Signal to Noise-Compostion in photography


Sting in concert

Signal to noise: The ratio of useful information to useless information in any given photograph.

In the music industry “Signal to Noise” (S/N) is used to describe how much hiss is acceptable when amplifying a sound. Photographers use a similar concept when THINKing and composing an image. Anything distracting from the subject or idea is visual noise and should be removed or subdued.

In this image of rock star “Sting” the visual  story is clearly told with the minimum of visual cues so has a very high signal to noise value. We totally understand this image.

When applying FAST principals to your work you are basically increasing the signal quality of your image by optimizing your FRAME and FOCUS to include only the most valuable components. By selecting the optimal balance of APERTURE to enhance or specialize FOCUS and SHUTTER to control motion capture the photographer eliminates as much noise as possible.

S/N is probably the most valued skill in photo-journalism and shows up at it’s best in National Geographic type work. The photographer is consistently able to get into the right place at the right time and bring about a technically perfect image that moves the viewer of feel deeply connected with the time, place and situation. This is done by being FAST and applying S/N at every decision and is mostly unconscious at the professional level.

At the heart of S/N is the natural “eye movement” that a viewer has when looking at an image.

Your eye is drawn to the strongest element in the picture and then moves about the image. The Tic-Tac-Toe grid or helps control this natural eye movement by setting the subject off center to give the eye a chance to flow about the the image. By choosing the balance point off center the photographer creates a “relationship” between the subject and its environment.

One of the best ways to understand viewer eye movement is to study how you personally look at images. Consciously study what you look at first and then where do you look subsequently. Painters like photographers have to compose their images very carefully with one exception. Painters need to invest days while photographers only need seconds to capture their image.

Study Renaissance paintings to learn about eye movement. During this great age of creativity composition was studied in great detail and many of the discoveries are now rules such as the “Rule of Thirds” which we know as the Tic-Tac-Toe Grid.

Look at magazine ads and understand that those ancient “rules” are selling soap to nuts. This LINK illustrates Vermeer’s bold ideas about composition and eye movement by breaking the first rule and placing the most interesting thing of the composition at the exact center of the image. Using light and subject placement the master artist Vermeer immerses the viewer in a rich and thoughtful image with a message to seek balance in our every day lives.

Consider that a painter would not take time to paint in “noise”. Photographers must change vantage point or actually step in and change things to get rid of the noise. If you can’t move because there is an obstacle why not ask the subject to move a bit so that they block a distracting garbage can? The pro will get that clean beautiful shot. So can you.

  Shoot FAST
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