The dimensions of photography

Those who understand photography as essentially a two-dimensional medium – width and depth – impose unnecessary limitations on themselves. And they miss out a lot of the fun. In fact, the way you to develop your own visual style, is to recognise that every time you photograph, you are operating in no fewer than seven dimensions of the image … and  that’s in addition to the image’s two physical dimensions.

The first four dimensions of the image define could be dismissed as merely the image’s features. But they are much more interesting than that. Think of using technical controls not as a means to get the image right (frankly, modern cameras mostly take care of that) but to get the expression right, to get your images to speak in a just the right ‘voice’.

One dimension is Exposure: your image lies somewhere between the extremes of plain white and complete black. Usually, of course, your image sits comfortably somewhere in the middle. But the further away from the middle, as moody low-key or breezy high-key,  the more expressive your image can be.

Next is the dimension of Tonality. At one extreme, you have just two tones: black or white, with nothing in between. At the other extreme you have – not millions of tones as you might expect – but only one, that is, it is flat; either white or black or any grey in between; but only a single tone. Needless to say, most of the interesting things occur somewhere in between: there’s a gradation of tones. A gradation near one extreme gives you a racy high-contrast image, while nearer the other extreme, you enjoy the softness of tonality – with corresponding variation in the visual impact.

Colour, of course, offers another dimension of control. This extends, as you might expect, from black-and-white at one end to highly saturated colours at the other, with normal colours taking the middle ground. Exactly how an image handles colour in this dimension is not merely a question of accuracy, but also of expressiveness: vivid colours stimulate sensations that are altogether stronger and more aggressive than pastel or near-neutral colours.

Focus defines our fourth dimension. You can choose to have nothing sharply in focus or more or less blurred, or at the other end of the scale, you render everything perfectly sharp with your choice depending on the visual statement you wish to make or the response you wish to evoke in your viewer. It is interesting to note that the photograph becomes its most two-dimensional when all elements are perfectly sharp.


Images are of course not meaningless mashes of colours and tones. They signify something to us: they invite response or evoke feelings and, in a flurry of simultaneous activity, may also convey information and emotion. Your approach and understanding of the subject-focused sphere of the image sets the stage for your viewer’s response to your image: you knowingly try to shape and manipulate their thoughts and feelings. At the same time, understanding the dimensions in which you work will help you to refine your own expressive or interpretative style.

The easiest dimension to understand is the axis that runs between the Constructed and the Found image. A fully constructed image would be a still-life created in a studio or tableaux with models and staged lighting: every element is deliberately styled and created; all carefully planned beforehand. In contrast, the found image is one over which the photographer exercises no control, and the examples obvious: coverage of war, news and even travel. A portrait photographer who exploits the surroundings he happens to find his subject in could be said to be working somewhere between the extremes of Constructed and the Found.

In the dimension of Objectivity, the photographer’s intention – whether stated or unconscious – is crucial. At one end, an image may be wholly objective, with no requirement beyond a factual record: a photograph of gas meters to document a dozen readings at once; a shot of an archaeological find in situ. As we slide along this dimension, images become more subjective: we move from making factual records to setting out to influence our viewer’s minds by arousing sympathetic emotions. We could photograph gas meters to convey the profligacy of modern society. Or we could present the archaeological find as unearthing the secrets of a dark past. Much of the time, we operate around the middle: wishing to show the subject accurately, but conveying some of our feeling for it.

The third subject-focused dimension measures the complexity of the image. At its most basic, the photograph records a static arrangement of elements. But we can stack up layers of meaning and emotion, using visual, compositional and extra-photographic means. We can compose the shot to exaggerate spatial relationships, or use blur to suggest motion. (You could develop an argument that in the spectrum between sharply-caught motion and blur is another dimension of representation.)

Furthermore we can juxtapose unexpected elements to surprise the viewer or suggest a narrative. And we can add text to create commentary on the image and manipulate the context in which it is viewed. This dimension differs from the Objectivity-Subjectivity axis in that an essentially scientific image can be highly complex: recording, for instance, elapsed time while also carrying textual labels.

Viewer responses

So far, what I’ve described are what you can do to your image, the many dimensions of your control over its content.

The fun really starts when someone views your image. The viewer brings a varied panoply of factors to their perception of, and response to, your image. It may be as fundamental as the quality of their eyesight – perhaps colour-blind or hazy from cataract. You may have thought it’s time I mentioned the implied third dimension of space. But the ability to ‘see’ space in a two-dimensional image is not innate, nor independent of culture. It has to be learnt. Even the referent of an image – what it represents – is something that has to be learnt.

Therefore, the perception of the content of an image – even before starting on more involved meanings – depends on education and culture but can be further complicated by their superstitions or religious beliefs. Responses can range from failing to register one image, to being profoundly moved by another. Or the same image may be barely acknowledged by one person yet it could be seared into the memory of another. There are few, if any, assurances on the response an image may evoke, even when it is examined closely.

In a world of globally available media, photographers must be aware that images will be viewed in contexts and perceived within frameworks of understanding which may be far removed from their own experience. This opens the door to exciting possibilities of new ways of communicating, of expanding the repertoire of  response to images. But the foundation should be the photographer’s own awareness of how they are constructing meanings with their images; in short, photographers need to know what they are doing.


(Extracted from The Complete Photographer.)

Would you like this in more detail? I’m preparing a fuller treatment in a forthcoming e-book of essays on photography ‘Ang on Photography’. To receive notification of its publication, please subscribe to the RSS feed (top and bottom navigation bar).

Copyright © TOM ANG/AngBookCo Ltd

2 Responses to “The dimensions of photography”

  1. George Brown 15/03/2013 at 9:18 AM #

    G’day Tom,
    Interesting what you say about being culturally aware. I raised a similar question on the ugly hedgehog forum ie Cultural differences in how we create an image. In the UK our images are usually muted – The US seems to like brighter and more saturated images ( to me often over processed ) It was argued that this may simply be a matter of light / altitude / ‘normal’ day time viewpoint (more sunny days, less overcast or rainy days, Arid versus greener countryside, giving a different expectation of normal)
    With a worldwide audience perhaps individual style is less of an aspiration. Where once your ‘style’ allowed you to break into your local market, now if an image resonates with a people that you have no experience of then your web market can be truly worldwide. There is also capacity to experiment beyond the barriers associated with one culture. As an international author of photography books you could probably see cultural acceptance of particular pictures or styles easier than the older photographers who remained fairly nationally acclaimed. Do you have to ‘change’ your artwork in your books so that they appeal to a particular market? What are the criteria that you would recommend for a particular ‘market’. Is that the next book?

    I enjoy your work, perhaps because we are culturally similar.

    kind regards

    • Tom 15/03/2013 at 5:05 PM #

      Thanks for raising a very interesting point. It’s, erm, rather multi-dimensionla in itself. The reception given to an image is really about as varied as, say, how you would be received in different contexts – your mates, your work colleagues, your family, amongst an undiscovered Irian Javan tribe, law court … it goes on. For a local example, showing a sunset over Twelve Apostles on a dreary winter’s evening tp a Welsh camera club may well cheer everyone up. At a Gold Coast camera club, you could be forced to buy everyone a drink for boring them so badly. So there are local effects in addition to cultural ones. I always like to bring up the fact that more than half the world reads right to left; this may be reflected in preferences for one composition over another. And remember that much of what is ‘known’ about human psychology, aesthetics, stylistics, and so on, is based on clinical experiements on or observations of WEIRD people – they are White, Educated (very often US college students at that), and from Industrialised, Rich Democracies.

      One reliable point of dissent is nudity. I’ve had a reviewer ‘warn’ other readers of bare breasts and butts in one of my books. Are you surprised to learn the reader was from the USA, land of the First Amendment? And of course I would like my website available to visistors from the Middle East, so sensitivty to their standards of decorum is needed.

      With picture sharing being now the dominant mode of consuming pictures, I’m tempted to coin the term ‘internalisation’ for what is happening to photographic styles of expression. We take in pictues from Russia, Brazil, Germany, UAE … on our Pinterest, Google+, Facebook, Flickr feeds but take littl recognition of where they’re from. Like it or not, we become influenced by what we like, and we start to make pictures akin to the ones we like. A great humungous homogeneity may result if we’re not careful. That’s why educating your eye is so important: you see a picture in the viewfinder and need to know it’s been done before. Then you can push to be different and better; that’s what improves your photography.