Last week we talked about the concept of visual weight, the idea that objects in a frame, depending on their position, colour or mass, draw the eye around an image and that we photographers can take advantage of this.
So this week we are going to take the opportunity to look at some other tools of composition and the opportunities they give us to reveal just a little bit more. These tools evolve around seven basic ideas, in no particular order: line, shape, form, texture, pattern colour and space. These were more and less in the background of what we discussed last week and in a past post about Gestalt Principles.
First up is the tool of odds. Impanumerophobics aside (persons with a fear of odd numbers) the human brain has an affinity with odd numbers. Were I to speculate why it would be to say that odd numbers make it easier for the brain to determine a middle.
If we can determine a middle then we are as far as we can be from right or wrong, more likely a manifestation of the heard instinct and the fact that predators stalk the fringes for the young, sick and old who will make for a lower energy expenditure in the hunt.
Or maybe not.
We find the balance comforting, and in truth a single frame will possibly hold no more than five items comfortably and certainly three in a frame is commonly found, or groups of three or five. An exercise in looking for them, as is an exercise in looking for any of these tools, is a good exercise in looking with a purpose and that is one of the keys to making a strong image. It as much about exclusion as inclusion.
Diagonals are also a powerful composition tools and are often bracketed in with triangles as occurrences that build “Dynamic tension” sometimes known as visual tension. All these tools are methods to create a focal point or points in a frame.
The diagonals and the triangles can either be actual or implied, The key is to move our point of view until we get those visual clues in line and the frame balances out the way we want. This can mean font and back (zooming with our feet) up and down and even a bit of Dutching, maybe a combination of these.
Re-framing is a good habit to nurture. “Working the Angles”, to give it another name, a.k.a. “Working the Scene” gives us more options. We see the world from a relatively fixed position.
This is the “mistake” most photographers make, not altering that position, or at least leaving it at that. The image remains the photographers view of the object, it tells us a lot about the photographer’s view but maybe there is more to be made of the point of view of the subject and/or the subjects environment.
The stronger visual stories are those that have a strong point of focus, where our eye as the viewer first falls and where it is lead to next. This is the dynamic bit of that dynamic tension we were talking about earlier. The movement of the eye across the frame, purposefully driven by what the photographer has chosen to show and what to exclude.
More tools of composition to help you practice seeing are the subject of the main blog this week. There is no level of skill that these do not apply to, but there is considerable skill in knowing when to break those guidelines and in doing so make a different but still effective image.
Neither is this the case of being born with a talent, though the right talent is a boon to have. A lot of people pass over the fact that working hard on something is a talent in itself, and certainly it is the core skill in developing in any field.
We tend to forget that we are surrounded by objects in our everyday lives that we can make into mini photo projects. Watch the following video and choose three ideas to replicate and improve on over a week or weekend. You don’t have to spend hours on one, in fact limiting your time can force you into decisions, which can tell you a lot when reviewed. Video link is here.
Lot going on in the club at the moment, since the last post we have had: a presentation of images from the table top night a fortnight ago; this week the club outing to the Lake District is taking place and the weather has held for them in one of the wetter parts of the UK; we have had on-going discussions about the projector replacement and, oh yeah, we had the AGM along the way.
As if that wasn’t enough the dry spell continues, the bluebells are at full chat and the sun is shining more days than it isn’t. There are a lot of events going on and I don’t think as amateur photographers, as most of us are, we have a great deal to complain about photographically.
Apart from the price of gear. Which is going up. And up. And looks like it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Lots going on from Canon, Nikon, Sony, Panasonic but all at the top end. The cheapest out of that little lot, and I am talking camera bodies here, is around £1700. No wonder fixed lens camera sales are down by 84% from five years ago. Year on year they are better 2017 over 2016, but the size of the market has dropped and I cannot be the only one who sees a possible correlation with price. Not that would be a sole cause, the enormous improvements in cameras on phones has had a tremendous impact no doubt.
Or has it?
I can see that the practical annihilation of the compact camera might be attributed to the ubiquity of the phone-camera, but the single lens reflex/mirrorless? The number of pictures taken (badly) is certainly far, far higher than it used to be and the most popular medium for doing so is the cameraphone.
The most frequently used camera in 2014, 2015 and 2016 on Flikr were Apple iPhones. The current top 5 cameras in the Flikr Community are, in descending order: Apple iPhone 6; Apple iPhone 6s; Samsung Galaxy S6; Apple iPhone 5s and Apple iPhone 7. 5 out of the top 10 brands used are phone brands, with 1, Sony, crossing over into both single function camera and cameraphone and 7 of the top 15. AppleInsider crunched the numbers further and reckoned that in 2016, iPhones accounted for 47% of the photographers on Flickr with Canon and Nikon limping along at 24% and 18% respectively. To which I would attach the caveat that plenty of Nikon and Canon camera owners also have an iPhone or its Android equivalent. Overall cameraphones accounted for 48% of uploads last year.
Now here’s the rub. Whereas I am not disputing the fact that cameraphones account for nearly half of all uploads to Flickr these days, that there are photographers who don’t shoot with anything else out there who make a living from photography, sooner or later the hobbyist is going to conform to the Single lens norm. And when you have a choice of your DSLR/Mirrorless camera that you have paid a lot of money for, then the days of “I’ll leave that at home and take the cameraphone instead” are very few and far between. Or maybe that is just me.
There has to be some other factor in play too. Well I for one will cite the price of what is being released is a factor among hobbyists. I am not arguing with the capability of cameras being released to sing and dance in mind boggling ways. Nor am I going to argue that marketing doesn’t play a big role in this, but there is a reason that the majority of necks that you see these cameras hung around are middle aged (and male). That reason would be disposable income.
It was never a cheap hobby, though spread out over a number of years on easy payments it could be an affordable hobby when, as the club motto points out, it’s the picture not the camera that counts. However, the wonders of hire purchase aside, we are fortunate to have a hobby that can be encapsulated in a phone. The key, as ever, is to know your equipment limitations and use those and the tools of composition to get the image that you want.
The chief limitation, sensor capabilities aside, is the fact that most cameraphones come with a fixed wide angle lens. The reasons for this are, I think fairly obvious. Used mainly for social photography of friends and family and increasingly as a note book, the ability to get a lot in a confined space is going to be a design factor. The fact that the physics deliver a depth of field that is deep and so accurate focusing is less of problem or demand on the system certainly helps. It sits in the area of the old compact camera and basically destroyed that market.
So the obvious thing to do to get better results out of a cameraphone is to treat it as we would a camera with a wide angle lens mounted. That is exactly what it is photographically. Mounting a wide angle lens changes a cameras perspective compared to longer focal lengths. You need to be aware that paying attention to the edges of the frame, “Boarder Patrol” as one judge put it, is even more important, especially if you don’t intend to post process. Shadows have a habit of creeping in and taking attention away from your main subject, but when outdoors the chief consideration is the sky, in or out of shot?
The sky will push the dynamic range of the sensor, especially when there is shadow detail that you want in your picture. The dynamic range in your average cameraphone is relatively limited – you are after all buying a phone not a camera, though the relative capabilities of the camera on the phone probably matter more to a photographer than they do to the average cameraphone punter. There is also the question of whether including it adds or detracts from the overall picture so as ever, work the scene. Take multiple angles. Use portrait and landscape.
Wide angle lenses also distort perspective when not bang on square to the lines in the rest of the photograph. This is something to exploit. Using leading lines and a different perspective to gives the image a different feel and when done boldly, more punch. The flip side to this, of course, is that far away objects look very small, sometimes to the point of being overwhelmed by the other elements in the picture. Zoom with your feet as far as is possible. Get closer (or further away) through the medium of Shanks’s Pony. The combination of these two things, say when taking tall buildings, mean you have to be more careful with getting things squared up or they lean at alarming angles. Most phones (and SLR’s) these days have gauges built in to help with this.
So, the cameraphone is another photographic tool, learning to use it and exploit its features just like any other camera can be very rewarding. Be it open vistas or a lot of detail close up using the same composition skills as we use with our other gear can get good results.
Club evenings with cameras are always popular and always a good opportunity to gain knowledge and practice the basics, or try something a little different. Last meeting was no exception as we undertook an evening of tabletop photography, for which the club is grateful for all those who put a lot of effort into making the evening a success.
Theses themed evenings aren’t just about the theme and or subject. They are a chance to get the most out of a controlled situation, specifically, at least for our purposes this week, the chance to work a subject. Now working the scene, or a variation of it, is a phrase that often bandied about.
Sooner rather than later you will come across Henri Cartier-Bresson and the idea of the decisive moment, and certainly in any scene that involves movement there is, or will be a combination of the elements in the frame for which their interplay makes the full story. Is it the same with table top/still life? Essentially yes, but the control in the frame is pretty much absolute and the truth in the frame may be entirely documentary or an arrangement of light on shape in some artistically pleasing manner. The chaos of everyday life is excluded in pursuit of control either way.
So what do we mean by working the scene? Cartier-Bresson didn’t just take one photograph of a scene, even if the first one was the one he ended up using. Nor anyone else. Closer, further away, left, right, up, down all realign the elements, the task is then to isolate the best image to work with.
With table top, though, there isn’t necessarily a lot of room to work with, nonetheless it is still worth the effort. Whether you change the camera angle or the arrangement of the items you are photographing you can still affect the same sort of ends. The end result, the one you show, is then more likely to be better at communicating with your audience because it is the end result of a process.
There is also a question, further prompted by the idea of the end result, of whether you can do this moving around in time. If your intent is to capture something that has to be constructed before you take a picture of the end result, why not photograph that construction? It could well be that the image that you end up keeping is one that shows all the elements but not the whole. That whole is then constructed in the mind of the viewer.
The whole point is that of collecting data deliberately. From this data we then make a story. Changing the angle/distance/perspective creates a pause and in that pause we can process the data we have collected. We can turn these to our own advantage with a little pre planning. Whilst framing the image we can be critical of what we are looking at, now that we have put a physical frame around it.
Put simply we start seeing when we stop looking. Look is the hook, the thing that caught our eye, the draw in. Seeing takes a lot more effort and experimentation, but seeing is the essence of photography. It also means that we can practice this, using table top, at home, through experimentation and starting with the tools of composition. Two to start with, I suggest are light and dark and lines.
Light and dark in its purest form, black-white (the Japanese Notan art form for instance) or at the least two complimentary colours. Contrast is what the eye, rather like the autofocus on our cameras, looks for, so as to make things clear. Use this as a key to where the light falls and with a little practice we can make powerful yet subtle ways that take the eyes of the viewer to where the photographer wants them.
Lines are, possibly, less subtle but no less powerful for that. We are largely familiar with the concept of leading lines whether we are conscious of their effect or not. Anyone who has seen white lines on tarmac will have been affected by it. Anyone who has ever followed a path will have been effected by it. By getting close, looking for the key detail, we better frame the thing that attracted us in the first place.
There are of course a myriad of other compositional tools we can use, we can practice. Composition is just a way of seeing in one sense. In a more useful sense it is a deliberate way of seeing. We need to practice with deliberation. Stuck for something to do? Then pick one of these compositional tools and use it to go shoot. The table top environment allows us to experiment in these cases by arranging the elements in our frame to our own ends. In other environments we have to look for the chances to capture these things on a more random basis, but in doing so we have to abandon looking for seeing.
N E X T M E E T I NG
Annual General Meeting.