Breadth - An enigmatic concept
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by Editor Wicher Bos
When you (as I do) like to understand how composition evolved over time and read historical books in my quest for answers, you will occasionally read about Breadth. Let’s dive in and see if we lost a valuable composition feature over time…
Some of the finest, effects are those which consist of broad masses of light and shadow. Breadth of effect is one of the most pleasing qualities in art; it harmonizes everything, and will give beauty to the ugliest objects.
Who doesn’t want that?
His contemporary, Alfred Henry Wall dedicated a full chapter to Breadth in his book published in 1861 (A manual of Artistic Colouring) although to be honest, it is at times a bit confusing…
Is breadth just about light and shade? Or more?
This characteristic must have been something very familiar and obvious to readers at the time, because it often is without further explanation. If breadth means anything it certainly means the harmonious relationship of every part with the whole, a concentration of every available power to strengthen a given purpose. Wall again:
…[The] inartistic photographer never recognises the value of subordination or breadth, his chief aim being that of rendering every object and all their details equally conspicuous, or as he says “sharp."
Linda Cranck in her blog (2015) summarizes "breadth of treatment" as: It is a quality that allows the viewer's eye to flow easily across a picture and is quite deliberately striven after by those artists who value it.
Not a new idea, listen to an old composition testing advice by Alfred Horsley Hinton in 1902 – Practical Pictorial Photography Part II:
This resolving of the picture into a black and white design or plan seems to present a difficulty to some, and yet there is no course of self-instruction more useful than endeavouring to translate any subject into its light and shade masses.
CAN WE STILL USE IT?
Note that “Breadth does not signify neglect of detail; it means simplification where unity had been threatened”. It is seeing the big side of small things, if the small things cannot be ignored.
Image analyses in Photoshop – make it monochrome and blur it… (I found a radius of 100-160 usually works well). If desired, adjust your light and contrasts to get a smooth spread. Our brain somehow distinguishes these subtle differences immediately.
The historical editing guideline I've found is:
· Avoid spottiness, smoothen lights and darks; Breadth is obtained by graded light.
· Make sure the eye passes the middle when scanning from contrast to contrast
· Consider the (as we call it today) natural visual weight in the image
Let me show two examples to illustrate the outcome of an analyses, I will not give you the originals, only these Breadth-images.
A not-accepted image