Magic and Photography

Or perhaps this article could be titled The Magic of Photography. Magic (illusion, prestidigitation, sleight of hand) and photography have much more in common than might seem immediately evident.

I am an amateur magician, and a card carrying member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians. That means I know how some tricks (illusions, deceptions) are accomplished and can perform a few as well. Indeed I have even created some of my own illusions. Being a brother in magic also means I have agreed to not reveal secrets to those outside the brotherhood. Fortunately there is no such oath for photography.

In magic there are basic underlying principles – both in the presentation and in the methods used to create illusions. In photography there are several immutable principles that govern optics and exposure as well as principles of composition and human nature that effect how we perceive things. Both magic and photography use these principles of perception. Both are about what should be emphasized and what must be eliminated from the observer’s perception.

Magic uses the word exposure, for example. In magic exposure governs the allowable viewing angles. Some effects are astounding unless the audience happens to be in an exposure zone and is perceptive enough to notice a concealed object or apparatus. In a photograph the selection of strong viewing angle or vantage point can create a scene that draws the viewer in – while a poor angle creates visual chaos.

What you Appear To See

In both photography and magic it is what you appear to see that lead to a satisfying experience – and sometimes the experience is as much about what you do not see! For example in the Photo 1 below of the Buttermilk Mountains near Bishop, California, I moved low and to the right to remove the road and the pile of tractor tires from the scene. My intention, however, was not just to conceal the distractions but also to place the blooming rabbit brush into the foreground to create four distinct layers of color. I could have gone one step further and cropped out the tiny bit of road that remains but I’ll bet you didn’t notice it (hint, look in the lower left).  In magic this would be called hiding in the open. For example a magician might hold a coin behind a dollar bill. If you have no reason to suspect that a coin is concealed there you will never notice unless the magician clumsily handles the bill or flashes the coin.

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Photo 1: Unseen are a road and tires. Visible are 4 distinct regions of color in this photo of the Buttermilk Moutains near Bishop, California

Viewing Space

Close up magicians like to work within a visual space approximately the size of a computer monitor or small television. They call this framing. As long as the magician can maintain your focus in the viewing area you are very unlikely to notice a surreptitious snatch of an object from a pocket or table top. If  you have ever seen a good magician perform a classic cups and balls routine, it can be downright stupefying to see an object as large or larger than the cup appear beneath it! Magicians have a huge advantage over a photograph though. Magicians can engage and distract their viewers visually, audibly and with motion.

A photograph, however, is purely visual and can only imply motion or sound. Of course a photograph also has a border and thus a frame. The size and distribution of elements within and near the borders of an image can create pleasure or dissonance. I have often heard the mantra to fill the frame with the subject and with good reason. If the primary element of the image is small then viewers are likely to wander in the picture searching for meaning and connection – and less likely to find it. Photography can employ devices to aid with this problem. Framing devices such as tree branches, fences, and terrain features can bring attention to the main thing.  Leading lines and “S” curves are very pleasing, too when they draw the eye where the key element of the shot is.  A photograph that has too many elements makes it harder to understand what is important.  Selective focus is another tool in the photographer’s arsenal. What is bright, and what is in focus draws the viewers interest therefore whatever is important in the image should be well focused and whatever is a distraction should be removed from the frame or blurred in a pleasing way.  A magician has an advantage – he can easily distract (misdirect) you with a noise, a question, or a gesture. A photograph, however, is unchanging and must be well composed or its message is thwarted.

Contrast and Visibility

Did you ever wonder why magicians often perform coin magic with old silver dollars? It is certainly not because silver dollars are more magical than a US dime, but the old US silver dollars are much larger – and thus easier to see. In photography making your subject stand out from the background is the analog of the magician’s large coin. Indeed a classic of magic involves changing a large silver coin into a large copper coin. It is pretty astounding because the two coins are easily contrasted. I have changed a silver US quarter into a Canadian quarter and guess what… nobody notices! The coins are the same color and size so the viewer never catches on unless the coin is the sole focus.

In a similar way a photographer can employ negative space – a large empty area to set off their subjects, or strong color, light or tonal differences to emphasize the key element.

Implication and Scale

The truth about magic is that it is not what is seen that is amazing. It is what the observer believes they have seen. Surprise comes not when a pen is thrust through a dollar bill but when the pen removed and the bill appears unharmed.  Of course there is a rational explanation why there is no trace of damage: the pen did not really go through the bill (it just appeared to do so), or the actual damage done is hidden from view, or perhaps the pen is not what it appears to be. And guess what: all three methods of penetrating and restoring a bill are used! All three methods result in a similar experience for the observer.  In photography, like in magic, there are many adjustable variables in an exposure. One can vary the aperture, sensitivity, time, angle, light or direction and all can produce nearly identical results – albeit with some important and subtle differences.

I see lovely pictures of waterfalls all the time. But the experience of a waterfall is very different from a photo. Standing near a waterfall I hear the sound, feel the wind and coolness of the water and perceive its size. In a photo how do I get those connections? Unless the photo contains clues water flowing over pebbles and water flowing over enormous boulders look identical. Ambiguity in scale can be intriguing, but it can also be frustrating.  Where the scale of the scene is important to the impact of the image something of known size must be present – e.g. a person or a leaf. Some element in the image should also give the viewer a sense of orientation – a principle that Galen Rowell calls “visual daylight“. We literally get that visual daylight in the original, uncropped Photo 2 – complete with trees and warm sunlight. This image was taken at the end of Whitney Portal Road in the High Sierra west of Lone Pine, California.

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Photo 2: A relatively small waterfall with plenty of clues about the scale - including trees and leaves. And the long exposure (1/2 second) gives a sense of motion.

Photo 2 could have a stronger impact. For starters, the branch across the top is rather distracting. Cropping the original photo (see Crop 1) to provide a vertical treatment gives a strong verticality, and a diagonal S curve. The water seems to flow in at the upper left and out at the right with plenty of clues about what it is and the size. The perspective feels like we see it while standing in the stream (which I was!) and from a low angle.

Crop 1: Shaped like this emphasizes the verticality and the water.

A traditional landscape view completely changes what we are seeing. The image is now about the boulder – or the fall we can not be sure which and it is less appealing. The boulder feels like a big stop sign telling us not to enter into the scene.

Crop 2: A more traditional landscape format. It lacks the interest of the original in part because we are not sure what the subject is.

Cropping off the distracting branches, but leaving in a rock at the lower right we now can appreciate the boulder and how it is part of the scene but not feel blocked by it. While the viewing angle has not changed this Crop 3 gives a sense that we are now looking downward onto the scene.

Crop 3: Here the branch is removed and the photo flows diagonally from the upper left to the lower right through a diagonal S curve. This treatment is less curvaceous than Crop 1.

We have now looked at 4 views identical in every respect except how they have been framed. Good magicians think about and structure their performance with framing in mind. They must present coherence in subjects and motion, and leave out extraneous and distracting elements. And all of these concepts are also true of photography!

Go out and create a magical photograph – but do not expect that Abracadabra will get it done alone. Invest some practice and thought.

I hope you always find your light magical and your subjects enchanting.

What do you think about this?