Photographic Tension

By Gary Gray

The juxtaposition between motion and static provides photographic tension. Two different worlds existing in the same physical plane.Famous American landscape photographer Ansel Adams was once quoted as saying…

“There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.”

From my view of the road, Ansel’s words beg another question.
“What makes a good photograph?”

I can’t tell you what makes a good photograph, but I know it when I see it.

I’ve never found an absolute answer to my own question, but I think perhaps, the question may be more important than the answer. By asking “what makes a good photograph” the photographer can move their thinking beyond the simple explanation and towards the abstract abyss. The answer for me lies in the abstract.

Photographic Tension is an abstract concept. There are no rules one can pull from a list but there is a commonality to the quality that once grasped and practiced, will result in good photographs. Understanding your ability to grasp the the art of seeing and capturing the abstract will improve your photography.

To me, photographic tension is a primary consideration when analyzing a composition. That analysis may be hasty or studied, but seeing that tension and putting it to use in your photograph will require that you are aware of the existence of tension prior to taking the photo. Otherwise, you’ll be guessing and while guessing may give you an accidental success, the idea is to increase the recognition rate and thus increase the number of successful attempts. It’s the tension in your photographs that will strike the emotional chord in the viewer. Tension can create a negative reaction or a positive reaction in an image. It’s a feedback loop so to speak.

At a fundamental level, tension is derived from understanding the basic rules of composition we all learn when starting out. The rule of thirds, the golden circle, leading lines, geometric balance, etc…

The rules are the starting point but most certainly should not be considered as the destination. One can’t expect to simply break the rules and get a good result. One must understand the rules and then figure out the loopholes for those rules to get that exceptional enhancement.

When I look for elements of tension, I’m looking at the scene and trying to identify the elements that are going to create an emotional reaction to viewing the photograph. These elements can be concrete, but often they appear as nuance. A small nuance can create a great deal of tension, and that’s where the exceptional stands out from the mundane photograph.

Commonly used techniques include framing the image to enhance the viewers emotion by capturing a sense of motion or a sense of impending destination, or it may be an obvious emotional reaction captured on the face of one of the subjects. Often it can be something totally warped. You’ve heard the phrase “opposites attract”, so taking that concept into account can also create tension. A typically normal scene with some abnormality dialed into the composition is a recipe for creating tension.

Photo by my father, Anthony F. Gray

The above photograph of the child holding a pistol is reminiscent of the famous Diane Arbus photo of the child holding a hand grenade (for those with the memory.) I never knew Diane Arbus, but I knew my father fairly well and his photograph from the late 1950’s predates Diane’s photo and it exploits the culture of the time and the sense of normalcy, that same sense of normalcy as Diane’s photograph did. I seriously doubt that there is any cognitive connection between the two beyond both photographers having the vision to see the abnormal and exploit it.

How one frames the composition can often add positive tension to the scene.

Canyonlands area along the Colorado River near Moab, Utah.

In the above photo, I based the photographic tension on breaking the rule of thirds by framing the image higher than expected. The road at the bottom of the frame gives the sense of scale and leads the eye into the scene. As your eye moves up in the frame, you begin understanding the depth of the scene. Small road at the bottom cramps the scene and is only significant to explain larger rock formations turning into gigantic cliffs and the dominant blue sky with clouds above it. A progression to a sense of infinity and how minuscule our existence truly is in nature. The road is fundamentally there to make you examine the rest of the photo. Exploiting the sense of scale is a good way to add tension to your photograph as is cramping the scene.

Framing the scene to create tension can often enhance the photograph by creating negative space. Take this simple image of a cow moose looking into the camera.

A closely cropped head shot framed to cut off the ears and to keep the subject to one area of the image, enhanced by giving a great deal of attention to nothing, ie, the typical brush a moose is found in. That negative space pushes the eye to look in a different area to get to the hero of the photo. That is tension. Forcing the viewer to move their eye with a pleasing result, obscuring totality with a pleasing result.

Action creates tension. Emphasizing movement and conflict and by cramping the frame to enhance this quality is a good way to improve your inclusion of tension.

In the above photograph, I’ve captured two juvenile marmots playing. The marmot on the left is in a defensive posture and his position in the frame is cramped to the left side of the image to give a sense of entrapment, no where to go. The marmot on the right is dominant and as such I gave it more room in the composition. This adds tension to the scene and generates a higher emotional reaction to viewing the photo.

Busy can be good tension. If you listen only to camera club judges, you’ll get criticized for having a scene that looks too busy, and to a degree this is not fundamentally wrong advice; however, you can exploit busy to the point it becomes interesting.

In the above photograph, there is more junk in this photo to distract you but if you understand the setting it’s not really out of place and accurately depicts the organized chaos of a common tool shed. The cleared pathway leads your eye into the shed and from there you can explore the contents. Busy can be interesting, don’t rule it out because of a “rule” of simpler is better. You can learn to break the rules if you first understand them.

I can’t possibly explain every type of tension available as every photograph is unique and the elements of tension are infinitely variable.

Before you raise that camera and trip the shutter, give some thought to what you are looking at and exploit the interesting aspects of the scene in a way that will ring the emotional bell in the viewers eyes and private thoughts. Most of us have common experiences in life and it’s paying homage to those common experiences in a subtle way that’s going to push your photography skills to a higher level.