Thinking Visually

The Structure of Photographs

By Russel and Wendy Kwan


  • One of the ways we instinctively organize the complexity of the visual world is to group similar looking things together.
  • The obviousness of the group members in their context is important – if the members are not easily seen, the grouping is easily broken.
    Not only are similar looking things grouped by our minds, but often, a relationship between the things is implied, and the group itself is seen as a single entity.
  • This is an opportunity to show not only relationships, but the individuality of the group members.


  • Our idea of the actual shape of 3D objects is an abstraction, built up in our minds through visual perception.
  • The mental model of the actual shape of an object in our visual field is built up of a series of observations as we apprehend the object from many angles.  This takes some time to happen, especially for unfamiliar objects.
  • Photography, in its single 2D view does not allow this process to happen at all.  This creates special problems for both the photographer and the viewer:  the photographer has to somehow insinuate the true shape of objects solely with viewpoint, and the viewer must somehow interpret that view.
  • The photographer can choose to show objects in a way that allows viewers immediate identification (and gratification) or not.  This is an opportunity:

Sharpening and Leveling

  • No, this has nothing to do with Photoshop.
  • Sharpening:  accentuating or exaggerating salient features to distinguish a particular object from its prototypes (its normal or general form).
  • Leveling:  diminishing or eliminating distinguishing characteristics to make a particular object universal (abstracting it to its normal or general form).
  • Our minds use sharpening and leveling to help remember the visual features of individuals and classes – this is how caricatures work.
  • Our minds automatically do this – but cameras don’t.
  • This is a major reason that pictures often don’t turn out like you thought you saw them.

Buzzword Questions for Photographers

Do your pictures deliberately suggest relationships by showing obviously similar objects in the same frame?

Do your pictures deliberately suggest (or not suggest) the complete 3D form of the objects in the frame?

Leveling and Sharpening:
Do your pictures deliberately seek to make objects look more “general” (leveling) or more “distinct or individual” (sharpening)?

Take-Home Assignment

  • Choose a favourite subject.  Just one subject, please.
  • Explore that subject along the axes of the ideas we have presented today:

Show your subject in ways that make it very easy to identify, and then show it in ways making it very hard to identify.  Do this exclusively with viewpoint.  Example:  Make a duck look exactly, unmistakably like a duck.  Then, make a duck look like anything but a duck – using no tricks, just viewpoint.

Show your subject as a member of a group.  Make sure your viewers can easily identify the group members.  See if you can find ways to show the group as a separate entity.  See if you can show more than one group in a single picture.  See if you can show some aspect of group behaviour.  Example:  Show ducks as a flock.  Make sure the boundaries of the flock are clear.  Make sure we can tell who’s in the flock, and who isn’t.  Show some aspect of flocking behaviour.

Leveling and Sharpening:
Show your subject in as simple, universal a way possible (leveling).  Show your subject as a special, unique example of its class (sharpening).  Example:  Show a duck as a supreme, perfect, idyllic example of its species (leveling).  Show a duck as an individual, completely identifiable and separate from all the ducks around it (sharpening).

  • Don’t choose “ducks” as your subject, just because we used them as examples.  Choose something that has personal meaning for you.  (yes, it might turn out to be “ducks”)
  • Choose 3 pictures to show the group on review night.  Be prepared to talk a little about what you discovered.