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Photographic Tension

Discussion in 'Creative Corner' started by jhob, Feb 26, 2010.

  1. jhob

    jhob Mu-43 Veteran

    Photographs are often described as having tension, whilst I can often identify tension I have never been able to define it, or to develop a real understanding of it.

    I know I would like to learn to generate tension in my photography but I'm not really sure how best to go about that, being as it is that I don't feel I have a real understanding of the concept.

    How would you describe tension and how would one best go about learning to create it within a photograph?
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  2. Iansky

    Iansky Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Dec 26, 2009
    The Cotswolds, UK
    Hi jhob,

    I guess what you have identified as "tension in photography" falls into two camps:

    1. The tension of the photographer when trying to capture an image against the clock/availability of the subject matter.

    2. The tension reflected in the image itself.

    The latter is the one most shared with others but can be linked to the first ( I often experienced tension as a working PJ when having to get an image that was a one off and people were trying to move me on or hurry me up).

    The tension in an image can manifest itself as an event about to unfold that can be seen in the image and pre-visualised by the viewer and we see this often in war photography and more recently in images of disasters, the mud slide approaching the people in the street - you know it will happen and can visualise a possible outcome but the image only shows the before, your mind fills in the rest.

    You see it in some of the great masters of yesteryear - Robert Capa and his images of war, especially the image of the soldier just shot and falling during the Spanish Civil War, Henri Cartier Bresson and his image of the man jumping the puddle - will he make it? - all good stuff that stirs the viewers imagination and creates a tension due to not having a definitive outcome but sews the seed for others.

    Weather can also create tension in an image, powerful rough seas, storms, lightning all images that can make the viewer almost feel the tension at the time the image was taken.

    I guess the essence of all this is - if an image can hold your attention long enough to make you think about what happened next, or almost feel the same climatic conditions that the photographer felt then you are living the image and the associated tension it presents.

    Deep stuff that is tried by many but mastered by the few!
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  3. jhob

    jhob Mu-43 Veteran

    Thanks for that great response Ian, it was indeed the latter that I was thinking more of. When I was writing the post I had Henri's man jumping over the puddle in my head, and much of Martin Parr's work.

    Thinking about it more I suppose could be anything that makes the viewer think about the image from something other than a purely aesthetic viewpoint. Maybe summed up as a picture that tells a story, or part of a story - often the beginning, leaving the viewer to conclude it, or at least think about the possible conclusions.

    I also recognise tension as a compositional tool - this is harder to define, there's less, or even an absence of, the story-telling aspect but you can feel the tension of the image because of the arrangement of elements. I really can't define this at all but what I have noticed is that having three important elements in the picture is an often used device, and the arrangement of which can be used to create tension. That sounds awfully wooly but I can't describe it any better!

    I'm definitely interested in learning more about this.
    • Like Like x 1
  4. Iansky

    Iansky Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Dec 26, 2009
    The Cotswolds, UK
    I agree and we are both talking about the same thing.

    Compositional tension is another aspect and in this I am reminded of the images taken of the workers having lunch whilst sat on the girders of the Empire State Building during it's construction, the elements of human form, foreground structure they are sat on then the huge void between those areas and the surrounding buildings below creates a tension of both compositional form and possible consequences.

    Views from high structures that have tension often feature a couple of immediate and close focal points and then a void to another plane below - this again all makes the viewer consider the possible consequences of a slip/ fall / collapse etc - or is it just me?

    I remember when I was in the military, part of my job involved throwing myself out of perfectly serviceable aircraft ( well the RAF were great at takeoffs - landings, or controlled crashes as they called them........not so good so better to get out halfway) I digress - I managed to get a few free rides as I knew some of the flight crew and was able to photograph some of the men as they stood by the open door of the aircraft ready to jump, you could see and almost smell and feel the tension viewing the men at the open door looking out and waiting for that green light - the simplicity of the silhouette of man with parachute on, the open door with blurred ground flying past below and the bright glowing red light really created tension from a few small elements of the image.
    • Like Like x 2
  5. Streetshooter

    Streetshooter Administrator Emeritus

    Dec 15, 2009
    Phila, Pa USA
    There is another kind of tension and I will post about that later. I have to finish processing the mission from today....

    Look at the Visual Map. This is more accurate for photography than the rule of thirds. If you are open to seeing...then you should see the rule of thirds in here.
    Look at the inner most dot. See the way the eyes pull to it from the center. Look at the outer dot...see how the eyes pull from the edge AND the center.
    It would be good to make this map on a piece of paper. Make it on like an 11 x 8 or so. Make some small dots from some paper and move them around the map....do 1 at a time until you FEEL the tension. Then play with 2 and so forth.

    When you compose on your screen, visualize this map and place your subject matter where you want...you will FEEL tension after a spell. VISUAL TENSION is not the same as emotional tension. So what works well is juxtaposition. Juxtaposition is creating opposing forces on the visual map.
    I learned this at a very young age and I made a clear sheet of copying paper into the map. I then placed it over photographs from all the greats...Then I learned how they thought about PLACEMENT.... Try it, you'll like it... I believe some cameras have this in the grid setup but I think it has the rule of thirds also which negates this map....

    We're not painters, we're shooters and we need our own way of doing things....

    Attached Files:

    • Map.
      File size:
      11.8 KB
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  6. BBW

    BBW Super Moderator Emeritus

    Great thread. I've been eavesdropping - it's a great learning tool sometimes. Thank you all.
  7. Justified_Sinner

    Justified_Sinner Mu-43 Regular

    Feb 11, 2010
    Scotland, UK
    Dauvit Alexander
    Thanks for that Streetshooter! I was just off trying to compose a similar explanation - coming from an arts background specifically - and came back to find you've done it better!
  8. Streetshooter

    Streetshooter Administrator Emeritus

    Dec 15, 2009
    Phila, Pa USA
    It's because I have family in Hawick....
    Scots think alike.....
  9. jhob

    jhob Mu-43 Veteran

    Thanks for that shooter, I'll give it a go!

    Thanks everyone for your contributions to this thread, it's been a great read so far.
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