The Uniqueness of a Gradient

Gamle damplokomotiver samles fra hele landet og restaureres

I have in previous posts talked about the specific properties of photography, what makes it stand out from other works of art. My focus was – as it almost always is – the visual language, and in this case the visual language that is genuine for photography. In the post The Essential Property of Photography I talked about how the camera’s shutter is the most unique feature of the photographic process enabling the photographer to captured either decisive moments or alternatively, by time exposure, show the structure or form of movement, or express a feeling of speed or movement. In the post The Inherent Property of Photography I talked about the aperture and how this translates into important elements of the visual language, by determining the depth of field of a photograph.

But besides the graphic qualities dictated by the shutter and aperture, there is but one more feature that makes photography unique. It’s the continuous and infinite gradations of a tonal range that a photograph can reproduce. Before photography came about no other visual artistic expression was capable of producing such a smooth gradient. Painters have through all time used various techniques to mix colours to make a smooth transition between two separate tints or shades, but it was and is always based upon an illusion – not a real continuous and infinite gradation.

Photography was a first. Later with the digital era and computer aided design photography is no longer alone in being able to produce such a smooth gradient, but it’s still a characteristic feature that makes photography special, or as the renowned photographer Edward Weston once wrote: «[…] the unbroken sequence of infinitely subtle gradations from black to white [along with the recording of fine detail are the] characteristics which constitute the trademark of the photograph; they pertain to the mechanics of the process and cannot be duplicated by any work of the human hand.»

A continuous tonal gradient brings depth to the photograph. It displays the smooth surface of a sphere lit from the side. Or creates a feeling of three-dimensionality in a landscape when tones fade from dark towards light as the scenery recedes into the background.

It is light trailing over a surface that usually creates a gradient. And the quality of the gradient reveals the quality of the light. If the gradient is smooth it means the light is soft, coming from a large light source. If on the other hand the gradient is compressed and sharp it reflects the fact that the light source is harsh and small. Thus a gradient may be used to set an emotional tone in a photograph, from a gentle ambience to a more wild sensation.

A gradient is also related to form. A soft gradient depicts a smooth form while a sharp gradient depicts an edged and/or angular form. Form comes alive by the way it is lit, which again corresponds to how light emphasize the quality of the gradient. Also the angle of which the light falls on an object determines how its gradient is captured. A low angle will usually form a longer and smoother gradient while light angled 90 degrees onto the object will create a sharp gradient if at all. Thus form, gradient and light are all qualities closely connected.

Of course the tonal range of a gradient doesn’t have to stretch from full dark to the lightest of light, but may be limited to one end of the scale or another. This again will be another deliberate way to set the ambience of a picture, with darker gradients creating a more moody and gloomy atmosphere and a lighter gradient representing hope, happiness and harmony.

On a different note, I will want to warn you that I am about to close down the Picture Critique as I am leaving for an assignment in Nigeria by the end of the week. It’s only going to be a closure of this session, and I will get back with a new round some time into the new year. But if you have a picture you want to have critiqued now, you have only a couple of more days to post it before I close this session. I might not be able to critique pictures before I leave, but then I will get back to them when I return from Nigeria about a week later.

Go Light!


Why is it that for so many obsessed with photography the obsession goes all the way to the equipment – and for some even only to equipment? Like me, I don’t care about equipment on a rational level – and in a practical shooting situation, but as soon as Canon (and, yes I do like Canon!) comes out with a new version of my camera I crave for it – or a new improved construction of my favourite lens; I feel like I need it. Of course I don’t, because I do know that good photography isn’t about equipment, but about vision and creative flow. And why is it only us – photographers? When did you ever hear about a writer who needed the latest update of a computer before he or she could write the next novel? For one; I have never.

It’s a counterproductive obsession. The more equipment you carry, the less likely you are going to load it up on yourself and get out there and shoot. I think there are two reasons for this fixation. For one it appeals to the geek in (some of) us – and for those only interested in equipment it really complies with their nerdy personality (you need to watch out my friends!). Secondly – and more importantly – it’s a about fear of missing a shot. Any photographer dreads such an experience. So we amass every piece of gear we feel gives us that readiness to elude this to happen. Longer lenses, stronger strobes, cameras with ISO ratings that would astonish us only 5 years ago. We are pulled to this stuff like a magnet.

It’s all very deceptive. I am not talking about sports photographers who need that big 500 mm or wildlife photographers who need that 400 with and f-stop of 1.4 (if it only existed…), but you and me and most other photographers – professional or non-professional – who shoot daily life or people or landscape or architecture (I’ll give that the latter may find a tilt-and-shit lens very useful, though…) We don’t need 36 M-pixels, 15 frames a second, 51,200 ISO or even a 300 mm. Honestly! Of course if you are on an assignment you want to make sure you deliver. But that’s not what I am talking about. I’m talking about that thing in my brain that screams and throws a tantrum each time I set a long lens aside in favour of travelling lighter. It’s yelling at me, telling me how stupid I am when I let go of all my DSLR’s and everything that goes along with them.

But I have learned to ignore that pull. Yes, I will miss some shots, but not more than all the shifting between tons of equipment will do. On the contrary. I have learned that less is more (who said that by the way?). Really. I get more focused on what I can do instead of what I might miss. With loads of equipment I’ll miss moments because I’m wrestling with lens changes or a heavy backpack or the paranoia that my expensive gear is going to get damaged or stolen. With less equipment I will be more ready at any given time; I can concentrate on the life unfolding itself in front of me, I will have more time on the street or wherever I am, because I don’t need to rest so much as a result of carrying too much, and I can ease down and let things develop in a natural pace.

The fact is that art becomes better with more constrains. When you put a constraint on yourself and how you work it forces the creative process to shift into a fierier pace. So less ends up being more, again. Like the photographer David duChemin says: «I think it’s a sign of growth as artists when we begin to embrace, even create constraints, instead of trying so hard to avoid them.»

I mentioned travelling light. Often now when I go to a foreign land doing a travel story, I will only bring my Fujifilm X-10. That’s it and that’s that. And I really get all the shots I want to. Well, no, not those landscapes my 400 mm would have picked up, but I am anyway mostly a wide-angel kind of guy. So what’s the big deal? A little point-and-shoot camera (a little more advanced I admit to that) instead of 45 pounds of equipment? When I travel like this and meet fellow colleagues they mostly give me those big eyes, saying «you must be crazy – or not really a photographer.» Well, I know the difference between expensive camera-equipment and excellent photography, and sometimes I wonder if they do…

I would like to round of with a quote by the excellent photograph Edward Weston: «[A photographer’s] greatest asset is the directness of the process he employs. But this advantage can only be retained if he simplifies his equipment and technique to the minimum necessary, and keeps his approach free from all formula, art-dogma, rules and taboos. Only then can he be free to put his photographic sight to use in discovering and revealing the nature of the world he lives in.»