Music as a Metaphor for Photography

They say you can’t teach an old pony new tricks, but I don’t believe that’s true. Personally, in the last couple years, I’ve learned to dance, some Japanese, and how to develop film. Recently, I also decided to start learning to play the piano.

To give you a bit of background, you have to know that I never studied music or played a musical instrument, except for a brief time during elementary school. Back then they had us play the recorder, but I had completely forgotten about that.

On a whim, at the ripe age of 57, I thought that it was going to be now or never, so I bought a beginners’ keyboard and an online course and started practicing. Up to now it’s been a challenging and fun experience and–being one who relishes a fun challenge–I have been spending a huge amount of time sitting at my keyboard.

Rock band on stage

In the process of learning to play music, I discovered (or I should say I rediscovered) an interesting parallel between the act of making music to that of taking, developing, and printing photos.

This will come as no surprise to those who know Ansel Adams, who famously said:

“The negative is like a composer’s score, the print is like the performance.”

What Ansel was hinting at with his metaphor, I believe, is that the photographic negative is like raw material that has to be handled by a skilled performer that will extract from it all the nuances and details to make a great print.

It’s also interesting to think that music theory and photography use a lot of the same terms: Musicians and photographers alike talk of scales, tones, gradations, color, and more. Is it because they all inherited those terms from the world of painting? I don’t know, but would love to find out.

Singer with microphone

In my beginnings as a piano player, I learned that what makes a performer great is not accuracy. Of course, accuracy is very important, especially in classical music and, to me, hitting the right notes at the right tempo is incredibly difficult.

But what distinguishes an execution with no mistakes from a good or even great performance is the way the player infuses it with emotion through the use of dynamics.

The reason why the piano is such a versatile instrument is not only because it allows us to play ten notes (or even more) at once, but also because we can play the keys with a range of intensities that go from pianissimo to fortissimo. Hitting a key slowly produces a very soft sound that is many decibels away from what can be obtained by hitting the same key with high speed and force.

The sound can also be very short, if you hit and release the key immediately, or held for much longer, if you keep the key depressed. And let’s not even go into the use of the sustain pedal, which allows notes to ring even after the player has released the keys.

All this versatility endows the performer with a lot of expressiveness, if they know how to control it. To give you a clear and mildly embarrassing demonstration of this, I’ve put below a short video of myself playing the initial bars from W.A. Mozart’s Sonata no. 11 K 331, followed by the same bars played by a wonderful pianist, Marnie Laird. You can find the whole execution by Laird on YouTube by clicking here.

This was one of my first executions when I was able to hit all the right notes and the tempo is mostly good, without using a metronome, so I was understandably proud of myself. The piece requires some degree of hand independence and large movements with the left hand, none of which are easy for an absolute beginner like me.

It should be apparent that I was playing almost all the notes at the same volume and trying to keep a steady tempo. Any deviations from this were unintentional. On the other hand, Laird was playing some sections softly and others loudly and shifting the tempo ever so slightly.

We both used the same score, with only some minor differences made in order to simplify it for beginners like me. But her performance conveys a lot of emotion, whereas mine sounds robotic. This is because she employs dynamics to raise and lower the shape of the music as she plays and to put the accents where they are needed, not everywhere.

Her piano also sounds amazing, while mine sounds plasticky, but that’s for another day. It’s not the piano, or the camera, that makes the difference.

Band on stage

What this goes to show is that, while Mozart was one of the greatest composers who ever lived, his scores (negatives) don’t mean much if they are not properly performed (printed). Truly, Mozart did not just write notes on the staff, but also annotated his score with hints to the musicians, indicating where he expected them to play piano or forte, where to use legato and staccato, and which notes to accent. But these indications still leave a lot of freedom for the pianist to interpret the piece with her own sensitivity.

Back to Ansel Adams. The way he executed his performances was by spending a lot of time in the darkroom with an enlarger and cardboard shapes to perform very accurate dodging and burning (that is darkening and brightening) of selected areas of his prints.

Adams almost never considered a photograph to be finished until he had printed it according to this process and is not known for doing straight prints, with no dodging or burning. He knew that, if he wanted to convey feelings and emotions through his photographs, he had to interpret them and treat every portion of the image differently from every other portion, just like Marnie Laird is treating every bar of Mozart’s sonata differently from the others.

Watch the video below, if you want to know more about Adams’ approach to working in the darkroom. This is a short excerpt from my friend Marc Silber’s video, Exclusive Look Into Ansel Adams’ Home and Darkroom.

This is still very much true in the digital world also, even if the tools are different. We can think of the raw file that we extract from the memory card as the negative and as the post-processing steps we do at the computer as paralleling what Adams did when developing and printing film.

Band on stage

While it would be nice if digital photographers printed more of their photos, let’s consider digital presentation as equivalent to printing for the purpose of this discussion. The conclusions are the same.

Keeping in mind the premises I laid down in this article, it should be obvious that being able to selectively edit areas of a photo to establish tonal and color relationships between them, enhance some elements and downplay others, should be an essential skill for all photographers to own.

Let’s consider the photo below as an example. This version was obtained from 3 RAW files and using only global tonal adjustments.

Croda da Lago Fall Colors, Italian Dolomites

Not a bad image, and actually one of the favorites from my recent trips to the Italian Dolomites, but it has some issues and it could be so much better. Here is what made me want to interpret it differently.

  • The skies are muddy, grey, and lacking drama.
  • The mountains have a bluish tint.
  • The trees, that were lit sideways by the setting sun, don’t have that “glowing” effect that I remember.

To resolve those issues, I decided to selectively process the three main parts of the photo (sky, distant mountains, and trees) each in its own distinct way and to come up with the version below, that I like so much more.

Croda da Lago Fall Colors, Italian Dolomites

There are many ways a similar result can be obtained, but since Adobe introduced Range Masks in recent versions of Lightroom, they have become one of my favorite tools and I can now do in Lightroom a lot of tasks that previously required me to launch Photoshop. This innovation has definitely increased my productivity.

In the video below, you can see how I go from the first version of the image to its final incarnation.

If you would like to become an expert at using Range Masks with Lightroom filters, I am soon going to publish a full course on Visual Wilderness. It will be on sale as a standalone course and as part of the Visual Wilderness streaming service, which includes dozens of landscape and nature photography tutorials from a group of great and inspiring photographers.

Click here to check it out. I promise it will be good. For sure it won’t be worse than my attempt at playing the piano!

Detail of violin and player's hand
Detail of guitar head and player's hand
Drummer on stage
Cambodian xylophone player

Comments 2

  1. Great article, Ugo! Well done on the piano playing, too.

    The parallels between music and photography are incredible, as are the parallels between recording a musical performance and recording a landscape scene. I suspect articles on these topics could fill a whole series.

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