Aesthetic Preferences

This haunting little image was made before sunrise on a cold October morning. I was cruising the back roads in the hills of Amish country in mid-state Ohio, when I saw an orange light in the window and a whisp of smoke—not much else—as can be seen in the color image below. That original was tack sharp and very underexposed. When I saw the smoke I wondered if there was some gradation there, so I made a duplicate and converted it to black and white in Photoshop.

After teasing out some detail in the elements surrounding the house and boosting the exposure level I noticed that I preferred the black and white image, despite the appeal of the orange light in the window cutting through the overall blue atmosphere. The increased camera sensitivity and exposure boost in the black and white image resulted in a lot of “noise.” The graininess is very apparent when it’s enlarged even a little. Viewed at this size however, the black and white  appealed to my aesthetic, more so than the color image. You may disagree.

It raised a question in me. Considering that the  light in the window is what captured my attention on location, why do I now prefer the black and white image? As I was reviewing my black and white collection for possible images to contemplate this week, I stopped on this one and kept staring at it. I liked it but didn’t know why, and a theme wasn’t coming to mind. The nature of contemplation is precisely to hold the attention on something long enough that an insight can emerge. So I stayed with it, kept looking and asking that question.

I noticed that themes having to do with the occupants of the house, their economic situation or the Amish way of life didn’t appeal. Those weren’t tracks I wanted to explore. Looking at the images side-by-side, I realized that what captured and held my attention—made me stop to engage heart as well as mind—was the aesthetics involved. While the original image benefitted from simple color contrast—orange against deep blue—the black and white image had some “tooth” to it, expressed in the wispy tail of smoke, the woodland textures and fence, the swing set and slide, the light in the window and the hint of daylight on the front of the house.

Combined, these elements evoked in me the sensibility of “early morning” rather than the “middle of the night.” I usually prefer image simplicity, as few elements as possible to create impact. But here’s an instance where complexity—more information—shifted the statement from “Here’s a house where everyone’s asleep and the light was left on,” to “Someone in the family is up early, warming the house, preparing for the day.” In the color image there’s a light in the window. In the black and white image the light is in a person or family. There’s a sense of caring that comes across. Arguably, that’s one of the qualities that makes a “house” a “home.” Of course, the reality could be very different from the one imagined here, but the prerogative of the image maker is to express his or her personal preferences—a unique way of seeing.


In the dark we will always seek the light; that is the real bottom line.

Deepak Chopra

Title: Light In A Window / Smoking Chimney

Location: Baltic, OH (Amish Area)

Before I rolled down the window to take the shot I turned the car’s dome light on so I could see to crank the camera’s sensitivity (ISO) setting to increase the chances of actually recording something. I turned off the engine to eliminate vibration, braced myself and the camera for the slow shutter speed, made the exposure, closed the window and drove off hoping I could “fix it in post.”

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