I was thinking about how we see things.
I spend a lot of very happy time looking at paintings and I was looking at the still lives in the Rijksmuseum recently. It’s not a genre that’s engaged me much previously. So I spent a bit of time with these, looking and listening to what the audio guide had to say. (Tip – it’s really helpful so thank you, Rijksmuseum!)
What struck me was the tendency to total clarity throughout the whole image from front to back. And the efforts the painters made to try and get the illusion of depth into their pictures. Here’s a classic, Heda’s Still Life with a Gilt Cup.
It’s got all the tricks of the trade in it – the table’s tilted artfully to allow us to see across more of its surface. There’s a front and a back edge to the table to give some feeling of depth. There’s lemon peel trailing over the front edge to try and give three dimensionality – something breaking through the front edge and coming towards us. It’s obviously gorgeous – the rendering of the goblet and the pewter (?) jug are startling. But everything is pin sharp in focus. And, as you know, anyone who takes pictures for a living spends a lot of their working life thinking about focus – the way it’s set at a particular point and what’s the effect of that.
Heda’s painting is from 1635 – hundreds of years before the development of photography. There’s no question of him thinking about a specific point of focus and a depth of field (the range of stuff that’s crisp in focus) around it.
Here’s George Hendrik Breitner’s The Singel Bridge at the Paleisstraat in Amsterdam, 263 years later…
Here there’s no attempt to render clarity through the whole frame. Instead, we’re seeing past the woman in the fur stole in the close foreground. She’s blurred and there’s a point of focus set further back in the frame. It’s no surprise to learn from the Rijksmuseum’s notes that Breitner was a keen photographer. He used photographs in his studio to inform his painting. He’s painting much more how the camera sees and is using the camera’s effect of locking a point of focus and a depth of field to give depth to his picture.
OUR WORLD THROUGH A LENS
Now, 124 years later, our eyes and brains are obviously saturated with photographic and cine or TV images. In every image, there’s always been either a choice or effect of setting focus in a particular part of the frame. Anyone who teaches camera, like I do, bores on and on about depth of field and how to manipulate it. OK, sometimes you might deliberately go for complete clarity from front to back by using a tiny camera aperture giving a vast depth of field in an Ansel Adams sort of way…
But our eyes have become trained to see narrow depth of field images as “cinematic”, as lending intimacy to what we’re seeing. Routinely, in TV documentary work, we use it to give depth to our shots and to draw attention to the principal subject.
Think of all those legions of focus pullers in the movie industry, carefully marking lens barrels so they can gently shift focus from, say, the front to the back eyelash of the main character in close up. That’s depth of field and how precise it can be.
Does that mean our “way of seeing” changes over time – just as Breitner’s did with the development of photography? Will images with total front-to-back clarity start looking strange to people brought up on a moving image with a restricted depth of field? And will that change again for people brought up with different visual technologies?
ARE SMARTPHONES GAMECHANGERS?
I also teach folk about filming with a smartphone. It’s an incredibly handy capture tool for almost hyper-real images – every frame can be crystal clear. But humans of my age are further back on the curve – we’re used to seeing movement at 1/50th or 1/60th of a second. That’s slow enough to give a slight blur to movement. And we’re used to images running at 24 or 25 or 30 frames per second (fps). That, we’re told, is how to show movement as convincing and fluid. It gives a bit of blur to movement but not too much.
Accordingly, I teach people on my smartphone courses how to lock the frame rate at 25 frames per second (fps) and how to lock the shutter speed at 1/50th. And then how to control the exposure level at settings where the smartphone camera is plainly unhappy.
Left to its own ingenious devices, the on-board camera will do whatever the hell it likes with shutter speeds. It will whack them up into the 1/1000ths because it doesn’t have the option of closing down the aperture – the second of the key variables on any camera. Remember – how big is the hole in the lens (aperture) and how long is it open for (shutter speed). That’s how we control how much light is hitting the layer of film or the electronic plate inside the camera.
Who’s to say we’re right to tell people that? Sure, for people like me brought up on decades of films and documentaries filmed at 1/50th shutter speed and 25fps, it’s what we see as “real” and convincing. But who’s to say that’s right? Or that a younger generation whose visual understanding comes more through computer screens won’t see filmed reality differently?
Who’s to say we’re right to tell people to film documentaries at 25fps progressive scan and news and current affairs and sport at 50 interlaced. Why, exactly, do we perceive one as being more “filmic” and softer and appropriate for movies, dramas and documentaries with pretensions. (And Lord, I’ve made my share of those, usually in black and white).
COMPOSITION – RULE OF THIRDS
Will our ideas about picture composition change over time and technologies? We teach people to frame on their thirds lines with two thirds looking room on the “empty” side of the screen. How will that look to a generation brought up on social media timelines where we only see the centre area of the frame?
Or how about aspect ratios – how wide and how tall the image is?
We favour 16:9 ratio or wider because it’s more “cinematic”, my love. Does that always apply? I’ve noticed increasing numbers of films using a much more “old fashioned” and boxier 4:3 ratio. This most recently on The Quiet Girl, the beautiful debut film from Colm Bairéad.
LANDSCAPE AND PORTRAIT
Am I even right telling people to film landscape on their phone when nearly everything they see on Tik-Tok is filmed vertical?
Who’s to say Heda’s way of seeing his meticulously structured and crystal-clear focused still lives was somehow wrong? Or that Breitner was in some way right to present his image through the particular physics of a glass lens.
I wonder whether, for people under, say 21, phone video will look just fine and will be their way of perceiving reality. In which case they can happily ignore 50% of what I teach on courses.
SOFTENING THE IMAGE
We spend an awful lot of effort in the TV world softening/degrading/partially obscuring the image the camera is capturing. I know this is true times ten in the cinema world. The camera manufacturers strain every sinew to deliver ever more incredible definition. But very many interviews I read with renowned DoPs tell how they fitted the camera with 30 year old vintage lenses to soften the edges or whatever. Human beings can’t bear too much reality, they say.
Who’s to say that’s right? Will a future audience will expect/want/demand crystal clarity from their images when they’ve been raised on 8K virtual reality, for example. Maybe the future is clear.
What’s your thoughts? I’m told it’s foolhardy to post an email address on a webpage but do let me know through the contact button. I have lifted two of these photos from the Rijksmuseum’s fantastic website. Thank you.