Previous post:

Next post:

Three Interpretations of an Image

by George Murphy on May 23, 2011

One of the things I often struggle with is deciding how I want to present a story image. I want it to convey an honest understanding of the subject as it was shot, but by its nature, photography cannot help be anything more than an interpretation of the world around us; filtered through the equipment and technology at hand, and driven by circumstance, intent and skill, from capture right through to presentation.** Even subtle differences in our approach can dramatically change the understanding of the subject that our audience takes away, and the key is finding an approach that communicates our own perception of the subject and the moment. Of course the context in which the images are viewed can further define (or restrict) our options regarding how we approach this; and it is important to respect the audience’s expectations for a given media channel.

1. Full color shows off the rich chalks and artwork, while the punchy contrast from the back-lighting reveals the textured details of each element in the scene. Color was definitely a key part of the original story.

I was recently revisiting the above image from a series I’d made of the Italian Street Painting Festival in San Rafael, California. The whole concept of street painting is focused around all these artists’ use of vibrant chalk colors splashed across this dark, freshly blacked asphalt. You’d think that sticking with a color approach would be a no-brainer. But there was something about the details in this one image, with all its interesting pieces that indirectly told all the key parts of the story, that made me start playing with a black-and-white impression of the shot. Suddenly there was a different story in the image; one that was focused on texture and contrast instead of just color. The subject took on a different kind of beauty and interest.

2. A black-and-white interpretation shifts our focus to the form and textures that make up the scene, now even more apparent without the distraction of all that vibrant color.

The two images above show how the decision to use black-and-white vs. color creates an entirely different experience. Yet a third image, below, shows how even in a monochrome view, the addition of warm toning creates still a different response. All of these images began with standard dodging, burning, toning and color tuning to bring the subject out and give focus to the composition…all part of presenting the subject; and as integral and appropriate as choosing a lens, a point of view and a moment in which to shoot. This digital ‘darkroom work’ does not involve retouching or manipulating the scene content–a potentially important distinction, depending on the intended use of the image; as in this case, where I wish to preserve its documentary integrity.

3. Warm toned monochrome adds inviting character and shifts our emotional perception of the scene yet again.

As I explored my “reinterpretation” of this image, I thought it would be fun to share this illustration of how changing one key variable can have a dramatic impact on our perception of a subject. I found myself torn about which I preferred, and would be curious which one(s) you like and why. Take a look and see how each image offers a different experience of the subject, and which you like best. Click on each image for a larger view.

As for myself, there are things I really like about each interpretation. Each is a valid presentation of the subject, though the color images is perhaps the most honest about what made the original moment interesting. Still, there is such rich detail that comes out in the neutral black-and-white version (especially the full sized original) that I think it will make a great print. Lastly, I do think that image no. 3, the warm black-and-white version, recovers a little of the spirit that was present in the full color version and might be a good monochrome compromise. It’s warm tones are friendly and evoke a softer mood than the straight-up neutral grey.


• The photograph was made with a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II camera using a Canon 24-70mm ƒ2.8 lens at 70mm. The exposure was 1/400 sec @ ƒ/9.0 at ISO 100, metered manually in spot-mode.
• The digital raw file was developed in Adobe Lightroom v3 with selective toning done in Nik Viveza 2 and Photoshop CS5 for the color image and in Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 and Photoshop CS5  for the black-and-white images.

**See my earlier blog essays, “The Myth of Photographic Reality” – Part I & Part II, for more about my take on photography as an inescapably subjective medium, and how despite this, it can still communicate journalistic truths about the world around us.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This blog is kept spam free by WP-SpamFree.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.