Breadth

Techniques

May 5, 2022 ·

Andrew Molitor

Some years ago I was reading Henry Peach Robinson’s book Pictorial Effect in Photography (a text from the 1860s) and ran across a compositional device he termed “breadth” under the discussion of chiaroscuro. I hadn’t seen this term before and spent some time with his rather confusing description of it.

The general idea, as nearly as I can tell, is this: while a photograph is a collection of various tones which delineate the various objects in the frame, there is also a larger sense of overall tone to be considered.

Ansel Adams spent a great deal of time banging on about a complete range of tonal values, from rich blacks to white whites, and this has been largely taken as gospel. You can still find, without difficulty, people who will judge any photograph that lacks strong blacks or strong whites as flawed, irretrievably damaged. But in no reference newer than Robinson’s book have I found any specific discussion of how tone “in the large” ought to be distributed.

The answer Robinson gives is essentially that there should be a clear and fairly smooth transition from dark areas to light areas. One can visualize this as a dark foreground, rising through the mid tones of a far away landscape, up into the brilliant whites of the sky, perhaps.

There’s a standard trick for looking at photos, especially black and white photos: squint until the photo is a blur. This gives you an overall sense of how tone is distributed. Things like the point of highest contrast pop out, the overall balance of the frame, and so on. Right now, I’m talking about what you can learn about the overall distribution of tone.

Once you grasp the idea you begin to see this everywhere. It is astonishing to me how many of the iconic photographs exhibit this idea of breadth.

The prototype for what a picture with breadth looks like when you squint at it is this:

A simple gradient, almost black lower left trending smoothly to almost white upper right
Basic Gradient

Notice that there is a full range of tones, but also that the tones are distributed broadly across the frame. Darker at the bottom, for “weight”, although I think this is not necessarily always what you want. A diagonal thrust from  light to dark is probably more dynamic than simply a vertical or horizontal thrust.

Another, more complicated example:

Dark lower right, trending to nearly white, and then then back to dark again as you move up and to the left
Complex Gradient

There is a bit more to it than this, of course. There is a general idea that you should place a few patches of light tone into the dark areas, and vice versa, to produce a pleasing result, and on and on with various bits and pieces of theory. But this is the basis of breadth. A full range of tones, distributed in a pleasing sweep across the frame, usually with a bit of diagonal thrust.

Let’s look at a few examples.

General trend of darker on the left and lighter on the right
Lilies

There’s a fair bit of visual interest here with little dark bits in the light areas and vice versa, but there is a pretty clear trend dark-to-light as you proceed from upper left to lower right. Here it is with a large radius Gaussian blur applied:

The general trend of tone from the previous image is illustrated, dark to light, upper left to lower right
Blurred Lilies

I count this as a technically very successful image for several reasons, notably its use of breadth, although I’m not sure it means much of anything.

Here’s another one, with a more complicated trend of tone:

A tulip is reflected in a dark pool
Tulip Reflected

And here is is with a blur applied, to show the general trend, essentially a round region of light trending off to darkness in all directions:

A light disk in the upper portion of the frame trends outward to darkness in all directions
Blurred Tulip Reflection

Let’s look at a picture that lacks breadth and see what’s going on. I’m not certain how I made this, but I think it’s a basil flower on rock salt, lit from below. It was an exercise, and while there are many things to like here, it’s just not a good picture.

Flower on Rock Salt

It should be pretty obvious that this is an unsatisfying picture. Interestingly, while it has a full range of tones, but it feels very flat. Let’s look at it blurred.

A generally grey mass, not strong tonality left
Blurred Flower on Rock Salt

We can see that when you blur it, there are no strong tones left, no real contrast. It is flat. It looks flat, because in this sense, it is very flat. There is probably some essay on the neuroscience of vision I could insert here, but the details probably don’t matter. The result is obvious, I think.

Here’s another example. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say this is perhaps the picture I like best of everything I have ever shot. But, it’s weak on breadth.

Tulips in vase lower left, with some dark tonality, against a light greay background trending (weakly) dark to light from the bottom up
Tulips in Vase

And again, let’s blur it and see:

Weak breadth, but still a fairly graceful sweep of tone dark to light, lower left to upper right
Tulips Blurred

We see that appealing diagonal thrust, lower left to upper right, of the overall tonality. The white, at any rate, is strong, but the blacks are weak. One could argue that the contrast of spiky/busy tulips against the smooth almost featureless background supports this adequately. Still, if I take another crack at this someday, I’m going to burn the bottom third down a fair bit to see if it gets better.

Once you start looking at the canonical work, especially black and white landscape, you will notice this same business, over and over. A graceful sweep in the “overall tonality” as often as not nearly black in a low corner and nearly white in the opposite one, with little bit of opposing tone tucked into the larger regions. Bits of dark tone in the light areas, and/or bits of dark tone in the light. Just enough to be interesting, without interrupting the overall sweep of tone.

Allow me to indulge myself in closing. It is on bases like this that I persist in thinking of Ansel  Adams as the last of the Victorian Pictorialists, contrary to his standard classification as a modernist. His pictures are unrelenting in their breadth, and their embrace of this and other painterly methods and ideas. Only if you insist that Pictorial work be “all fuzzy” can you fail to lump  Adams in with the Pictorialists who preceded him.


Andrew Molitor
May 2018

 

 

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Andrew Molitor

Andrew became a mathematician about the time the internet became the world-wide-web, but fell in to software development by accident. After 25 years of that he's just Dad. All along, Andrew took pictures, some of them small ones, and formed opinions, some of them big ones. He lives in Bellingham, WA, with his beautiful wife and two small daughters. Andrew's slightly unorthodox ideas for the beginning photographer can be found here: http://intro-to-photography.blogspot.com/

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