garage, leaving the grass open and well-trimmed. We may be tempted to think the former suggests an uneducated, uncaring person. Even reading these descriptions, it’s likely you formed an opinion. But the disorderly neighbor could have a Ph.D. in microbiology and sing in the church choir, and the orderly neighbor could be an ex-convict building a well-organized collection of handguns preparing for a terrorist attack. Admitedly, not very likely. 

A principle in the anthropology of visual communication holds that “everybody notices everything.” Another is, “What we see we evaluate relative to our history, experience and worldview.” Yet another, “We tend to see what we want to see, and find what we’re looking for.” On the positive side, judgments relating to order help us to place ourselves and others within a social context. On the other hand, if we let them, our judgments can build walls of separation and encourage stereotyping. The order-disorder continuum alone, is therefore not a good criteria for making judgments about people.

Expanding the context from personal to social order, Margaret Wheatley, noted systems theorist and management consultant, offered social principles relating to the subject of order and organizations—how we compose our lives.

  • The messiness that plunges you into chaos never feels good, but it is, in fact, the source of new order. Life is intent on finding what works, not what’s right.
  • Organizations and societies are living systems. We live in a universe that is alive, creative, and experimenting all the time to discover what’s possible.
  • It is the natural tendency of life to organize—to seek greater levels of complexity and diversity.
  • Life uses messes to get to well-ordered solutions.

Expanding the subject even further, to the nature of reality, theoretical physicist David Bohm  developed the concept of “implicate” and “explicate” orders. Using the analogy of a rolled-up carpet, he proposed that we should think of the objective or Absolute Reality as a “pattern” that already exists, complete and fully formed within the roll. The pattern is already there, but hidden. As the carpet unfolds with time, parts of that pattern becomes visible and that’s the reality we experience. Dr. Bohm was one of the first scientists, extrapolating from quantum theory, who theorized that reality and consciousness constitute a coherent whole that’s in a process of unfolding.     

(Industrial Matting)

Chaos is infinitely complex order.

David Bohm

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My portfolio site: DavidLSmithPhotography.com

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III. Color / It’s Social Significance

Double Rainbow

This is the 3rd of 22 postings in the series, “The Aesthetic Dimensions.” The first, posted January 6, 2019, explains the series and deals with “Abstraction.” To follow the series, go to davidlsmithcontemplativephotography.com and click “Follow” (bottom right corner of the Home page). The postings will show up in your mailbox on Sunday mornings. To find other posts click on “Archives” and select a date.

Objectively speaking, the world is colorless. So is the sun. Our brains construct the sensation of color from various radiating wavelengths of photons, depending on how they are absorbed in and reflected by surfaces. Visible light occupies just a tiny sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum, constituted of wavelengths that stimulate our brains to interpret them as colors—for the sake of discussion here, the primaries of red, green, yellow and blue. We see a leaf as green because it absorbs the primary wavelengths except for green, which it reflects. 

Light has three properties that affect the sensation of color: “hue” specifies the wavelength and the name we assign to a particular color (red, yellow, pink), “saturation refers to a color’s richness (bland or intense), and “brightness” refers to its intensity.

I  want you to understand that there are no colors in the real world. There are no textures in the real world. There are no fragrances in the real world. There is no beauty. There is no ugliness. Nothing of the sort. Out there is a chaos of energy soup and energy fields. Literally. We take all that and somewhere inside ourselves we create a world. Somewhere inside ourselves, it all happens. The journey of our life.

Sir John Eccles

Aesthetically speaking, there are two phenomena that provide artists with opportunities to maximize color use in order to achieve a communication objective. They are “evocation” and “mixing.” Both have emotional and informational consequences. 

Color Evocation

To evoke is to arouse a feeling. Different hues evoke different emotional responses. Below is a listing of some of the emotions associated with common colors. Several websites go into further detail, describing the colors and the emotions they evoke. Television and video graphic designers are adept in using these correlations to creating emotionally effective commercials and political ads. With regard to evocation, the key question is: What do I want the audience (viewers) to feel?

Red Passion, aggression, importance

Orange Playfulness, energy or vitality, health, vibrancy

Yellow Happiness, friendliness. And negatively: anxiety and caution

Green Nature, stability, prosperity, financial safety

Blue Calm, serenity, security, safety. It’s trustworthy and inviting

Purple Mystery, luxury, romance, elegance, sensual

Violet Calm, spirituality, essence, stillness

Pink Femininity, youth, innocence

Brown Earthiness, outdoors, sturdiness, classy (in light tones)

Black Mystery, power, sophistication, elegance, edginess

White Clarity, cleanliness, virtue, health, comforting, purity

Gray Neutrality, formality, gloom, professional

Beige Calmness. It enhances colors surrounding it   

Color Mixing

Emotional responses to color are also affected by how colors are combined. And here, there’s a spectrum of choices ranging from color “harmony” at one extreme to color “discordance” at the other.

Color Harmony

'71 Corvette  Fern And Window Suspension Bridge

An image displays “harmony” when the colors within a physical or electronic frame are predominantly the same hue. There can be several or few elements within the frame, but most of them will be the same hue. And that hue can vary widely in saturation and brightness. With even a cursory glance at such an image, a viewer will readily say it’s “red,” or “blue.” 

Color harmony is used when the communication objective is to attract attention or evoke a mood. It accomplishes this by being unusual. In our everyday experience of the world, indoors and out, and without a frame, there are so many objects of different colors, it’s rare to find harmony. More often, it’s created. And because it stands out from the norm, it catches and holds our attention. Color harmony is a pleasing sensation.  

Out in the world with a camera, it’s a matter of shooting close and framing the shot to exclude elements with hues different from the primary subject matter. In the studio, it’s a matter of choosing a background, foreground, and other elements that are the same hue as the primary subject, irrespective of saturation and brightness. 

Color Discordance

Rusting Hull Spools Of Thread Clouds

Discordance in this context is the opposite of harmony, a matter of including many different hues within the frame. It’s much less challenging because that’s the visual norm in everyday life. Used deliberately, color discordance works best when the objective is to convey information rather than express or elicit an emotion. It accomplishes this by making each color a distinct and separate visual element. The more elements within a frame, the more information potential it contains—to be extracted or interpreted. Discordance can, however, evoke a sense of clutter, frenzy, or confusion, if any of those are desirable communication objectives. 

Contemplation: The Social Significance Of Color

There isn’t an object or experience I can think of that isn’t influenced or enriched by color. Color is a factor in the food we eat, the automobiles and appliances we purchase, the vacations we take, the creative activities we perform. We use it symbolically to distinguish differing political views, moods, traffic signals, and road signs. Color can trigger an identification, as in products and their logos. Colors are associated with groups according to the clothing and insignia. Astronomers use color to distinguish cosmic features and to measure the distance and composition of stars. Flowers and many birds rely on color for reproduction. It’s central to the seasonal life cycle of trees. And animals use it as camouflage. The list goes on.

American Flag

Colors can unite—an indication of harmony and unity—as when we respect the colors of a flag. And they can divide—an indication of discordance and division—as when we negatively judge or stereotype people according to skin color.

Back Of A Negro Man  Man on Beach

In this regard, I’m reminded of several lessons we learned in our physical anthropology class. For one, skin pigmentation evolved as a process of natural selection, an evolutionary feature that protected against the strong ultraviolet radiation for those living on or near the equator, and the equally important need for those closer to the poles to produce Vitamin D in the skin under conditions of low ultraviolet radiation. In the intermediate zones, human bodies developed the ability to gain and lose pigmentation from season-to-season through tanning. 

Another important lesson relating to skin color is that genetically, no human being alive has pure enough blood to be considered a “race.” The closest in 1974 was a dying group of Australian Aborigines, but even their blood was a mixture of many varieties of human and pre-human species. Now, because of advances in paleontology, we know that there were dozens of branches of hominids interbreeding that led up to “modern man,” some 30,000 years ago.

In  Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color, anthropologist, Dr. Nina Jablonski, writes that in ancient Egypt and other societies where there was dark to light skin pigmentation, “there were inequities of resources, trade imbalances and various kinds of disagreements, but the idea of calling another group ‘other’ because of skin color did not exist.” She cites Carolus Linnaeus as the man who, in 1757, classified human skin varieties as red Americans, white Europeans, brown Asians, and black Africans. A year later, he added categories that described their behaviors—Cholericus Europeans, Sanguineous Europeans, Melancholicus Asians, and Phlegmanticus Africans—based on ancient philosophers who erroneously wrote about human temperament being formed by the intensity of the sun.

Especially enlightening for me, Dr. Jablonski cites Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) as the  philosopher who coined the term “race.” He grouped people into four groups—whites, Negros, Mongolians, and Hindus — “according to their potential for civilization, their potential for developing higher thought, able to use reasoning. And these categories were immutable.” It was a rigid and hierarchical perspective that put the white race on top. Significantly, “he never left his living room.” All his conclusions regarding race were based on stories told to him by friends, colleagues, and explorers whose books he’d read. 

One of his philosopher friends, David Hume, wrote in 1748 that “…there was never a civilization or nation of any complexion other than white.” Yipes! Bad information, worse scholarship and philosophy, an expanding slave trade, corrupt and tragic alliances, and greedy commercial interests combined to indicate the inferiority of black people. Dr. Jablonski calls it “An imperfect storm of philosophy, economics, and quasi-theological forces (there’s nothing in the Bible that talks about discrimination according to skin color). All this contributed to the perspective that Negros, by virtue of biology, were inferior, fit only for servitude.”

Her book was amazing, a real eye-opener. And it validated my professor’s lesson, that “race” was entirely a social construct. There is no gene or group of genes common to any group of human beings—anywhere. 

I talk about color-coded memes (culturally transmitted ideas that act like a genetic trait). Color-coded race concepts become color memes that are stereotypes. And this lays the clear psychosocial template for racism. By the 19th century, color-based racism is the new reality in the United States and in many other countries.

Nina Jablonski 

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