John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche
Vignetting is a reduction of an image's clarity at the periphery compared to the center of the image. It may be gradual or abrupt. Usually photographers think of it as a darkening that starts at the corners, and, in some cases, spreads along the edges of the photo to create a rounded off image. Other forms of vignetting include photos with a periphery that fades to white, loses color saturation, or generally looks “washed-out.” Blur in the corners or along the edges of a photo might also be considered vignetting.
Where does it come from?
A variety of factors contribute to dark vignetting – for example, optical limitations in the lens (especially in toy cameras with cheap lens) and lens hoods, filters and other lens attachments that reduce the angle of view. Dark vignetting is most obvious at wide-open aperture, especially in wide-angle lenses with polarizing filters. It might be hidden in images with complex details, while being more obvious in photos that contain areas with few features, like clear skies or blank walls.
Because dark vignetting usually results from the “problem” of light being blocked, some photographers, especially those who are invested in a pure or totally realistic image, will consider it undesirable. They might try to crop it out, or use an image editing program to correct it.
Deliberately creating it
For artistic purposes, vignetting might be desirable and even added to a photo that doesn’t have it. There are a variety of techniques for achieving the effect: by deliberately shooting with a camera, lens, or filter that will create vignetting, by burning the outer edges of the image, or using masks in an image editing program to selectively alter the periphery of the photo. Some programs, like Photoshop, have a feature specifically designed to create dark or light vignetting. To create blur vignetting, some photographers suggest smearing Vaseline along the edges of a UV filter. That might result in some very interesting effects, although I imagine the clean-up job could be tedious.
Vignetting is often used in portrait photos, usually by creating an oval shape around the subject. Along with film grain and black/white or sepia treatments, dark vignetting is also a good technique for creating the look of an “old photograph” because the relatively low quality lens of old cameras often resulted in vignetting.
Vignetting as part of human perception
It’s helpful to think about vignetting in terms of the psychology of perception. If the vignetting is symmetrical, it focuses the eye towards the middle of the photo and creates a feeling of centeredness. Sometimes the effect can be quite subtle and not consciously noticed by the viewer. It mimics the cognitive process of concentrating on something while toning down attention to any distractions in the periphery of awareness. Imagine yourself, for example, reading a book or watching TV. Your attention zooms in on the words or pictures, while you just barely notice things around the book or TV.
In some respects vignetting mimics the way the eye works. The receptor cells known as “cones” are sensitive to color and concentrated in the center of the retina, while the “rods,” which detect light but not color, are found on the periphery of the retina.
Feelings and ideas created by vignetting
Dark vignetting that is obvious or blatant creates the sensation of "looking in" or “looking out,” as if through a hole, window, or tunnel of some kind. We experience the sensation of a space out there and some barrier or plane through which we are looking at it. We are here in this space, the subject over there in that space, and there’s distance between us. With some subjects the feeling of voyeurism and even peeping might be quite strong.
When people are in an altered state of consciousness, or when losing consciousness, as in passing out, they may experience darkness closing in from the periphery of their vision. Under conditions of stress, some people have “tunnel vision.” To recreate these sensations of a mind that is intoxicated, fading, or traumatized, a photographer might use vignetting.
When vignetting is not symmetrical around the periphery of the image, the off-balance feeling that results can enhance these sensations of a mind gone awry. Asymmetrical vignetting might also serve the more mundane function of focusing the viewer’s eye on an element of the image that is not at the center, or of providing balance to other elements of the image.
White vignetting similarly helps focus the eye, but its other psychological effects can be quite different than dark vignetting. The image will feel more light, airy, and ethereal, as if in a reverie or dream. For this reason, white vignetting will probably work better in high key photographs. It also tends to lift the image up towards the viewer rather than make the subject appear to be in a distant space. For subjects that are uplifting, happy, and joyful, as in wedding photography, white vignetting will usually be more appropriate that dark vignetting, which tends to create a more introspective, moody, or even sinister feeling.
Fading to white at the edges of the image can create the sensation of the subject opening up or spreading out into the surrounding space. In some cases the subject might appear to be evaporating, while in others it seems to be “coming into being.” Dark vignetting can result in a feeling of darkness closing in, of a subject that is disappearing or being engulfed. Or, in images with bright and colorful subjects at the center of dark vignetting, the impression might be that of light penetrating darkness or of the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
In both fading to white and black at the edges, the sensation of an image border might be lost. As a result, the image and subject might appear as if they are drifting, floating, uncontained, or boundless. Without a distinct frame that separates viewer from photo, we might also find it easier to psychologically enter into the image.
Some people define the word “vignette” as a small, graceful sketch of a scene from a story. This too might be the emotional impact of vignetting in photography. We feel as if we are getting a brief but elegant glimpse into a scene from an ongoing story.
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